There are many ideas I haven’t yet written down. They will lacerate me, it is true! But I have my heart and flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life.
Alex Christofi has written an intimate portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, one that beautifully connects his personal life with his great work. He wrote his way through, if not out, of personal tragedies. The pen seemed to be at ready to spill each fresh misery that cropped up during his many trials and tribulations, be they born from the seed of love or politics. A man who used even his mock execution during his brutal imprisonment to write a semi-autobiographical novel about the inmates in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoevsky’s writing always seemed to flow from what he was confronted by in life. There was an untold amount of tragedy, some at fate’s mysterious hands but often, like all of us, by his own making. Gambling, poor choices of the heart, deaths, illness- so much plagued our dear author from his earliest loss, that of his mother. Without question, his health influenced his work and was in and of itself a curious thing, epilepsy. So little understood about it during his lifetime, how can it not have affected Fyodor’s thoughts, creativity? Make him question his very mortality?
The phases of his life from childhood to his dying day, the people dear to him as much as those he resented, the pleasures and disturbances of his very existence, all of it found a way into his fiction and, as Christofi points out within these pages, made for autobiographical work. Dostoevsky didn’t need to leave behind memoirs, for he was present in everything he wrote. He pinned human behavior as no other, from the foolish to the profound, and that is why even today the wisdom of his words reaches many readers’ souls. He suffered, lord he suffered like no other. He was contrary, he pursued his desperate wants only to later reflect with keen perception how we never seem to be satisfied with attainment, that the rush is in the chase. He understood humiliation, the misery of insult, the imbalance of class, the madness of politics, the contrary nature of man, and he penetrated the very heart of every emotion that can be born of any situation and was able to express it through characters. Alex Christofi writes beautifully of the author I felt I was observing for an entire lifetime, one who is both grand and small.
This book is far less static than other biographical accounts of Dostoevsky, it is factual but with fictional breezes of Fyodor’s writing blowing through. Fyodor isn’t the only person brought to life, all too often when a historical figure is written about, the people surrounding them fall flat. Not here! The women that he loved, who caused him desire so strong he trembled, pulse with life, even when fading from their own story as consumptive Maria. Polina is the fire, the wildcard and would be assassin, a woman he can’t help but draw close and cling to, despite the burn. Later it is the young Anna, his stenographer who he falls in love with and uses a story to tell her of his love for her. Anna becomes his dearly devoted second wife and mother to his children, sticking by him despite his debts, gambling addictions, the crippling loss of their two children and severe illness. Anna is a beacon to his troubled soul, and their love story as great as anything he has written. She is the one who carries on his legacy, what does a man do to deserve such a faithful, intelligent partner?
I wasn’t expecting to be as deeply engaged as I was. You don’t need to be familiar with Dostoevsky to enjoy the read but certainly a book any fan would enjoy. Every person in his orbit is humanized. Beautifully written, the connections, the facts, the emotions, the timeline- it’s quite the journey. Yes, read it.
Publication Date: March 23, 2021