Dostoevsky In Love

Alex Christofi

Bloomsbury Continuum, £20

Review by Neil Mackay

ON my first Russian visit, back in the 1990s, as the country struggled to make sense of itself after communism, I made a pilgrimage to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s grave in St Petersburg. An old lady was there, laying roses and weeping.

“If only we revered our writers like Russians,” I thought. Thirty years later, love of literature has done Russia little good – locked in Putin’s embrace. Yet Dostoevsky still speaks directly to the soul of this great nation in all its wonderful, dreadful complexity: its radicalism and conservatism, maudlin sentimentality and ruthless rationality. The nation’s identity has always been splintered – just like the identities of the sons in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky was – is – Russia, in a way that no Western writer has ever represented the soul of their nation. If you wish to navigate Russia’s psyche, read Fyodor.

Alex Christofi’s elegant biography, Dostoevsky In Love, captures the infuriating, sublime contradictions inside this avatar of Russia. Christofi writes well, with a gift for aphorism. In the overcrowded Russian homes of Dostoevsky’s youth, we’re told, the presence of children in parental bedrooms was a “traditional prophylactic”.

Christofi begins in 1821 with a portrait of a dark but gentle child; a boy simultaneously amused at the idea of his fat nanny wasting away from consumption, while still running himself ragged getting water for thirsty peasants “owned” as serfs – slaves by any other name – by his father.

Like his near contemporary from France – and fellow poète maudit – Paul Verlaine, Dostoevsky was drawn to both beauty and horror from youth. A dove in a church cupola captivates him as much as a government official beating a servant.

A brutal, drunken father, possibly murdered by his own serfs; and a dead, idolised mother, were childhood’s foundations. He lost his mother at the same time Russia’s national poet Pushkin – Fyodor’s hero – also died. He and the country entered mourning together.

The synching of the soul of the writer and nation had begun. As he started writing Crime and Punishment, for example, St Petersburg was gripped by the killing of a moneylender by a nihilistic student – mirroring the novel’s plot. “It was as if Fyodor’s fictional protagonist,” Christofi writes, “had leapt the bounds of the book and was stalking the streets.”

As a young man, Fyodor rejected everything his forebears stood for, and stumbled – almost comically – into the world of Russia’s student revolutionaries. In 1849, he’s arrested for sedition, subjected to mock execution, and exiled to Siberia.

Fyodor’s time in the Tsar’s gulag nearly broke him mentally and physically – but his dreams of writing sustained him. Yes, young Dostoevsky wants literary fame, but much more than that, he wants his writing to reflect the spirit of the age and the nation, and – like Dickens who he admires– to see his words affect moral and social change.

He’s socially awkward – nervous to the point of disability – yet intolerant of anything he perceives as intellectually phoney. Although the title of Christofi’s biography implies a series of romantic landmarks, it’s mostly an account of romantic disaster. Dostoevsky falls in love with the wrong women – either married or just plain nasty.

All anyone needs, though, is to be lucky in love just once – and that happens when Fyodor meets Anna Snitkina. The pair build a deep, lasting love – both romantic, and intensely, erotically, physical. Fyodor is an unabashed foot fetishist; Anna’s toes the object of his worship.

Yet even when fate intervenes on the side of Fyodor, he seems determined to upend his good fortune. He was both appallingly bad at business – incapable of making any deal which favoured him – and a chronic gambling addict. Anna, fittingly, met Dostoevsky when she was hired as a stenographer to take down dictation from him, as he spoke the words of The Gambler aloud in order to meet a ruinous publishing deadline.

A natural contrarian, his life is not made any easier by extreme epilepsy – a condition which leaves him shattered for days on end after each fit, and eats away at his most precious resource: memory.

What sets Christofi’s work above the many other studies of Dostoevsky is the cunning way he interpolates Fyodor’s own writing with biography. Christofi will find a perfect section from one of Dostoevsky’s novels and intercut it with his own history of the writer – using italics to show we’re moving from biography to literary quotation. The effect is almost as if we’re hearing Fyodor’s own thoughts. It’s a neat, pleasing trope.

At one point, on his travels through Europe with a pregnant Anna, Fyodor pawns her keepsakes, and gambles away their remaining money. Christofi effortlessly segues into a quote from The Idiot, as Dostoevsky, struggling with guilt and self-loathing, plots excuses: “I prepared my confession as a sort of fricassee with a sauce of tears, to soften her up.”

Love – and the money Anna helped them earn – brought stability to Dostoevsky. A life-long Christian – deeply swayed by the innate poetry of religion – he increasingly moved away in later life from his radical roots (the zealous, young artist who covered up the holes in his boots with ink). He became a national literary idol feted by the likes of Tolstoy and the Romanovs (though even in the company of Tsars, he’d not hold back if an opinion struck him as egregious).

Christofi paints a very Russian icon – Dostoevsky, the holy fool. Crazy, innocent, honest to the point of self-destruction. Shortly before his death, he was hailed publicly as another Pushkin. The irony is that by then what mattered most to Dostoevsky wasn’t fame or money, but his children. He was a doting father. The deaths of his daughter Sonya and son Alexey as infants all but destroyed him.

Christofi’s book is short and tight – and perhaps demands a little too much of a reader unfamiliar with Dostoevsky’s work, though for an aficionado it’s heaven.

What remains in my mind isn’t an image of the impoverished writer starving in his garret, the troubled genius at work, the young radical in prison, the successful man of letters feted in the salon – but Dostoevsky the dad, down on the floor playing at being a polar bear for the endless amusement of his children. That perhaps is where all great artists belong – in the realm of the unspoilt child.