There is a touching passage near the beginning of Alex Christofi’s inventive new memoir, which takes place in a cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, on Christmas Eve 1849. The young Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to be taken to a Siberian prison camp but remained defiantly upbeat, reassuring his older brother Mikhail: “I’m not going to my grave, this isn’t my burial – and they aren’t wild animals out there.”
As the clock struck midnight, he was shackled and taken on an open sleigh ride in -40 degrees to begin a four-year sentence for anti-government activities. And this is just the start of the story. It is lucky that Dostoevsky was able to channel the extreme brutality he suffered into creative masterpieces such as Crime and Punishment.
As Christofi writes of another challenging episode (and there were many): “The thought came to him now, as it always did when he was on the verge of despair, that an experience like this would make a wonderful novel.”
Christofi, a novelist and publisher, has declared himself a “storyteller not a specialist” in regards to his subject and takes an appropriately creative approach, attempting to fill the autobiographical void left by Dostoevsky’s death aged 59. Interweaving factual details with Dostoevsky’s work, Christofi has created an immersive and visceral journey through the life of the revolutionary author.
And what a life: dodging debtors and firing squads; three passionate love affairs; the numerous debilitating epileptic fits; the “mock execution” which saw him escape death but sentenced to the prison camp; later juggling his writing with a serious gambling addiction (visiting one casino so frequently staff would bring in his own armchair). Many of his family members died prematurely: his beloved mother from consumption when he was 15; his father allegedly murdered by peasants he mistreated; as well as the tragic loss of two of his own children.
It is to the biographer’s credit that this feels like a cinematic thriller with one of those protagonists that you want to grasp by the shoulders and shake, though you also enjoy his exploits in the manner of an overblown Hollywood blockbuster. There are passages brimming with Hitchcock-style suspense, such as when Dostoevsky enters a Faustian-style publishing pact requiring him to write a manuscript in a month or write the next nine years’ worth of novels without payment. Far from being the climax, however, this turns into a MacGuffin, leading him to the love of his life and second wife, 20-year-old Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, a stenographer sent to transcribe The Gambler so that it could be written in time (with just two hours to spare).
It becomes abundantly clear that Dostoevsky could be “an exasperating man” and, despite many serious scrapes, showed little appetite for reform: gambling away Anna’s jewellery as she lay pregnant and alone in a desolate hotel room and later mismanaging her mother’s house so that it is lost to a “friend” forever.
His views on “the woman question and Jewish people” as detailed in The Writer’s Diary were not in keeping with his other, more progressive opinions. Dostoevsky often showed insecurity about his writing and could be jealous and critical of other authors (he deemed Anna Karenina “rather boring and so-so”). He worried that his own work might be “boring”, and reworked Devils 20 times before it was published. Frustrated by contemporaries such as Tolstoy who could write freely without worrying about money, his lamentations prove bittersweet given his own legacy: “If I had two of three years of support the novel... I would write the sort of thing that people would still be talking about in a hundred years!”
Talent and neuroticism
His neuroticism and bumbling episodes are balanced by striking examples of his talent and loyalty, which Anna grasped with greater clarity than his previous lovers – his first wife Maria, appalled by his wedding-day epileptic fit and later killed by consumption, was followed by the manipulative Polina who fantasised about killing the tsar. He showed great tenderness towards his young family, procuring lemonade for Anna’s morning sickness and frequently reminding her of his love, delighting in his children as they tumbled into his study. As a youth, he charmed a police officer sent to bully him into providing information about police procedures for his next novel whilst at the end of his life he gave a speech so astounding it prompted a stampede with one student apparently fainting with admiration.
The biographer’s dedication is clear. Like a literary sleuth, Christofi has lovingly spliced Dostoevsky’s inner life to expose its brilliant complexity to us, and to those with little knowledge of the author’s work. The myriad identities of the man are encompassed here in a thrilling literary ride: a revolutionary and occasional traditionalist; philosopher and prisoner; lover and family man; summoned to life with such creative flair that surely the great writer himself would have approved.