Dostoevsky did not live to complete his intended autobiography, but Alex Christofi has done both him and us a great service in this daringly original fictionalised biography, based on meticulous research, which skilfully weaves in Dostoevsky’s own words, printed in italics. It seems as if many of the quotations are taken from a piece of fiction, but applied here with astonishing aptness. Despite revealing Dostoevsky’s many flaws, literally warts and all, the author succeeds overall in painting him in a sympathetic light.
The dramatic hook of a prologue, largely in these italics, presents what Dostoevsky believed would be his final thoughts in December 1849 during the last moments before execution by firing squad for involvement in a group which had acquired a printing press to organise a coup against the Tsar. “The most terrible part of the punishment is…the certainty…that in half a minute your soul will quit your body and you will no longer be a man”.
Reprieved but sentenced to four years of hard labour in Siberia, at first “broken by the monstrous strangeness”, he began to absorb every impression of his new world, even questioning fellow convicts about what it felt like to receive more than 500 lashes: “But I could not get a satisfactory answer…it scorches like fire, as though your back were being roasted”. The prison hospital was the only place where he could record all this on smuggled paper.
Although I have only read “Crime and Punishment”, it was fascinating to see how much of it is drawn from his own thoughts and experiences. Dostoevsky practised his belief that a great writer needs to suffer. The circumstances of his early life were tragic enough. The small country estate awarded to his father for “zealous service” as a doctor was burned down. His mother died of TB when he was fifteen. Driven to drink, his father was found dead in a ditch, possibly murdered by a disaffected serf.
Perhaps his worst misfortune was debilitating epilepsy which repelled his first wife Maria, and made it increasingly difficult for him to work in later life: “As a result of the falling sickness..I have forgotten the plots of my novels. I do remember the general outline of my life.” Yet he even found something positive in his first full fit. “The sense of life, the consciousness of self, were multiplied ten times in that lightning strike…. My mind and heart…flooded with extraordinary light… all unease…..anxieties…. submerged in a lofty calm…serene harmony, joy and hope”. The next part was of course “unendurable”.
The serious gambling addiction which should have destroyed his second marriage to Anna, but for her at times inexplicable love, makes painful reading. Christofi gives us blow by blow accounts of the cycle of Dostoevsky borrowing yet more money to win initially, fail to quit, lose the lot, pawn his watch, pawn Anna’s jewelry, lose some more and lack the funds to return from the fatal attraction of the German casinos to Russia where such gambling was not allowed. Apart from his obsession with finding the formula “to overcome the crudity of blind chance and win” the money he needed to be free to write without continual worries over debts – he was not a rich landowner like Tolstoy or Turgenev – he admits to deriving “acute enjoyment” from the risk of gambling “at the cost of torture” in the process.
With acute self awareness, he had a character confess how an “exceptionally shameful position, some more than usually humiliating, despicable and, above all, ridiculous situation always aroused in me not only boundless anger but ….an incredible sense of pleasure, an intoxication…..from the agonising awareness of my own depravity. I confess that I often sought it out because for me it was the most powerful of all such sensations.”
Sensitive and romantic, too quick to propose, appeared Dostoevsky easily obsessed with the idea of love rather than the woman concerned. Maria, at first unobtainable because she was married, and reluctant to wed him when she was widowed because he was by then a low-ranking soldier, seemed to lose her appeal once she became his wife, her bitterness no doubt fed by his neglect. Did he become infatuated with the beautiful, intelligent student Polina because she strung him along so tantalisingly? If he had been prepared to leave his dying wife for her, would his love for Polina have evaporated in turn? Even during his second loving marriage to the highly supportive and collaborative Anna who also proved to have a sharp business sense, despite a deep love for their children, with the single-mindness of a creative artist, his work came first. His routine was to sleep every morning in order to write through the night without interruption.
Criticised by former colleagues for attacking the nihilism of the next generation of rebels, briefly editing a journal regarded as arch-conservative, Dostoevsky was in fact an independent thinker whose ideas evolved over time, “chopped and changed” in the unceasing attempt to communicate them. Having developed a strong religious sense during his imprisonment, he observed that “if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ wasn’t real, I would rather stay with Christ than with the truth”.
Dostoevsky crammed a wealth of diverse experience into his fifty-six years. He managed to regain and surpass his early success as a writer so that, by the end, Victor Hugo was inviting him to a prestigious conference in Paris, the Tsar was demanding a copy of his latest book and his speech in celebration of Pushkin was met with an extraordinary emotional ovation, and a laurel wreath a metre-and-a-half wide.
Dostoevsky’s concern with social justice for serfs and social outcasts mirrored that of Dickens whom he revered. Unable to understand Tolstoy’s popularity, rather despising his focus on the world of aristocrats and gentry, Dostoevsky was groundbreaking in exploring human nature even to the depths of depravity, paving the way for modern prose via those he inspired in turn: Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.