A portrait of the author of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
A portrait of the author of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ © Bettmann Archive

Not only did the restaurant manager in Wiesbaden refuse to serve the reckless Russian punter who had (again) lost his shirt at the roulette tables and couldn’t pay his hotel bills. To rub it in, he told the wastrel that he didn’t “deserve” dinner. In 1865, who would have contradicted him? The once-promising author, now a threadbare forty-something, had seen his literary journal fold, grovelled for a loan, taken on the debts of his beloved late brother, signed up to write a serial novel and — in “the worst publishing deal of all time” — committed to deliver a second book within a year, or else hand over his future work for a decade without payment.

By the end of 1866, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky had earned his dinner. Crime and Punishment, with the “modern deed” of calculated slaughter at its heart, was thrilling readers in the Russian Herald (which, that year, also serialised Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Dostoevsky even fulfilled his bargain with the villainous publisher Stellovsky. He dictated The Gambler at breakneck pace to the stenographer Anna Snitkina, who became his second wife.

So: plain sailing into serene maturity? Not with the novelist who, above all others, illuminates the gulf between “rational egoism” and “the perversity of the human soul”. With Anna, he set off on a four-year gambling and writing odyssey around the casinos of Europe, “a sickening limbo of debt and itineracy”. During this green-baize purgatory, their adored infant daughter Sonya died in Geneva. The loss opened up an abyss of “bottomless grief”. Neighbours complained that, for days on end, the Russians cried too loudly.

For much of his life (he died, aged 59, in 1881), Dostoevsky felt and witnessed the febrile terror, despair — and intermittent ecstasy — he expressed in fiction driven by the belief that “On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering”. His career crackles with drama: mock-execution as a convicted revolutionary (“the most dreadful anguish”); soul-sapping penal servitude in Siberia; a miserable first and crisis-strewn but happy second marriage; long dips into the “pit of addiction” as a gambler; epileptic seizures, through to rapturous acclaim (“a saint, a prophet!”) in his final years.

Alex Christofi, novelist and publisher, channels this tumult into a brief, fierce account of Dostoevsky’s inner and outer life. Dostoevsky in Love knits passages from the novelist’s fiction and journals with others’ testimony to form an immersive, swift-moving but carefully sourced collage, “a tale both novelistic and true to life”. The book doesn’t aim to rival standard biographies — above all, Joseph Frank’s five-volume masterwork — but it does dodge smartly past the forbidding mystic monster of the textbooks to find the all-too-human pilgrim through extremities beneath.

Christofi’s rapidly unrolling tapestry helps to capture the madcap, tumbling and ferocious quality of Dostoevsky’s style — a fizzing energy lost, scholars claim, in too-polite translations. Save for a few odd lapses when his editor dozed (“Fyodor had become a literary sensation, literally overnight”), Christofi’s own writing helps restore the elements of risk and shock to a writer whose storytelling became “the skin that kept distance between his tender heart and the cruelties of the world”. He understands that wild Dostoevsky can flay the reader’s defences into ribbons, as Olympian Tolstoy cannot: above all, perhaps, in The Brothers Karamazov, with its proposal that the whole proud world of human achievement is not worth the “unavenged tears” of a single mistreated child.

Christofi looks back on Dostoevsky’s time from another era forced to challenge “the edifice of materialism”, and to grasp that “the world would not be healed by ideology alone”. His gallop through the mind and art of this unique “voice of conscience for the weak, the poor, the sick, the abused” tugs us eagerly along. “I go to the very limit,” Dostoevsky confessed. Christofi shows us both the joy and horror that awaited when he overstepped the line.

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi, Bloomsbury, £20, 256 pages

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