Book Review - Dostoevsky in Love

In Notes from the House of the Dead, inspired by the time he spent in a Siberian prison camp, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky describes the inmates’ longing for “another sky”, a powerful motif for freedom. The book demonstrates what was to become his lifelong fascination with the human condition. It’s no surprise Dostoevsky was hailed as a visionary.

Novelist Alex Christofi (Let Us Be True, Glass) is drawn to Dostoevsky’s ideas and their continued relevance today, in particular his beliefs “that autonomy and dignity are more precious to us than the rational self-interest of economists; that more people are killed by bad ideas than by honest feeling; that a society with no grand narrative is vulnerable to political extremism.” Dostoevsky plumbed the depths of his psychologically complex characters and Christofi attempts something similar with this compelling portrait of the writer’s inner world. By interweaving quotes from Dostoevsky’s texts, his letters and novels, Christofi wants “to elide Dostoevsky’s autobiographical fiction with his fantastical life in the hope of creating the effect of a reconstructed memoir”.

Dostoevsky In Love opens with the mock execution of the author ordered by Tsar Nicholas I. On 22 December 1849, Dostoevsky was taken to the Semyonovsky Parade Ground with five others accused of treason. They were read the death sentence, only to be spared at the final hour (an ordeal described in The Idiot). Christofi briefly retraces Dostoevsky’s childhood, the death of both his parents, and his early literary career, interrupted by his stint in prison. We follow the ailing writer, prone to nervous fits, on his journey to Omsk in Siberia, where he endured four years in a labour camp. On his return, Dostoevsky began his rehabilitation, both personal and professional; struggling to get published and earn enough money, fighting ill health and a chronic gambling addiction, and falling in love.

Christofi recounts the three major relationships in Dostoevsky’s relatively short life. In 1855 Dostoevsky fell for Maria Isaeva, wife of a local excise officer, a consumptive, with a young son: “She had that scornful kind of cynicism that is the last refuge of an idealist who has been disappointed too many times by the realities of the world.” Her husband died later that year and Dostoevsky sent her a marriage proposal which she declined. Once he became an officer, she agreed, but their happiness was short-lived. On their wedding night he had his first full epileptic fit and their marriage never recovered.

Next, he met Apollinaria Suslova (Polina), a 20-year-old student and daughter of a serf. They travelled in Europe together, but she spurned Dostoevsky and took other lovers, while he wouldn’t leave his wife and stepson. His third and great love was Anna, the stenographer he employed in 1866 to help him write The Gambler for Fyodor Stellovsky, “a rather nasty man and a thoroughly incompetent publisher”. Dostoevsky had entered into a crippling arrangement whereby if he did not deliver a full work of fiction by a set date, Stellovsky would have the right to publish his future work for nine years without payment. Anna proved a huge support and later helped secure her husband’s literary legacy. They remained married until his death.

Eschewing the limitations of an academic study, Christofi succeeds in producing a credible and sensitive portrait of Dostoevsky’s deepest feelings and inner demons from his writings. However, rather than Dostoevsky’s love life, it is his debilitating epilepsy and gambling addiction that dominate Christofi’s novelistic reimagining. Most memorable is his obsession, described in Devils as “an intoxication that came from the agonising awareness of my own depravity . . . for me it was the most powerful of all such sensations”. Time and again, Dostoevsky pawned Anna’s possessions to fund his addiction. Christofi reminds us how much Dostoevsky’s own failings and endless remorse informed his work and shaped his characters. My only caveat is that this lively account is too short.

Originally published by New Humanist