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Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi: There isn’t a biography quite like it

An original approach to the literary biography brings an old master to life, writes Jane Graham
Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi

As a longterm fan of Dostoevsky (and yes, unusually for a 19th-century literary novelist, he does have a kind of fan club, many of whom are adolescents high on the thrill of first encountering his freewheeling combo of philosophical pondering and jazz-style riffing), I’ve read a lot about the life of the man.

Like every respectable Dostoevskian, I know the headlines: his troubled outsider youth in Moscow and St Petersburg; his lifelong debilitating epilepsy; his unorthodox blending of utopian socialism with Russian Orthodoxy; his last-minute state reprieve awarded on the gallows, moments from execution; his gambling addiction and perpetual debt; his marriages and many extra-marital affairs. And, to paraphrase another great thinker, Bob Dylan, I’ve been through all of his books. So why would I want to read yet another scholarly biography of a writer who has been a friend of mine for decades?

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Well, though I wouldn’t quite say Dostoevsky’s latest biographer Alex Christofi had me at hello, he certainly got my attention with his second sentence in Dostoevsky in Love, in which I discovered that the writer depicted in most portraits as a “grumpy Saint Nicholas” “did spend one Christmas night riding across Russia in an open sleigh”.

It wasn’t so much the surprise of that story which made me sit up, it was the nature of its telling. Truth be told, it’s unlikely the sledging Dostoevsky got very far “across Russia” on that dark snowy night, but a romantically inclined biographer wouldn’t be able to resist such a poetic wording. This, I felt, might be a different, more audacious, more liberated, more Dostoevskian kind of study.

Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi
Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography quite like it. Christofi (what a wonderful and appropriate name btw; either a blasphemous curse or a religious blessing) combines traditional factual accounts, quotes from personal letters, and excerpts from Dostoevsky’s fiction (likely based on personal experience) to form a unique kind of memoir, immersive, believable and emotionally engaging.

The prosaic third-person historical detailing is all there, but uplifted by interwoven sections of the most evocative and theatrical paragraphs from Crime and PunishmentThe Brothers Karamazov et al, posing as intimate, revelatory diary entries by the great man himself.

It’s a risky conceit, and might feel like a cheat for some sticklers. But I found the experience extremely enjoyable and oddly moving. Most of all, as I came to yearn for the next slice of The Idiot or Notes from the Underground, it reminded me just what a brilliantly strange and wonderful writer Dostoevsky was. This book is full of his compassion and humanity, while revealing the same qualities in his worthy biographer.

Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi is out now (Bloomsbury, £20)