Review: Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi
When a 20-year-old stenographer received an assignment to take dictation from Dostoevsky in 1866, a writer trapped in an impossible contract, requiring to produce a full-length novel in just four weeks, failing which he would lose the rights to all his work, it was hardly an offer the young lady could refuse. She was almost as desperate as her employer: her debt-ridden family was struggling financially after her father’s death. Both pulled off a seemingly-impossible feat. For 26 days, Anna took his dictation and transcribed her notes at home. Due to her perseverance, Dostoevsky was bailed out and the novel The Gambler was completed.
If we insist that we already know about the stoic fortitude of Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, the young stenographer who, during 14 years of her marriage filled with financial uncertainty and privations, steered Dostoevsky through his reckless gambling addiction and his epileptic attacks, and helped him return to writing – time and time again – and who considered her life to “have been one of exceptional happiness”, we know only half the story. Our knowledge about Dostoevsky’s morbid first marriage with consumptive widow Maria Dmitrievna lsaeva, or towards the end of this first marriage, his intimate and rather tempestuous relationship with Apollinaria Suslova (Polina), a young student with antimonarchist ideas, looks insufficient as long as we are not made privy to the social churn of a Tsarist Russia, the years of censorship and his exile in a Siberian labour camp, and the Zeitgeist.
But here comes a book that risks tracing the autobiographical vestiges of a writer’s life from his literary work. Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi is a study in precision (256 pages and 12 chapters) and counterfactual scholarship that draws heavily upon Dostoevsky’s letters, notebooks, journalism and fiction without missing out on anything of substance. Of the vast corpus of books that came out to commemorate the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth last year (1821-2001), Christofi’s uniqueness lies in making it a “reconstructed memoir” by “eliding Dostoevsky’s autobiographical fiction with his fantastical life”. Our very own laureate Rabindranath Tagore warned about the pitfalls of trying to discover a poet through his or her autobiography (“Kabire pabe na tahar jiban charite”). Christofi draws liberally upon the fantastic, if somewhat unreal, life of Dostoevsky, and from sections from his novels, placing them side by side in a seamless narrative, to say that a novelist’s oeuvre is inseparable from his life.
Christofi reconstructs the memoir Dostoevsky might have written (“He had intended to write one”) and we learn that on Christmas Eve 1877, the twenty-eighth anniversary of his journey to Siberia, Dostoevsky wrote a four-point “memo for the rest of my life”, dividing his remaining years into four projects, the third of which was to write his memoirs. He calculated that the task of writing would take him at least 10 years, but he died in 1821. While Dostoevsky recounted the quasi-mystical experience of an epileptic fit in The Idiot or hard labour in a Siberian prison in Notes from the House of the Dead, drawn from his lived experience, Christofi shows how intertextuality can become a tool to record the biographical value “in subjective passages scattered throughout his novels”. Compared to the American critic Joseph Frank, to whose massive five-volume intellectual biography of Dostoevsky, published between 1976 and 2002, all subsequent scholarship is greatly indebted, Christofi charts the untrodden and rather sacrilegious path of stitching together a biography out of his own works.
However, the metaphor of Dostoevsky being in love in the title might mislead us into misreading Christofi’s general objective in the book, just in case we thought it was going to be a salacious account of his love affairs because given his austere upbringing, there is virtually no evidence of the young Dostoyevsky ever falling in love – in stark contrast to either Pushkin, Dostoevsky’s icon, who loved many women, and celebrated the reciprocity of friendships and sexual relationships in his poetry, or to young Leo Tolstoy, seven years his junior, whose youthful letters and diaries are filled with frank descriptions of tormented love affairs and visits to brothels. In her memoirs, Anna says “It seemed strange” that her husband had “never in his youth experienced a really passionate, serious love for any woman. His writing consumed him wholly, and therefore his personal life receded into the background.” Andrew D Kaufman, in another biography published last year (The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky) points out, however, to one exception in these early years – “which Dostoyevsky likely never shared with his wife” – his passing liaison with a Petersburg prostitute, mentioned obliquely in a letter to Mikhail, his beloved brother.
Goethe once had to delay the completion of one of his novels till experience had furnished him with new situations, but almost before he had arrived at manhood Dostoevsky knew life in its most real forms; poverty and suffering, pain and misery, prison, exile and love were soon familiar to him, and by the lips of Vanya in Humiliated and Insulted he had told his own story. So the “seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil” that suck us in the novels of Dostoevsky, blind, suffocate, and at the same time fill us with a giddy rapture are inextricably linked with his life. Christofi recalls the scholar Leonid Grossman’s meeting with Anna Grigorievna in the winter of 1916 in the newly renamed Petrograd – Dostoevsky’s obsessive love for St Petersburg is too well known – when she famously said that she was not living in the 20th century: “I have remained in the 1870s. My people are the friends of Fyodor Mikhailovich, my coterie a band of people who are gone. I live with them. And everyone who is studying the life or the works of Dostoevsky is a near relation.” Two centuries later, Christofi recreates the abyss and bears the cross of kinship.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.