Review: Dostoevsky in Love – An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi (2021)Assessment 7 out of 10

Christofi writes

“Even though [Dostoevsky] never wrote his memoirs, those who knew him could unearth them” [in his novels.] This is what Cristofi tries to do. He had previously written two novels. You are left asking, “Is this a biography or a novel?”

“Many of Dostoevsky’s ideas remain disconcertingly relevant, [including] that a society without a grand narrative is vulnerable to political extremism.” You think initially that the reverse is true, that grand narratives lead to extremism. However Christofi is suggesting that Dostoevsky is rejecting the revolution of his younger life in favour of the moral compass of Orthodoxy and even Tsardom.

Listening to “In Our Time” on “Crime & Punishment” was suggested, before reading Dostoevsky in Love. It didn’t help. I was not tempted to read Crime & Punishment, a long psychological novel, focusing on interior motivation.  Dostoevsky as a writer is concerned with morality. He wrote “without God everything is permitted”.  Contrast Nietzche’s contemporaneous “God is dead” and his view that Christianity, and the ideas derived from it, are slave morality. Sue Prideaux, a biographer of Nietzsche wrote about “Dostoevsky in Love” that, “Anyone who loves his novels, will be fascinated by this book”, surely a backhanded compliment.

In 1828 the Dostoevskys enter the bottom rung of the hereditary nobility and so could buy with debt a small estate of 100 Souls. The references to serfdom with land holdings measured in “Souls” were fascinating. I listened to “In Our Time” on the Emancipation of Serfs in Russia. The origins of Russian serfdom was explained, the question of how far serfdom equates to slavery worth pursuing.

Also fascinating is the importance of writers, novels and poetry in Russian culture. Dostoevsky lived his life in literary circles and literary fallings out. That his revolutionary circle was comprised largely of poets is unsurprising. 

Maikov recalled his conversation with Dostoevsky:

Dostoevsky, “There are seven of us now. We have chosen you to be the eighth. Do you want to join our society?”

Maikov “But what is the purpose?”

Dostoevsky “Its purpose is to organise a coup in Russia, naturally.”

Maikov, “Not only do I not wish to join the society, but I advise you to get out of it. We are poets and artists. Surely, you don’t think we are suited to be revolutionaries?“

Turgenev’s (anti-) hero Bazarov in Fathers and Sons reflects the time after Dostoevsky had completed his prison sentence for treason and is released from subsequent military service. “Bazarov is desperate to believe in social utility, to be an unfeeling rationalist, who discards art and feeling as pointless…. Although he has lofty feelings about the Russian people in the abstract, he dislikes the peasants he actually meets.”

Dostoevsky’s first marriage is a failure. He pursues her, but then on marriage suffers epilepsy and almost immediately falls out of love.

 His second wife, Anna, seems wonderful. However after his death, she kept his archive and wrote about their life together. Christofi relies on these as sources, so it seems there is an inherent bias in her favour. The life of Dostoevsky and Anna after marriage was made miserable by his gambling, the descriptions of which and its consequences you want to skip

His apotheosis came in delivering the memorial speech on inauguration of the Pushkin Memorial in Moscow. He died in 1881 barely six months later, in a very Russian way, celebrated in death by huge crowds in St Petersburg, in a way that he hadn’t been celebrated in life. A month later the Nihilists succeeded at their sixth attempt in killing the Tsar, Alexander II.

This is a writer’s biography of a writer, so there are no plates and no maps.

“Dostoevsky in Love” has none of the colour of place there is in “I am Dynamite”, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, or in “The Dawn Watch”, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Conrad. There is one moment of colour when, after the death of his son Alyosha, who seems to have inherited his father’s epilepsy, Dostoevsky visited the holy monastery of Optima Pastyn, the heart of Russian Orthodoxy, with its blue cupolas, deep in the forest. Many biographers, and some of their readers, associate themselves with their hero subject. Clearly Christofi does with Dostoevsky. I did with Conrad and Nietzsche, I couldn’t with Dostoevsky and was pleased “In Love” was shorter than many of Dostoevsky’s novels .

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