Review by Karen Langley
It could be argued that much fiction is in a sense autobiographical, and one man who certainly poured his life into his work, drawing on his emotions, experiences and beliefs, was the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. As well as the copious number of works he produced in his lifetime, there have been innumerable books about the writer, including the massive, definitive five-volume biography by Joseph Frank. You might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking there was no more to be said about Dostoevsky and no room for any new biography – but you would be wrong…
Alex Christofi is himself an author of novels, winning the Betty Trask Prize for Fiction for Glass, as well as contributing to a number of publications, and is currently Editorial Director at Transworld Publishers. However, in this book – his first work of non-fiction – he’s taken the audacious step of telling Dostoevsky’s life story by drawing on the man’s own writings. The result is a stunning portrait of Dostoevsky which brings him vividly to life and is quite unforgettable.
The bare bones of Dostoevsky’s life make dramatic enough reading just in summary; born in 1821 as the son of a doctor, he worked as an engineer after completing his education, and then turned to literature. However, he fell in with a revolutionary set and was sentenced to death, only being reprieved at the last minute from what turned out to be a mock execution. Exiled to Siberia, he continued to write until his release; and he lived through a period of massive change in Russia, producing a collection of incredible works of fiction, running a variety of publications and ending up being hailed as a prophet in his own country. All the while he was doing this, however, he was juggling three great loves, epilepsy and bad health, plus an addiction to gambling. Truly, Dostoevsky’s life was really not an easy one, which makes his achievements even more spectacular.
The inventive structure employed by Christofi involves weaving together his narrative of Dostoevsky’s life with the latter’s own writings; so extracts from fictions, diaries, letters and even books about Fyodor will illuminate events in his life. These extracts are all clearly referenced (which I heartily approve of), yet sit beautifully in Christofi’s writing and really bring the story of Dostoevsky alive. By using Fyodor’s own words Christofi gives the great author’s story an immediacy which can be missing in a more traditional biography, as well as illuminating just how much of himself Dostoevsky put into his books.
So we witness Fyodor courting his three great loves; his first wife, Maria, was a consumptive widow; and his affair and escapades with the revolutionary Polina inspired his wonderful book The Gambler. However, the starring role is by necessity given to his final passion, his second wife Anna; he obviously loved her deeply and she could be considered to have kept him alive for much longer than might have been the case, aiding him in his life and work.
Fyodor and Anna had four children, and some of the most powerful and moving parts of the book are concerned with the tragic loss of two of his children at a young age. These sections were heartbreaking to read; I’ve noted in the past Dostoevsky’s compassion for the young, which particularly feeds into his later works like The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s not difficult to see where that tendency came from. Fortunately some of their children survived, but the losses were obviously hard to bear. Through all the trials, however, it’s plain to see that Dostoevsky was obviously a good man despite his many flaws; for example supporting an extended family (who were in some cases not even blood relatives and regularly sponged off him) regardless of the fact this caused financial strain.
But Dostoevsky was no saint and could behave as erratically as some of his characters. His gambling, in particular, was an addiction, causing pain and poverty for his family at various times; although the aforementioned adventures at the roulette wheel did, however, provide material for The Gambler, one of his most entertaining books. He was definitely a complex yet very human man, wrestling with his faith, his love for his family and his country, and his wish for an end to cruelty.
It’s clear from reading Christofi’s absorbing book that Dostoevsky was completely blessed by his marriage to Anna; his rock and support through the latter part of his life, she managed to combine the role of wife, business manager and mother of their children. It’s entirely possible that some of the greatest works of Russian literature (The Brothers Karamazov being a case in point) might not have existed without her presence in Dostoevsky’s life; and she did so much to secure his literary legacy that we readers are very much in her debt.
Dostoevsky in Love was a joy to read from start to finish, and by adopting such a clever structure for his book, Christofi really gets under the skin and into the heart of his subject. His affection for Dostoevsky is evident throughout the narrative, and the book is enhanced by his wonderfully sharp and funny footnotes and interjections (he even uses quotes in the footnotes to try to keep himself in check!) The book completely absorbs you into Dostoevsky’s life, almost as if you’re in conversation with him; and as he never wrote his own autobiography, this is the closest you’re ever going to get to reading one. Christofi’s book is a triumph, and as well as being eminently readable, it’s an essential piece of Dostoevsky scholarship. In a year which is shaping up to feature a number of particularly good biographical books, Dostoevsky in Love shines out like a beacon.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and knows which side she would pick in the Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy debate…
Alex Christofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-1472964694 236pp, hardback.
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