By Julie Stielstra
Photography by Leeta Harding
After eight months in prison, a group of young men sentenced to death for sharing “treasonous” literature is marched into a wintry square. The first three men are blindfolded and tied to posts, as the next group looks on. At that moment, a messenger arrives, commuting their sentences to prison in Siberia—all personally orchestrated by the Tsar of Russia for maximum drama. One of the second three was 28-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky, a struggling writer. I recall vividly when I first read about this moment, an awestruck high school student, devouring every word Dostoevsky ever wrote. The idea of looking directly into the face of death was made appallingly real for the first time to one healthy, typical teenager. I couldn’t talk about it for days.
Alex Christofi’s biography opens with this scene. Christofi, a former literary agent, editor, and novelist, blends superbly-chosen passages from letters, quotes, remembered conversations, and several different Dostoevsky novels: one of the most dramatic moments in literary history, as crafted by one of its giants—with a little editing.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky: philosopher and early psychologist. Writer of long, impassioned, complicated, argumentative, political novels—dark, dour, serious… humorless? And all those Russian names! Didn’t Joseph Frank pretty much say everything that could be said in his monumental five-volume biography? Christofi has staked out a very specific territory—Dostoevsky’s love life, in various meanings of that phrase—and does it in an unusual, and largely successful way.
Christofi lets you know upfront what he’s about: “This book…cheerfully commits an academic fallacy.” He combines elements of straight biography, and weaves into it recorded or remembered conversations, letters, and Dostoevsky’s own writings “in the hope of creating the effect of a reconstructed memoir.” If it’s in quotes, the speaker actually said it. Italics signal a passage from Dostoevsky’s writing. Christofi binds it all together with his own voiceover, and admits to compressing, editing, abridging, and otherwise making it neat. It takes a little getting used to.
“Cheerful” aptly describes Christofi’s tone throughout. He loves a quip. He depicts Dostoevsky’s childhood home, with seven children crammed into a little apartment, behind partitions, on the couch, and “little ones strewn around their parents’ bedroom as a traditional prophylactic.” After months of work, Dostoevsky desperately seeks a place to publish his first novel. Christofi blithely remarks how he “considered the options (self-publish it, throw himself into the Neva, etc.).” Dostoevsky, with his solemn, nervous demeanor, was often teased by his more happy-go-lucky friends, who tried to fix him up with a young woman. Christofi comments that “Fyodor…sadly failed to capitalise on this opportunity for a flirtation by losing consciousness and falling to the floor.” This borders on cruelty, about a man whose life was wracked by epilepsy. Not to malign literary agents, but perhaps there is a predilection towards what will entertain, what will “hook” a reader, what might raise a smile, versus what might be better suited to the subject. While his footnote debunking the apocryphal “when Dostoevsky met Dickens” anecdote is crisp, funny, and convincing, other footnotes can ramble a bit farther afield than necessary.
How did Dostoevsky love? Much of the focus is on his mostly painful series of romantic relationships: a dismissal because he is too poor, a change of heart when he gets a raise, then appalled rejection when he has a grand mal seizure on their wedding night (in his own delicious phrase: “The black cat ran between us.”). A self-abasing pursuit of an unstable, manipulative young woman who is in love with someone else. Impulsive proposals to women he barely knew, including one who was nursing her terminally-ill husband. It is a litany of misery. Then he meets Anna, the young stenographer who helps him get his novel The Gambler into shape. Christofi promises in his introduction that Dostoevsky’s “bashful” proposal to her will make you “[want] to hug him.” Instead, it’s strange, oblique, and more than a little guileful—but you can’t say Anna doesn’t know what she’s getting into. For once, he is in love with someone honorable and loyal. Broke and rootless, they wander through Europe’s spa towns, and Dostoevsky’s gambling addiction explodes. Every ducat and thaler won and lost, every item pawned (including Anna’s wedding ring, more than once), every tear-stained confession and bestowal of forgiveness are detailed. It is a long, sordid section to read. After the birth of their second daughter, he finally swears off the roulette wheel… Germany closed its gambling halls about this time, which doubtless helped. And all the while, he is writing. At one point, working on The Devils, he poignantly comments: “If I had two or three years of support for the novel, the way Turgenev, Goncharov or Tolstoy do, I would write the sort of thing people would still be talking about in a hundred years.” I hope he knows we still do.
Now devotedly married, other kinds of love take Dostoevsky by storm. He is staggered by his terrible love for their children. But their baby daughter dies of pneumonia, and his youngest son dies horribly of a massive seizure at the age of three. (A seizure. Imagine the heartbreak of the father.) He is supporting his stepson from that first blighted marriage, a thankless and expensive task, but one he feels he owes out of charity and family obligation. His religiosity grows, with a passionate devotion to Christ and his message of unlimited, unselfish love of one’s fellows as the only possible salvation from human suffering. He is working on the massive Brothers Karamazov, cramming everything he has ever thought, pondered, loved, and felt into one enormous story. His seizures worsen. Modern neuroscientists have examined what we can glean of his seizure disorder, and some have suggested temporal lobe epilepsy or Geschwind Syndrome. This can manifest as hypergraphia (a compulsion to write), hyper-religiosity, and extreme emotional states, or ecstasies—St. Theresa of Avila showed similar behaviors. It would have been interesting if Christofi had explored this possible contribution Dostoevsky’s emotional and mental states.
Back to that teenager I once was, thrilled by the angst, desperation, heroism, and suffering of Raskolnikov, Myshkin, the Karamazovs, and the rest. I can still read Crime & Punishment with awe and affection, but when I went back to Karamazov in middle age, I found the endless hand-wringing and moaning Just Too Much. “Get a grip!” I wanted to shout at them. Dostoevsky’s years of ill-chosen, ill-conducted, impulsive affairs (financial and emotional), can produce sighs of woe, pity, disbelief, and impatience. But Dostoevsky himself noted that when he first fell in love (in his mid-thirties, after eight years in prison and the military), “I was happy, and I couldn’t [write].” Oh, Fyodor…
But at last… six months before his death, Dostoevsky was invited to address a gathering to honor the poet Pushkin. He enraptured the crowd, extolling the power of brotherly love, and choosing to suffer oneself rather than cause anyone else to suffer. The audience cheered, clapped, wept, mobbed him, wouldn’t let him leave. At last. At last. Flooded with the love he had sought so long.
There are occasional lapses in tone. Christofi’s prose sometimes jars when rubbing up against Dostoevsky’s, as it does throughout this tapestry he has woven, but also highlights the glories of Dostoevsky’s own words. The best of this book may be to turn a reader back to Dostoevsky, with a fuller picture of the heart of the writer. I may even take another crack at Karamazov.
by Alex Christofi
Bloomsbury Continuum $31.50
Julie Stielstra lives in the Chicago suburbs, but escapes regularly to central Kansas. She is the author of over a dozen published short stories and essays, and two award-winning novels (Pilgrim and Opulence, Kansas). She blogs on books, writing, animals, the prairie and whatever else takes her fancy at juliestielstra.com. And she still hasn’t gotten over reading long Russian novels.