When Henrik nearly met Fyodor

According to Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen, when Ibsen was staying in Dresden in 1870, a near neighbour of his was Dostoyevsky. It is unlikely that Dostoyevsky would have heard of Ibsen at that time, even though Ibsen had already written the two great verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt. Ibsen would, most likely, have heard of Dostoyevsky, who had, by 1870, written Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, but he would not have known that Dostoyevsky was at the time in Dresden; and even if he had known, he would have had no particular reason to seek him out. In 1870, Ibsen would still have been working on that vast two-part historic play Emperor and Galilean, which he, if not posterity, thought his most important work; and soon afterwards, he would start on that series of twelve prose plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, and ending in 1899 with the visionary When We Dead Awaken. Dostoyevsky was working at the same time on Demons.

According to Meyer, the two both enjoyed long walks in the Royal Gardens, and they both frequented the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace. It would have been surprising indeed if they had never at least passed each other. But, attractive though the idea might be, it would have been even more unlikely for them to have met and conversed.

One could, of course, easily imagine that they did. That, after exchanging initial civilities, they had engaged in talk on literature, exchanged ideas, spoke about God and the Universe and Man’s Immortal Soul, and spurred each other on, each casting new light on all the great thoughts and ideas that were whirling so tumultously inside the other’s head. One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.

What intrigues me even more, however, is the possibility that they had sat near each other in some café, without the first idea who the other was, and that the only words exchanged were when Henrik had asked Fyodor to pass the salt. And that after the salt was passed, they had both returned to their respective thoughts, barely aware of the other’s presence.


17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl on July 10, 2016 at 3:00 am

    A fascinating imaginary narrative, Himadri. I’m sure that this happens all the time between great artists whose paths may cross but who never make the actual connection. Haven’t you wondered about this with yourself? I can hear the words now: “So you’re the old git himself!” We can imagine, can’t we.


  2. Posted by mudpuddle on July 10, 2016 at 4:07 am

    if a meeting actually occurred, it would seem probably that the fact would have been mentioned in some subsidiary source: letters, diaries, or some such… no?


  3. What a lovely thought – Ibsen and Dostoevsky in a cafe, not knowing each other and unaware of the effect they would have on the future!


  4. Posted by Kathy Tipping on July 10, 2016 at 10:06 am

    “One could, without too great an effort, make of this possibility an engaging play for radio.”

    This comment struck a chord with me, H. It took me right back to one of my favourite films as a teenager – “Educating Rita”. The immortal line from Rita, when posed with the essay title, “How would one overcome the stage production difficulties one might encounter with a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt…?” (or words to that effect) – with that fine actress, Julie Walters, in her strong Liverpudlian vernacular delivering the perfect five word response – typical of a blunt Scouser (like me) who loves literature but may not yet have a complete handle on its critique, saying “Do it on the radio!”

    H, in this world of continual ‘dumbing-down’ of entertainment on the radio, TV and film medium, why indeed don’t you, in fact, be the man who pens a play based on a hypothetical meeting between Dostoyevsky and Ibsen at one of the cafés in Brühl’s Terrace? It would be an interesting introduction to their work and the perceived personalities of the playwrights, for folks like me, who are pretty unfamiliar with these authors, and it could be rendered clever enough to be laced with subtle humour and in-references for the folk who have studied their work in depth. Add a soupçon of humour and perhaps a bit of Alan Bennett style – ‘two old men chatting and bitching like a couple of old women’ – and you may have an audio hit on your hands – throw in some fantastic voice actors et voilà! You have ‘done it on the radio’!

    It’s something I would want to listen to anyway!

    The comedy duo Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, who pen the most excellent British Horror audio comedy spoofs did a wonderful humorous tribute to a very hilariously skewed version of the Oxford literary group, ‘The Inklings’ – so when it is done properly and intelligently, parody and satire, using intellectual art and literature, is the best humour there is – just look at Monty Python’s record with Proust and such like!

    We need more smart education through the entertainment media – so perhaps you could get on the anti-dumb-down machine that is the !educating up’ bandwagon.



    • Hello Kathy,

      When I wrote “…without too great an effort…” i should have added “for a competent dramatist”. I am not even a dramatist, let alone competent! It’s hard enough just writing blog posts…

      But yes, such a play written by a competent dramatist, who is familiar with the works of Ibsen and of Dostoyevsky, would indeed be interesting.

      I was chatting to a friend recently about the areas of literature that interest me most, and it struck me that most of my favourite writers are from the mid- to late- 19th century. Oh, there are notable exceptions, obviously – Shakespeare, some of the ancient Greeks, the Romantic poets, Joyce, Tagore, Kafka, Faulkner, etc. But a good percentage of the writers who mean the most to me flourished between, say, the 1840s and the 1900s. And the four figures who tower most prominently within my literary awareness are Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Ibsen.

      Of these four, I have written a fair amount on this blog about the first three, but comparatively little about the fourth. I think that, some time not too far into the future (I dislike making plans for blog posts, as I never stick to them!), I should re-read all the major plays of Ibsen, and write up some posts on them. For my own satisfaction, if nothing else.

      Ibsen is still widely seen as a dramatist of social change – who wrote didactic plays highlighting the shortcomings of society, advocating feminism, and so on. But to me, Ibsen was amongst the most visionary of writers, who explored some of the most elusive and uncharted regions of the human mind. It’s not that he didn’t explore social themes, but even in the plays where he did so – “A Doll’s House”, for instance – he had other things in view: these plays weren’t written merely to highlight social iniquities, important though they are.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  5. Posted by Kathy Tipping on July 10, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Edited to add:

    Re: my comment – “The comedy duo Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, who pen the most excellent British Horror audio comedy spoofs did a wonderful humorous tribute to a very hilariously skewed version of the Oxford literary group, ‘The Inklings’”

    I meant to qualify this with the name of the audio series I was referring to;
    it was ‘The Scarifyers’ audio horror comedies.


    For, ‘The Inklings’ – replace with “The Fantasists!” – hilarious stuff, especially if you have a fondness for the idiosyncrasies and intellectual vanities that comprised J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis and Christopher Tolkien, with a bit of H G Wells thrown in for good measure – as you do!


  6. Posted by H.D. on July 10, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Reminds me of the rather disappointing (but hilarious) When Joyce Met Proust! – http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2014/10/27/ben-jackson/mais-non-monsieur/


    • Thanks for the link – that’s absolutely brilliant! I had heard that the two had met but had spoken merely of inconsequential matters, but it’s lovely having those details.

      I’ve long had a theory that great creative artists are, on the whole, incapable of appreciating each others’ art: they are so immersed in their own vision that they find it difficult to surface and take in someone else’s.


  7. Ah, “Brand” and “Emperor and Galilean”. I love them both and still read “Brand” from time to time. “Emperor and Galilean” my son sourced from a university library. The book was published in 1891 and he was told, “Handle with care.” “Peer Gynt” made my head spin.


    • “Brand” and “Peer Gynt” are wonderful works, and I revisit both frequently. I am afraid, though, that i am not entirely sure what Ibsen was aiming for with “Emperor and Galilean”. I am planning, some time in the not too distant future, to read through all of Ibsen’s plays again from “The Pretenders” onwards. I am particularly drawn to the literature of the 19th century, and, apart from the Romantic poets of the earlier decades of the century, the writers of the 19th century who are most important to me are, I think, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Ibsen. It’s high time I wrote more on Ibsen in this blog.


  8. There is an interesting story called “The Amount to Carry” about Charles Ives, Kafka, and Wallace Stevens attending an insurance sales conference at a very Kafkaesque hotel. The three of them all were involved in insurance in their day jobs.


    • I knew about Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka working in insurance, but not Ives. It’s always fascinating to speculate what these great luminaries might have said to each other had they met. Sadly, whe luminaries did actually meet each other, they generally didn’t say very much!


  9. Stephanie Harvey the noted Dickens scholar discovered a letter of Dostoevsky’s in an obscure Russian publication which details an encounter between the two.
    How easy it is to be led by an ignis fatuus or a ‘pale shade’ thereof and Naiman may be Noman luring us on even further. Perhaps you will agree that this article has levels of repetition which would hardly have escaped the blue pencil.

    Ost Blaat Norsk (Social Column: Out and About): Seen today: Two great beards wagging over coffee and the woman question. I note that H.I. paid and as he took his wallet out turned to one side obscuring its contents from F.D. being careful to extract a note of small denomination.


    • Yes – I remember reading about the Dickens-Dostoyevsky hoax: it’s absolutely hilarious, isn’t it? I’d start an Ibsen-Dostoyevsky hoax myself if I knew how to go about it.

      And yes, i also think Ibsen would have paid: Dostoyevsky would have been skint, as usual having gambled away his last copeck.


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