Few episodes in fiction can be as hauntingly terrifying as Dostoevsky’s account in The Idiot of what it feels like to face a firing squad, only to have the sentence commuted just as the guns are cocked. Based on the author’s own experience after he was convicted of revolutionary subversion in 1849, it’s a moment that Alex Christofi selects as the opening of his "intimate" biography of the novelist, and it should set the temperature for what ensues.
In contrast to his contemporary Tolstoy, the great analyst of ordinary family life, Dostoevsky mines our psychic extremes: murder, obsession, isolation, dark nights of the soul, all explored in prose that can sometimes become dauntingly awkward and overheated (qualities that have defeated my attempts to finish both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov). But Christofi keeps cool in the face of this furnace. Wisely, perhaps, he does not compete with Joseph Frank’s magisterial five-volume biography: his method is instead something of an experiment, although it’s one that I don’t think quite succeeds.
Dostoevsky in Love approaches the man from a chatty, personal angle, almost as if attempting to domesticate him. Christofi, a novelist of some repute, aims to make Dostoevsky’s inner life as vivid as his external circumstances. To do so, he inserts into the body of his text brief italicised passages drawn from all areas of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre and intended to gloss or reflect the documented facts. When Dostoevsky’s wife Anna, becomes pregnant, for example, Christofi drops in a quotation from Notes from the Underground – "People say it’s a trial to have children. Who says that? It’s heavenly happiness" – ascribed to a character who bears scant resemblance to Anna.
The result may be fluently readable and warmly entertaining, graced with a nice sideline in Christofi’s own dry asides, but the constant implication that this interpolated material represents what Dostoevsky or others in his life might have thought lies awkwardly on the verge of fiction, and reduces the narrative’s authority. Moreover, Christofi provides only the sketchiest indication of Dostoevsky’s spiritual, philosophical and political positions. The overall effect lacks gravitas, and the speculative attributions become irritating rather than illuminating.
What we are left with is a sympathetic figure, more goofy bungler than tormented genius. There is some justification for this: Dostoevsky had more than his fair share of bad luck and was often his own worst enemy. Redeeming features of his personality include a keen sense of his own failings, a total absence of vanity and a gift for turning even his most humiliating experiences to good use. These traits all contributed to the pitch-black comedy of which he is master.
He was not a child of privilege – his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, his doctor father clung tenuously to middle-class status before succumbing to alcohol, and the family’s modest house in the country burnt down. Dostoevsky and his beloved brother Mikhail were sent back to St Petersburg, where they struggled on the brink of destitution. Money was something he could never manage, not least because of his chronic addiction to roulette.
But literature was his ruling passion, and however bad things got, he never lost the compulsion to read and write. Gogol, Pushkin, Dickens, Balzac all inspired him, feeding their influence into his first novel Poor Folk, published in 1846 when he was 24. It was an instant success, closely followed by that bleakly creepy and hilarious study of creeping paranoia, The Double.
Then the socialistic spirit of the 1848 revolutions engulfed him and he was arrested in its wake as part of a crackdown on Left-wing intellectuals. His sentence was four years of hard labour in Siberia – something he bore with remarkable equanimity, the labour monotonous rather than hard. His fellow prisoners offered an education in human nature and Christianity gave meaning to his suffering. Its legacy, published eight years after his release, was The House of the Dead.
Christofi’s title promises to show Dostoevsky "in love", but this proves to be an area in which Dostoevsky makes a fairly disastrous showing. As the characters of Sonya in Crime and Punishment and Nastasya in The Idiot suggest, prostitutes held a gruesome fascination for him. On his wedding night to his tubercular and melodramatic first wife, Maria, he suffered the first of what became a lifetime of serious epileptic fits, and in Christofi’s view "the marriage never really recovered". A weird cat-and-mouse affair with the neurotically volatile student Polina suited his perverse nature better, but even though they travelled across Europe together, it appears to have remained unconsummated.
Maria died, Polina drifted elsewhere, and Dostoevsky met his second wife, Anna, when she arrived to take stenographic dictation of his novel The Gambler, written in a tearing hurry to meet a ludicrous publishing contract in which he had foolishly embroiled himself. Their relationship was passionate but hardly tranquil, as it weathered the deaths of two of their four children, as well as worsening health (haemorrhoids and emphysema to top the epilepsy) and the throes of creating The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. At least the last earned him widespread recognition: the years before he died in 1881 saw his reputation rise to the level of a national hero, honoured alongside Pushkin as a spiritual leader as well as a literary artist.
And there lies the limitation of Christofi’s book: it just doesn’t come anywhere near explaining why Dostoevsky was held in such high esteem. Its temperate clarity gives little sense of Dostoevsky’s complex intellectual brilliance and astonishingly powerful imagination, let alone the fierce intensity of a Slavist and millenarian vision that made him so scratchily antagonistic to the urbanely liberal and Europeanised Ivan Turgenev.
What we are presented with instead is a rather pathetically endearing muddle of a character, constantly tripping over his own shoelaces. At one point, we read that Dostoevsky understood that "we don’t only want what we know is good for us". For the author of Crime and Punishment, the creator of Prince Myshkin and Father Zosima, this was surely something close to the mysterious heart of the human tragedy. But here its context is so bland that it sounds like a line out of a sitcom – Dostoevsky with a touch of Blackadder?
The Daily Telegraph