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.
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.