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In Review: Dostoevsky in Love

Photo by Antonio Marín Segovia

In his introduction to Dostoevsky in Love, Alex Christofi describes how the Russian novelist planned to write an autobiography after he had completed The Brothers Karamazov. Frustratingly, before the author could even begin this project, he died. But with this new account of Dostoevsky’s life, Christofi has produced the memoir that the great artist might have composed had he lived.

Although ostensibly a work of non-fiction, Dostoevsky in Love is highly novelistic. Christofi combines Dostoevsky’s voice with sections taken from his letters and journals. Quotation marks are not included, with italics indicating anything represented as his thoughts. These excerpts are paraphrased and abridged, becoming seamlessly incorporated into the text. Likewise, the sources are given at the back of the book so as not to disrupt the narrative flow.

The biography is essentially a reconstructed memoir, and this innovative approach succeeds. Christofi has cheerfully committed the academic fallacy of merging Dostoevsky’s autobiographical fiction with his fantastical life. Yet the style works well, as it immerses the reader in both nineteenth century Russia and the novelist’s spiritual, philosophical, and political thought. Importantly, the book remains grounded in factual detail. Though he is certainly imaginative, Christofi does not supplement his account of the writer’s experiences with fiction. He supports his work with 452 endnotes. As he announces in the introduction, ‘where I have ventured to attribute this inner life to a timeline…I have’.

Impressively, the narrative reduces Dostoevsky’s entire life to a mere 256 pages. But even at this almost frantic pace, Christofi manages to illustrate the suffering which pervaded the Russian author’s existence. The novelist’s life was defined by a succession of curses. His mother died of tuberculosis during his childhood, followed soon afterwards by his father, who was possibly murdered by his serfs. Dostoyevsky’s own health was not good, suffering as he did from emphysema and, after the shock of a mock execution, epilepsy. He also endured hard labour in Siberia, fought to control a gambling addiction and lost his first child shortly after her birth. Christofi connects this suffering with the sympathy Dostoyevsky felt for the outcasts, the prostitutes, the humiliated, the sick and the silenced of his day. He was, after all, a deeply moral man fiercely devoted to raising up the downtrodden and giving them a voice.

Continually moving and highly inventive, Christofi’s account focuses on the great novelist’s emotions, and the experiences of those suffering around him. Readers interested in Dostoevsky will undoubtedly find this book perceptive and fascinating.