Tag Archives: Dostoevsky

Spring Tide

In 1845 Hans Christian Anderson published The Little Match Girl; in 1876 Fyodor Dostoyevsky published The Heavenly Christmas Tree (A Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree), both stories were hugely popular in their time. While The Little Match Girl has endured slightly better, both stories were preoccupied with the suffering that poverty inflicted on children. What follows is a tribute to those two stories, in the form of a reimagining for the modern age, of this sad, but all too pertinent story of our own age.

It was early in the morning and the air was still stacked with the chill of winter, but the people were on the move. They were on the move like they had been since forever, or so it felt to the little boy. Everyday they walked. Everyday his sister talked about how much she hated walking, every day his mother found them food. Every day his father paid someone some money for something, and then sat worried and anxious as they ate. Would they have enough? How much further was it? How much would they need when the got to Europe? Every day the little boy cried and said he wanted to go home. His mother told him that home wasn’t home any more, that there were bombs, and there was fire and cruel people who wanted to hurt each other, and sometimes they wanted to hurt them too. Then the little boy would remember. He would remember the noise and the way the earth shook, and the fires and how his home fell down. He would remember how his mother had to fight through queues of people for food. He remembered the bullets, the bullets that pinged around the walls, the bullets that seemed to know where he was, seemed to seek him out, like they had the young men on the street and the old lady with her shopping. He remembered that he had come to fear the sky and what fell from it. The sky dropped noise and fire and his sister’s school fell down, and their house fell down. But here, here in the cold of an early spring, in a strange country, where no one spoke his language, here was cold and hard. The sky was clear, nothing fell, but rain and cold were always in his bones. Why couldn’t they go home?

He sometimes wondered what the other people had seen, the ones with the different languages and the different clothes. The ones who came from further away than he had, the young men, sometimes funny and full of hope, sometimes angry and just as afraid as he was; where did they come from? Had bullets and sky fall driven them away? He would ask his mother who they were, but she didn’t know. He thought she did though, sometimes he heard his father talking with the others, in a different language that he knew a bit. The little boy knew those people had run away too, was the whole world on fire? Would this place they were going to be any better? His father said that it would be,  although it would always be cold. He promised, he promised, that as soon as it was safe, they would go home again. Whatever it was like, however hard it was, so long as it was safe they would go home again. The little boy liked that, home would be good, just no bombs, no bullets, it doesn’t have to be smart, doesn’t even have to have a TV, it just has to be home.

‘There’s chocolate’ his sister said. He liked chocolate, a nice man had given them some at a camp. ‘There will be chocolate eggs soon’ his sister went on.

He was confused. ‘Do chickens lay chocolate eggs in Europe?’ he asked. He wanted some chocolate now. ‘No silly’ she laughed. ‘They make great big eggs out of chocolate and sell them at Easter, in all the shops, we will be in our new home at Easter.’

Easter, he knew about Easter, that had something to do with God, but he wasn’t sure which one, or which one he was supposed to like, but he liked chocolate and the idea of chocolate eggs.

‘Here we go’ said his sister.

A man came and handed them something orange, his sister put it on over her head. ‘You’re too small. They haven’t got one for you, but I’ll look after you, just hold on to me, I’m a good swimmer.’

‘Are we going swimming?’

‘No’ said a stranger ‘We are definitely not going swimming.’ But now they got on a boat, sometimes that meant that you did go swimming.

It was fun at first, it had been a bit shouty when they got on the boat, some of the young men tried to push in, and the little boy’s father had had to pay some more money to get on, but now they were on the boat. There were lots of people on the boat, sitting on the planks, sitting on the edge. Then the boss man told the little boy’s father that he was to drive the boat and the little boy was very proud of his father, but his father did not look happy. The engine stuttered and started and they moved away. The waves rocked them, making them squeal and then laugh a little, but mainly people were quiet, waiting.

‘Look’ said his sister ‘there it is!’

‘What?’ said the little boy.

‘Europe.’

It looked just the same as where they had been. There were sandy cliffs rising out of the sea, a hint of beach; he could see people there waving to them, nice people. There were some white houses, some cars, a dog ran up and down by the shore, it barked. He could hear it, but there were no bombs, there didn’t seem to be any bombs. He snuggled closer to his sister, it was all going to be okay, there was going to be Europe and chocolate eggs, but it would be cold. And then the engine stopped, and then, because the boat slowed down, it rocked more wildly than before. Someone fell overboard, someone else screamed. Then everything got rocky, the big boys decided to swim for it, his father tried to stop them, but they jumped anyway. Then the boat tipped a bit and suddenly he felt cold, really cold. The water was on him, around him over him, in him. He heard his mother scream, he didn’t like that, and he heard splashes. He tried to reach out for his sister, but he didn’t know where she was. There was splashing, someone kicked him, he gasped and the water went up his nose and into his chest and he didn’t like it, but he couldn’t cry, it was all water.

Then he heard his sister’s voice ‘There’s chocolate’ she said ‘Eggs, chocolate eggs, it’s Easter.’ He looked around, he felt warm in his chest and he could see his sister was there, but she didn’t have her orange thing on, she was pointing. There was a house, it looked like their old house, it had a carpet and a television. ‘Europe’ he thought  ‘it must be the same.’ Then he saw it, on the table, a great big chocolate egg, ready and waiting to be eaten. ‘It’s for you’ said a voice ‘all for you.’ It may have been God, but he didn’t know which one.

A little later that day, a kind man, was walking along the shoreline, contemplating Easter. He saw the little boy, all cold and still and washed up on the beach. He went to the child, hoping for resurrection, but his hope was lost as soon as he touched the body. Even so, when he picked him up, he thought he caught the faintest scent of chocolate.

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Vampires, Dostoyevsky and Anti-Heroes

Or How Stavrogin Foreshadows Bill Compton

I consider myself something of an armchair pundit on the subject of Dostoyevsky (no don’t run, this is easy I promise!) I’ve written a book on him that even gets a mention on Slideshare. I don’t call myself an expert, because while I was writing the book, I neither read his work in Russian, nor was his life, my life’s work. I intended to make this great writer’s rather intimidating work accessible. Whatever you think, he is funnier, cleverer and (I think) a lot easier than people fear. Agreed there is a tendency for the pages of Russian novels, particularly Dostoyevsky’s, to entail, scenes that go something like “Let’s all have a cup of tea.”

“Agreed, I’ll get the samovar on.”

“What shall we talk about?

“How about the nature of evil?” …… twenty pages later, the nature of evil nailed, Dostoyevsky gets back to the story, but it is in his characters that the archetypes form.

Columbo and Porfiry

I usually recommend Crime and Punishment or House of the Dead as an introduction to D’s work. House of the Dead is the description of his own gaol time in Siberia, it is horrible, funny and sad, although strangely life affirming. He survived, he changed, he moved on and he was particularly funny on the petty short tempers of convicts. Crime and Punishment is probably his most famous novel, it recounts the story of the arrogant student, Raskolnikov, who decides he has the right to murder two women who are money lender. In his opinion, these women are the scum of the earth, so he offs them with an axe. The novel follows Raskolnikov through the crime to his punishment and, for some of that time, he is pursued by a detective called Porfiry Petrovich, who has a habit approaching Raskolnikov with charm and interest, but who, before he leaves the room, comes back with “Just one more thing….” Who’s that like?  We have the formula, we know who committed the murder, the detective seems friendly, and slightly distracted and comes back with awkward questions. The more  I investigated Dostoyevsky, the more I became  convinced that Porfiry and Columbo were linked and it turns out that this was the case, check out this article.

The Grand Inquisitor and Modern Heretics

The Brothers Karamazov is not a book I recommend for beginners, although it is hailed as the greatest novel ever written, by some, and the greatest Christian novel, it is certainly great, but it is quite a task to read at a sitting. However, in it is this treasure of a story The Grand Inquisitor – the original “What would Jesus do?” It suggests that Jesus returned to the steps of the cathedral in Seville at the time of the Spanish  Inquisition. He is arrested, and there follows a debate about the nature of faith (no samovar this time). The Inquisitor asks Jesus why he did not offer certainty, why he demanded faith. The story is a rerun of the Biblical temptations, just show ‘em a miracle, tell ‘em who you are, and they will believe, peace on earth, human obedience, end of story. I spent the ‘90s watching the X-Files, it was a good marker in the day: get the kids to bed quick, watch the X-Files; even now my daughter shivers at the sound of the music, because as she went to sleep she knew we were watching something scary. In Talitha Cumi, cancer man, the shrivelled blue eyed Jesuit type of the US government, played by William B Davis, questions Jeremiah Smith, an alien with resurrection powers, played by Roy Thinnes whose career was kind of resurrected for the series, in a bit of inter- textual referencing. Somewhere out there, is an interview with Chris Carter conceding to the relationship between that scene and The Grand Inquisitor, if anyone finds it – let me know, I’ve got it on video somewhere, but there may be a link. In an echo of that certainty versus individual heresy, Herrick of Being Human is making a good impression as a successor Inquisitor, determined to infect the world with his own version of certainty.

And the point of all this? While students whinge about having to read, or dismiss the huge culture that bring the archetypes and characters they do like, those oldies, like Shakespeare, the Brontes and Dostoyevsky, weren’t half bad at creating the first types, perhaps, because all they did was look around. However, Dostoyevsky’s take on the man with the dark secret as represented by Stavrogin in The Devils, a political thriller, sometimes called The Possessed which starts with the murder of a student found stuck under the ice, which, come to think of it, is how the latest X-Files movie starts, features Stavrogin a man with a dark secret, haunted by what he has done and eventually doomed by it. What vampire hasn’t been there?

Stavrogin’s secret is published in the last chapter, left out of the original, as it was considered too offensive because it concerns Stavrogin’s seduction of a 12 year old girl, who subsequently hangs herself. He carries this secret with him, looking for God, in the hope that God exists and that He will punish him, but Stavrogin’s search reveals nothing but the need for faith, and that is not enough.

Like Stavrogin, these godless men, are almost universally dark and smouldering. The fashion then was for social realism, so these men were the vampires of their day, men who corrupt with sex but seek to overcome their lesser selves by  finding redemption in a woman. Twilight, is a teenage lover, longing for sex but trying to be a gentleman girls flock to the film seeking a role model for their boyfriends, the boys, sigh with mockery, in the full knowledge that this is too much to ask.  Bill Compton in True Blood, tries to combine southern honour with the desire for blood, and Mitchell in Being Human, fails miserably to resist the hunger.

Stavrogin the Social Realist Vampire

Why the sudden fascination with vampires? They are a modern myth, and have had had their say in literature and media for as long as pen and film have met, but recent schedules list, True Blood, Being Human, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Moonlight – and yet more to come no doubt. Perhaps the vampire is the logical extension of Stavrogin, a man who could not find a god to forgive him or punish him for his sin. A man who is doomed to live for ever in a world where God does not exist, so everything is permitted (The Brothers Karamazov, said by Ivan — somewhere). Perhaps only the individual is the arbiter now, between good and evil, everything is relative, god or no god, individuals seem to be on their own and absolutes don’t seem to apply, because absolutes lead to fundamentalism. The vampire is a metaphor for human beings, who try to achieve an individual morality, in the face of their own demons, rather than imposing them on someone else or appealing to a greater power that wishes only to dominate the world. How long this genre will last, remains to be seen, the audience is a fickle mistress, it is both voracious and easily bored, but Dostoyevsky wanted to write a novel (The Devils, 1872) that would be talked about a hundred years from writing – he got that right!