Writers & Company

In Dostoevsky in Love, Alex Christofi captures the tortured brilliance of the great Russian writer

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the British author talks about why the 19th-century writer's work remains powerful and relevant today.
Alex Christofi is a British novelist and editor. (Bloomsbury Continuum)

Few writers can draw on lived experience as dramatic as that of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Coming of age in St. Petersburg during a turbulent time in his country's history, he survived a death sentence, served four years' hard labour in Siberia, struggled with a gambling addiction, epilepsy and personal loss — and poured it all into his writing. By the time of his death at 59, the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov was hailed as a hero and a prophet.

2021 marks the bicentenary of Dostoevsky's birth. In his compelling new book, Dostoevsky in Love:  An Intimate Life, British novelist and editor Alex Christofi creates a memorable portrait of the Russian master. Weaving together Dostoevsky's autobiographical writings and fiction with the outlines of his biography, he gives new life to this towering literary figure.

Christofi spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in London.

Drawn to Dostoevsky

"I first read Dostoevsky as a teenager. I was attracted to his work because he's willing to trade in genuinely dangerous ideas. It seems kind of shocking in a literary landscape, where we don't have any of the same kind of censorship, to have a protagonist whose avowed mission is to kill an old woman with an axe. 

"It's quite a shocking conceit, and I think it feels that way. Teenagers are quite good at seeing through adults who may be trying to appear a bit more cool or a bit more dangerous than they are. Dostoevsky has enormous integrity in that way — he wants to discuss the dangerous ideas and get to the bottom of them. 

I was attracted to Dostoevsky's work because he's willing to trade in genuinely dangerous ideas.

 

"He believes strongly that free speech is a part of that: he wants people with dangerous ideas that might undermine society to have an open hearing, and to be argued with in open court, as it were. 

"That, to me, is a much more exciting idea than being passed down received wisdom, which too often is the perception when you're younger of what literature should be or can be." 

Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the most influential Russian authors of all time. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A voice for the voiceless

"Dostoevsky was obsessed with giving a voice to people who were downtrodden. In his work, he's trying to look at the lives of people who are disabled or who are poor — people who've been dispossessed by the rules of society. 

"So you have a completely different world — the world you would see on the street. That wasn't regarded as being within the purview of literature — and certainly doesn't seem to turn up all that much in his contemporaries like Tolstoy or Turgenev.

He's trying to look at the lives of people who are disabled or who are poor — people who've been dispossessed by the rules of society.

"I responded to that very early on, his quite burning sense of injustice and feeling that things don't have to be this way, and that we can have the power to change the society around us. 

"That engagement with society is attractive, through time and across cultures."

A novelistic approach to biography

"Dostoevsky's first biographer noted that there were these subjective passages throughout his fiction which had clear biographical value. We know that Dostoevsky really wanted to write a memoir himself: on Christmas Eve, 1877, he wrote down in a notebook all the things he wanted to achieve for the rest of his life. One of them was to write a memoir.

"He was already 56, and didn't think he'd get around to it because of his ill health. Unfortunately, he was right. But he did like the idea of writing a memoir. 

What I wanted to do was to see whether those biographical, subjective passages in his fiction could be attributed in some way to the timeline of his life.

"What I wanted to do was to see whether those biographical, subjective passages in his fiction could be attributed in some way to the timeline of his life.

"It's a well-documented life — it has been written about in conventional biographies, in some cases absolutely brilliantly. 

"I wanted to see if it was possible to write a tale that was novelistic and true to life, that didn't maybe cross the boundary into true fiction — in the way that, for example, J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg might have done — but that had some of that novelistic feel to it. 

"Because in some ways, his life really was like a novel."

Fact and fiction

"Dostoevsky tended to view the drama in his own life by imagining himself as a literary character.

"Fictionalizing, or creating narrative out of his life, was a kind of skin protecting him from some of the traumas that he experienced. A few times in his letters, he talks about how a particular, very concrete experience reminded him of a book. And actually, very early on in his fiction, a character is accused of speaking like a book. 

Dostoevsky tended to view the drama in his own life by imagining himself as a literary character.

"He was so steeped in literature that life and literature were intertwined for him in that way."

Alex Christofi's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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