Charon by Pierre Subleyras.jpeg

Séamas Cain

The Sadness of Feodor Dostoyevsky


     First one sheet of paper, then another, blew off the table, until the floor was littered with them.  A windmill's arms waved fast against the piled clouds.  Katerina Ivanovna, the woman in black on the hilltop opposite, stood motionless.  The lindens were in bloom.  Thus Dostoyevsky spoke:  “I felt for a moment that I was the only living thing in a world of dead machines; the ballet dancer hopping across the road in front of a steam roller.”  He had a lanky figure, chestnut hair, a regular, though somewhat long face, red cheeks, deep gray eyes.  His forehead, on which huge purple bruises had developed overnight, was swathed with a red cloth.  And the birds?  They were silent.  The birds were very silent.


     Dostoyevsky sat silent, not listening to the talk, which was about the new atrocities in Indonesia and Africa.  He was staring up into the broad sun-splotched leaves of the house vines, remembering how the sun and shade had danced about Lisa Xoxlakova's hair when they had been in the arbor alone the day before, turning it all to red flame.  She had opened a book haphazardly.  She had brilliant eyes, wide open, her appearance pensive, and very calm.  Although she had risen from bed early and was getting stronger, she still had a tired, weak look.  Suddenly there was the sound of a whistle from inside the house, inside his very own window.  All at once a bitter thought came to Dostoyevsky.  Was it the whistle, the book, the flame?


     Then there was an answering whistle from outside the window.  Dostoyevsky got into bed contentedly.  “I have the genuine physiognomy of an ancient Roman patrician, of the decline,” he said.  (Once he got to his room he lit four candles and placed them at the corners of his table.  He slammed the door behind him and threw himself on the bed.)  Suddenly a dangling twig blew aside a little so that Dostoyevsky from his bed could see a bird at the window — a small gray bird, its throat all puffed out with soundings.  Dostoyevsky felt he was being exhibited to the bird.  He got up quickly and moved to the window.  He looked at the casement, and the frame, inquiringly.  The town watchman, old and prattling, was then driving in his rumbling rattling cart, but had already disappeared round the bend in the road.


     Two swallows, twittering, curved past the window, very near, so that Dostoyevsky could make out the markings on their wings and the way they folded their legs up against their pale-gray bellies.  He thought he could hear sounds, such quiet sounds, or very quiet murmurs.  However, did he actually hear anything?  Then a floorboard creaked, and a key turned in the lock.  Dostoyevsky found himself talking, talking to himself, making questions and answers, drinking water, putting small cakes into his mouth, all through a white dead mist.  “Oh, I had forgotten,” he said, “it wasn't the Egyptians.”  He pointed to his face.  He pointed especially to his nose, not a very large one, but very thin, with a strongly protruding hump.


     The sun was under a cloud; beyond the long pale green leaves that fluttered ever so slightly in the wind, the sky was full of silvery and cream-colored clouds, with here and there a patch the color of a robin's egg.  Dostoyevsky felt caught in a ring of well-dressed conventions that danced about him with grotesque gestures of politeness, or was it impoliteness.  Still, he loved to joke about his own face, although he seemed to be content with it.  “I must talk to you alone and soon,” he whispered to Grushenka.  Outside, a cart passed, pulled by heavy white horses; an old man with his back curbed like the top of a sunflower stalk hobbled after, using the whip as a walking stick.


     A wind rustled among the broad sheets of paper.  A brisk wind blew, fluttering Dostoyevsky's papers as he worked.  Then he went and lay on his bed and, staring up at the flickering light near the ceiling, tried to think.  Very gradually he felt cold despair taking hold of him.  Later, in mid-morning, Grushenka entered the room and nodded her head.  She spewed spittle whenever she started to speak.  Dostoyevsky himself began to spit on the floor around him.  He spoke to her with a certain bitter joy.  Then he saw Father Kalganov in the background.  He closed a drawer in an antique desk, and followed Kalganov suddenly bubbling with gaiety.  Then, later, when Dostoyevsky sat down in his own garden, he noticed that through a break in the hedge beyond the slender black trunks of the locust trees, he thought he could see rising above the trees the very odd-shaped roof of the brown Tower at the Peter-Paul Fortress, the Tsar's Prison.  I am losing my mind, he thought.


     Much later, Dostoyevsky, looking out the window, in a panic, saw an adolescent boy with his hat, that had a red band, in his hand.  The window was only about twenty feet from the ground, and there was a trellis.  It began to rain.  In less than a minute, though, the rain quite let loose, and Dostoyevsky could see the lonely figure of Katerina Ivanovna running for cover under a linden tree.  The boy's puffy cheeks shook when he giggled.  There was a carnivorous, long mouth, with bloated lips from under which showed small hunks of black tooth, almost rotted out.  Then my very own Dostoyevsky, dizzy, turned round and round.  It was first clockwise and then counter-clockwise, and this Dostoyevsky turned round and round and round his very small world.


     “I myself became like a whirling dervish,” Dostoyevsky said.  His bowel's muddy tree was a chicken sandwich smeared with lineation and a closet's musty wind; he was the ash's sticky window blowing aspirin.  The boy, loudly, climbed back out the window and down to the ground.  He shook the trellis violently and cursed and shouted.  “I want those algebraic formulations that will dissolve in milk,” the boy shouted.  Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, however, more's the pity, then fell clumsily on the floor of his own room.


     The bird in the willow tree was still sounding.  If your system doesn't succeed in killing me, it will be that much weaker, it will have less strength to kill others, Dostoyevsky thought.  On top of a volume of the music of Brahms was a revolver.  A faint pang of fright went through him; did Lieutenant Krasotkin know he was an ex-insurgent?  I am afraid of the irrationality of human interactions and human relationships, Dostoyevsky thought.


     There were sounds on the oaken stairs, the sounds of heavy steps.  Dostoyevsky heard a soft heavy step on the landing outside his room.  Father Kalganov brought him a bottle of water and a stew at once, and stood over him watching him eat it, his arms akimbo and the dimples showing in his huge red cheeks.  “What people was it,” Kalganov said, “that made themselves the transcendent symbol of life?”  Dostoyevsky did not reply to him.  Indeed, he stared at Kalganov without recognition.  Dostoyevsky thought:  “I'm frightened that he'll suddenly become hateful to me, with his face remembered at the very moment of loss, failing, and despair, and I will hate his nose, hate his eyes, hate his shameless laugh.”  Then the priest, with a gasp, and a sigh, spoke of a secret monastery and a hidden cathedral, and the ikons of St. Cyril that were brought secretly from Istanbul after the Turks maliciously destroyed Photian Orthodoxy.


     Nikolai Berdjaev, in his own sweet time, pushed the pages of an unpublished manuscript by Feodor Dostoyevsky across his desk.  “A work completely free of its author's intent is called delirium,” he said.  “This conveyed world of Dostoyevsky hovers between banality and nightmare,” he said.  “We live in a world where we no longer eat, where we no longer drink, where we no longer sleep, where multiple events are piled up in a few minutes, where day and night are mixed, and where everyone speaks to convince self more than to convince others.  The passions of these literary figures consume their flesh and bones.  After two pages, we forget these rapid little portraits; we sacrifice these faces, these bodies, to a thought.  The characters?  What characters?  There are no real characters.  The scene, or the setting?  We hardly think of it.  Perhaps it would be better for the world if I simply destroy this manuscript!”


     The bird was sounding in the willow tree.  Whenever Lieutenant Krasotkin looked at Lisa Xoxlakova, innocently, some well-dressed person stepped in front of her with a mere gesture of politeness, or was it impoliteness.  Under Lisa's sharp chin hung folds of skin on the front of her neck, fleshy and elongated, which gave her a sort of repulsive, lewd look.  On her head was that same red swathing which Dostoyevsky had seen two days ago.  There were many deep wrinkles on her small but fat face.  Krasotkin entered the house, walking resolutely over to the piano.  Three girls, cousins of Dostoyevsky, remained by the piano.  The heavy fragrance of their flowers and the grumbling of the bees that hung drunkenly on the white racemes made Dostoyevsky feel very drowsy.


     Lieutenant Krasotkin became remarkably calm.  His voice took on immediately its usual sleek singsong tone.  The sky was cloudless that afternoon.  Dostoyevsky looked up.  He looked up and then he looked down.  From under the collar of Krasotkin's flashy military uniform showed clean elegant linen and a fine Dutch shirt with gold studs.  There were long and fleshy pouches under his little eyes, which were always insolent and suspicious.  Below in the river the town was reflected complete, with a great rift of steely blue across it where the wind ruffled the water.


     Then there were introductions and announcements.  These introductions were made by the guests in Dostoyevsky's own yard and in his own house.  Where did they come from? he thought.  Who are these people?  Where did these people come from? he thought again.  “There's a lot of Brahms in that chest in the corner,” Krasotkin said to the three girls.  Every woman and man who stood up courageously to live, to really live, loosened the grip of the nightmare, Dostoyevsky thought.


     Could things repeat themselves like that?  Katerina Ivanovna, the woman in black on the hilltop opposite, stood motionless.  Dostoyevsky felt no rancour against her.  “They can't treat you as they would anybody,” Father Kalganov said.  Dostoyevsky looked at him without speaking.  Then he noticed that Karamazov, the despicable villain himself, was smiling at him.  Dostoyevsky suspected that Karamazov was suffering from all the despicable consequences of a “soft” smile.  Karamazov was in a new striped silk dressing gown which Dostoyevsky had never seen on him before, fastened with a tasselled silk cord.  At this time his physiognomy presents something strongly testifying to the characteristics and the very essence of the whole life he has lived, Dostoyevsky thought.  Two tall boys in long muslin shirts walked in and stood beside the piano.  Had his life led in any particular direction, since he had been caught haphazard in the treadmill, or was it all chance?


     The scent of the linden trees came only intermittently on the sharp wind.  From a tree beside the house great gusts of fragrance, heavy as incense, came in through the open window.  Suddenly Dostoyevsky thought of Alexander Borodin.  The willow leaves shivered in a little wind.  Then he remembered the beautiful liquid sounds of the music of Borodin.  Violently Father Kalganov sneezed.  His nose had swelled greatly overnight, and it showed several bruise marks, which, though trifling, gave his whole face a certain particularly mean and irritated look.  “I have already said that he has grown flabby,” Grushenka said.  “Those people all seem to be building new walls between you and me,” Dostoyevsky said to Grushenka.  “Oh, I used to know that,” Grushenka said.  Would Grushenka fail him too?  On the bare summit of the highest hill a waterspout waved lazy arms against the marbled sky.


Séamas Cain is a poet and performance-artist. His most recent book, The Mountains of Mourne, collects poems from over sixty years of writing. His novel, The Dangerous Islands, describes the civil war in Northern Ireland through the experiences and observations of a Surrealist poet/artist. Bienvenue au Danse, Séamas.