Across his fiction, journalism, and letters, Fyodor Dostoevsky spoke in many voices. He spoke as a radical who would face mock execution and years in prison for plotting against the tsar. He spoke as a Russian Orthodox believer excoriating liberal society for its smallness and lack of faith. He spoke as a prophet carrying the flame of Russian literature toward a new day. As Dostoevsky said of his novels but could have said of his life: many “stories get squashed into a single one so that there’s neither proportion nor harmony.”
The clash of different voices, wrote literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, is what powers Dostoevsky’s fiction. How appropriate, then, for the novelist Alex Christofi, in his new book Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life, to narrate Dostoevsky’s story by drawing together the author’s words and the words of his characters. Although Christofi sets off quoted material in italics and quotation marks, he blends diverse voices into a unified narrative.
Following this method, Christofi produces some vivid writing. Consider the following passage where Christofi uses a character’s words (in italics) to voice Dostoevsky’s critiques of nihilists and their intellectual enablers: “To kill [a miser] and redistribute the wealth would be morally permissible, if you followed the cold moral calculus of the rational egoists and the revolutionaries, with their calls to ‘take up axes.’ A fantastical, dark deed, a modern deed, a deed of our time, when the heart of man has clouded over; when there’s talk of renewal through bloodshed. Did any of them really understand what they were arguing for?” The italicized words are spoken by Porfiry Petrovich, the man investigating the murder at the center of Crime and Punishment. In the passage, Petrovich functions as a kind of spokesman for Dostoevsky’s views on political violence.
Despite the title, love is only a minor theme in the book. Christofi discusses but does not linger over Dostoevsky’s romantic relationships. Moreover, Christofi underplays the importance of Christian love in Dostoevsky’s life and work. At the beginning of the chapter on Dostoevsky’s years in a prison camp, Christofi quotes Father Zosima, the spiritual master of The Brothers Karamazov: “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Christofi does not, however, draw out Zosima’s meaning. Had Christofi focused more on Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christian love, he could have explored how Dostoevsky trapped his characters in situations where the love of God is all but out of reach: the Underground Man in petty, bureaucratic St. Petersburg; Ivan Karamazov in the prison of his mind; the nihilists of Demons in a dead-end political movement. These characters are trapped in worlds where they cannot empty themselves of selfish desires and allow the love of God to flow through them and to their neighbors. Christofi, however, does not examine this or other dynamics of Christian love central to Dostoevsky’s life.
Because Dostoevsky was not simply a Christian propagandist, he did not include dissenting voices in his novels just to drown them out with the voices of believers. Instead, as Bakhtin observed, Dostoevsky set different voices against each other and let them fight to be heard. Indeed, after publishing book five of The Brothers Karamazov, which includes Ivan’s shattering cry against God, Dostoevsky fretted over his ability to counter Ivan’s voice with the voice of an intellectually serious Christian. Out of his anguish, he wrote Father Zosima’s beautiful meditation on life and God.
Dostoevsky’s interest in the clash of voices raises a question about Christofi’s method. Why blend distinct voices into one unified story, as in the passage above quoting Petrovich, when Dostoevsky drew voices into conflict? Dostoevsky thought the divided, dissonant chorus of voices in his novels was truer to life than songs sung in unison. Instead of blending voices into one coherent story, Christofi might have let different voices fight it out. For instance, how might quoting Petrovich on violence reveal tensions in the ideas Dostoevsky developed in his letters? How might quoting Dostoevsky’s letters show the limits of Zosima’s ideas of love? In short, Dostoevsky in Love might have benefited from some of the disproportion and disharmony within Dostoevsky’s own writing.
Despite missing some opportunities, Christofi tells Dostoevsky’s story with wit and verve. Readers new to Dostoevsky will enjoy learning about the author’s life in this short, lively book. Readers already acquainted with Dostoevsky will like hearing familiar voices narrate the author’s life in a new way. It is a tale worth hearing.
by Alex Christofi
Published March 23, 2021