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The Best Fyodor Dostoevsky Books

recommended by Alex Christofi

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life

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Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life

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His father had clawed his way up into the minor aristocracy, but Fyodor Dostoevsky chose to live the life of an impecunious author. He was sentenced to death, but his execution was stayed and he spent years in a Siberian labour camp instead. His books are about human compassion, but he was a difficult man who had trouble with his own personal relationships. Alex Christofi, author of a brilliant new biography of Dostoevsky, one of Russia's greatest novelists, recommends five books to learn more about the man and his work—including the novel of which Tolstoy said he ‘didn’t know a better book in all our literature’.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life

out now

Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life

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You are the author of a new biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1861). It’s a book that intertwines the narrative of his life with his own words, taken from where his fiction has been drawn from lived experience, which is such a great way to do a literary biography. Having devoted all this time to his life and work, can you outline for our readers Dostoevsky’s significance as a writer?

Until recently he has been quite unfashionable – at least, compared to some of the other Russian greats like Turgenev and Tolstoy. He comes across as this very grumpy old man; despite his fierce intellect he could be difficult to be around, so he has this cloud hanging over his reputation.

He’s also  sometimes criticised, I think fairly, as being verbose or digressive. Because he was always broke, and he was paid by the page, most of his best known novels are understandably quite long. Those are some of the reasons why people feel intimidated by him as a writer. They don’t quite know their way in.

But what I think is really interesting about Dostoevsky, and speaks to modern readers, is that he’s concerned not with the aristocracy but with the vulnerable people of society, whether that’s serfs, people forced into prostitution, or the disabled, or the poor. So he’s looking at society in a completely different way to many of his peers.

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And, aside from being a magnetic writer, he has a huge amount to say about the human condition: what makes us good, whether it makes sense to believe in God… there are all these universal questions across his writing that I think speak to a modern audience. His are really interesting precursors to the modern novel.

So part of my idea was to try to rehabilitate him in the popular imagination, as a writer who’s had a really incredible life, but also has a lot to say in the here and now. He’s not just a historical relic.

Absolutely. Crime and Punishment is arguably Dostoevsky’s most famous book. Do you think it’s the best place to start, for someone coming fresh to his writing?

Not necessarily. He’s actually written some great short stories and novella-length work. So you could read something quite short, like Notes from the Underground, which is probably only 60 pages. It’s a super-intense, sometimes very funny, deeply absurd and weird little book. It packs so many ideas into a short space.

He’s also got a wonderful story from early in his career called The Double. It’s farcical, almost in the style of Nikolai Gogol, whom he admired a lot. It’s not long and great fun to read. So it depends what you’re most attracted to.

If you want the deep, serious book that’s going to tell you the whole meaning of life, you can go off and read The Brothers Karamazov. If you’re looking for something shorter and more entertaining, that’s there too. That’s part of what’s so exciting about Dostoevsky. You can find something that appeals to your sensibility from a really varied range of work.

Well, the first of the books you’ve selected is Lectures on Dostoevsky, by Joseph Frank. Why do you recommend it?

‘Lectures’ makes it sound more academic than it is, in a way. Joseph Frank was probably the leading scholar on Dostoevsky working in any language. He wrote an incredible five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, probably 2500-pages long. It took about 25 years to finish. He worked at Princeton and later Stanford, and he created this undergraduate lecture series, to bring people up to speed in a short space of time. These lectures were published for the first time at the end of 2019.

They’re a really good way to start learning about Dostoevsky, because he gives you just enough to really understand where he was coming from at these different moments in his life. It doesn’t cover all his books, but the important ones – with the notable exception of Devils – including his first and last work. So you could read this pretty short book and get a good sense of the man and the world he was born into. And you’re getting it from one of the world’s leading experts.

As a starting point, I think Lectures on Dostoevsky is more accessible than that vast biography might be.

I agree. But the mere existence of a five-volume biography gestures towards Dostoevsky’s remarkably eventful life. Could you give us a potted summary?

Yes. Let me give you the three-minute version.

Dostoevsky was born in a hospital for the poor. His father was a doctor, and had just about managed to climb onto the lowest rung of the hereditary nobility, basically through hard work, firstly as an army surgeon. So Fyodor grew up on the grounds of this hospital, looking out of the window at all these sick people in dressing gowns.

It wasn’t a particularly lovely childhood, but they did manage to buy this very rundown estate outside of Moscow. He loved going there in the summer with his mother. Unfortunately, while he was still pretty young, his mother died of consumption and the estate burned down in an accidental fire. Later his father died – either from alcoholism or because he was murdered by his peasants, who hated him.

“He became a literary sensation, literally overnight”

Dostoevsky ends up in an engineering academy in St Petersburg, but he really wanted to be a novelist. He just about finished his degree, but anyone who knows anything about him would be terrified to walk on a bridge made by Dostoevsky, put it that way. It would be a structural nightmare.

He quickly decided he would rather be poor, as long as he could be a writer. He wrote his first book, Poor Folk, and gave it to a friend of a friend who worked for a magazine one day in spring – during those lovely white nights that you get in St Petersburg, where it barely gets dark. He gave it to the guy, went out and had some drinks, came home at 4am. And the critic burst into the room, telling him he’s a literary genius and that he’s already shared a copy with the most important critic in all of Russia. Six hours later, the other critic agreed. Suddenly he was a literary sensation. Literally overnight.

Oh wow. The dream.

Well, he fell out with those friends quite quickly, and ended up in a second literary circle, which was more dangerous and plotting revolution… basically he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was caught, sentenced to death, subjected to a mock execution and sent off for years of hard labour in Siberia. So he was out there in the freezing cold, pounding alabaster and breaking up barges for several years.

Released as an army private, he fell in love with someone else’s wife, Maria. That guy also died of alcoholism, so he married her – but they had a deeply unhappy marriage. He managed to get back to St Petersburg, where he wrote these amazing memoirs of his time in prison, which became a total sensation and rehabilitated his literary reputation.

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From there he was well-known and well-respected as a writer, pretty much until the end of his life.  But his personal life was still very choppy. He had an affair with a young student called Polina, and ran away to Europe with her–but she was just stringing him along. He became a gambling addict, lost all his money and his beloved brother died. He was completely penniless, so he wrote a novel called The Gambler to pay off his debts; in doing that, he’d given himself such a tight deadline that he hired a stenographer so that he could actually write it in the month he had – and got on really well with her. They went on to have four children, although two of them died.

In the 1870s, he developed emphysema and his health worsened, but at least he was happy in love for that last decade of his life. So, yes. Pretty eventful. Writers are generally known for being sat at their desks writing for most of the time. I think he bucks the trend.

You chose to call your book Dostoevsky in Love. Can you tell us a little about that decision?

Yes. There were two types of love that I wanted to talk about.

Recent biographies have been very keen to talk about him as an intellectual, and I think most people – at least in terms of the general readership – don’t know much about his personal life. It’s a shame, because he had such a fascinating life and it makes a great story.

There’s another kind of love, maybe a gentler definition, which is about how he thought we could try to create a world that we all want to live in; that is, Christian love, compassion. He believed strongly that the world isn’t about good and bad people. It’s about the struggle in each person to act well or badly. We all have the capacity to do either. He really wanted to foster the instinct for love in his readers. I think that’s one of the best ways to read him consistently across his work.

As you mentioned, he has a very varied output, but it’s this worldview that brings it together?

Yes, for me, what draws it together is this underlying idea of love.

The next book you want to recommend is Memoirs from the House of the Dead, by Dostoevsky himself. You’ve specified the translation by Jessie Coulson.

During his lifetime, it was thought to be one of the most important books he’d written. Tolstoy didn’t have a huge amount of praise for his rivals, but when he read House of the Dead he said he “didn’t know a better book in all our literature.”

People think of Dostoevsky as writing these almost melodramatic plots with a large cast, what’s been described as ‘fantastic realism.’ It’s an intensified version of reality. Whereas House of the Dead is journalism, really, but it couldn’t be called that at the time so it’s framed as a novel. It’s part of a genre called Zapiski, which means ‘notes’ or ‘scribbles’. It’s nominally about a third person, but it’s obviously heavily influenced by his experience in prison. I don’t think you could have later writers like Solzhenitsyn without this book.

“He’d win arguments by pulling up his trouser leg, showing the scars from his shackles”

It’s also not very well known to English readers, and it’s a good way of understanding what Dostoevsky went through, how he became the writer that his contemporaries saw him as. He would go to literary salons and people revered him because of what he had been through; he’d win arguments by pulling up his trouser leg, showing the scars from his shackles… it was a big part of who he was, and his literary persona.

It’s also just a great book. There are incredible scenes – my favourite is a bathhouse scene, in a traditional Russian steam room. They’re all slapping themselves with birch twigs, about 80 prisoners crammed in a five by five metre cube. Grime is washing off them onto the people crouching below. He describes the sludge on the floor as being an inch thick, they’re slipping around in it and their chains are getting caught up in each other’s. And as they slap themselves with the birch twigs, you see all the scars from their various lashings and other corporal punishments getting redder and redder. That scene will stay with you forever.

That autofictional element, the crossover between Dostoevsky’s fiction and the events of his life, forms the basis of your book. Could you talk more about these commonalities?

Even his first biographers noted that there were very close relations between his life and some of the subjective passages scattered through his fiction. Other academics have noted that he made use of his life experience, mobilising it as a way of showing his authenticity. A good example is when he talks about what it’s like for the condemned man in the last minute of his life: anyone reading that passage for the first time would have known that it was something he spoke about from experience, that mock execution.

Most biographies will walk up to the line of fiction and talk about influence but are unwilling to overtly pick from the fiction events that appear to be resonant with his life experience. But there are so many clear parallels to his life. I suppose what I was interested in was trying to be faithful to his patterns of thinking. His fiction is one way to gain that insight.

Well sure. And given how eventful a life it was, it would be a waste if he didn’t make the most of it in his writing. But let’s talk about book three, Dostoevsky: Reminiscences, by Anna Dostoevsky, his second wife. The book’s translated by Beatrice Stillman.

Anna was vital in securing his legacy after he died. And it was Anna who was the love of his life. She’s written these Reminiscences of her time with him, and there are so many lovely insights into their relationship and the kind of person he was.

She was a stenographer so she wrote in shorthand, which meant she was writing a lot of these notes in real time, with Dostoevsky in the same room. You know: ‘He’s just annoyed me by spending all this money at the roulette table.’ He didn’t know what she was writing, so she was extraordinarily candid—more than you might expect, even from a diary format.

So we have real insight into what it was like to live with the guy, and it’s fascinating because novelists tend to have high ideals, and most of us find it hard to live up to our own ideals. It would be a sad thing if our ideals weren’t higher than our practice, but it does give you a sense of what it was like to live with a man who I think anyone would accept could be difficult company.

“The world isn’t about good and bad people. It’s about the struggle in each person to act well or badly.”

But their love for each other is genuinely really touching. The way he proposed was quite beautiful, he basically told her he was planning a new book, but he didn’t know if it was realistic, and he asked for her opinion. ‘There’s this sick old man, who’s kind of talented but never really found his moment. And he meets this young girl.’ And Anna said: ‘oh, is she handsome?’ and he said, ‘Well, not particularly, but she has a good soul and a good heart.’ The charmer.

He goes on: ‘is it reasonable to expect that such a lovely young woman could love an old, sick, poor man with no prospects?’ and she says, ‘well, if he has a good heart, that’s the main thing. I mean, does anyone love anyone for their riches?’ You’re thinking, bless you. Yes.

Anyway, eventually he says it. ‘What if that old man were me, and that young woman were you, and I asked for your hand. What would you say?’ She said: ‘I will love you for the rest of my life.’ That’s how they got married.

Terribly romantic. And what about the book that brought them together? The Gambler. Did it pay off his debts?

It paid off that particular debt. The contract was with a thoroughly evil publisher called Stellovsky. Dostoevsky borrowed 3,000 rubles from the man, on the condition that he write a new novel for him in 12 months, otherwise he’d forfeit all his copyrights for the next nine years. Dostoevsky spent the next eleven months writing Crime and Punishment instead, then in the 11th month, he tried to ask for a deadline extension and Stellovsky said, ‘no, no. This is all just a tactic, I want your copyrights.’

That’s when Dostoevsky freaked out. His friend recommended a stenographer, and together they worked night and day for a full month and whipped out a 200-page book. It’s very impressive. It’s not his best work, but still an impressive feat.

Absolutely. Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day in four intense weeks. It boggles the mind. Anyway, we’ll come to Crime and Punishment in just a minute, but first let’s talk about The Master of Petersburg, by J. M. Coetzee.

This is one of the books that inspired me to write mine. In The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee basically creates a fictional version of Dostoevsky who goes to St Petersburg from his exile in Europe with Anna, because his stepson has died in mysterious circumstances. In real life, Dostoevsky did have a stepson who he didn’t get on particularly well with. They had a rocky relationship.

So Coetzee’s created a sort of counterfactual, partly inspired – sadly – by his own son falling from an 11th-floor balcony. That plays into the emotional truth of this amazing novel, which also vividly evokes the atmosphere of the time – all these little alleyways and small courtyards where people are hanging out their laundry, the sights and sounds and smells of St Petersburg of the time. It’s a brilliant, atmospheric way of bringing this period to life.

I think it’s very true to the atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s life, and the way he thought about St Petersburg. Admittedly it’s brave to veer completely off script and create a new version – it’s not a historical novel, it’s very much a fictional novel. And that kind of gave me permission to conceive of a book about Dostoevsky as something more creative than the trainlines set out in a conventional biography.

Do you think a reader can gain understanding of Dostoevsky as a real person from a work of fiction like this?

It’s a good way to evoke the spirit of the times and to give people a rough sense of who the guy was. But the issue with fiction is that you don’t know which parts are faithful to historical events. Part of what I wanted to do was see if it was possible to write something both novelistic and true-to-life: are those impulses in fundamental conflict, or is it possible to create a synthesis? My book is an attempt to answer that question.

I think that brings us to Crime and Punishment. As you’ve already mentioned, Dostoevsky was writing this book at a time in his life when he was under a great deal of financial and emotional stress. It’s become a great classic, but I suspect more people have it on their bookshelf than have read it. So: is it worth it? Why should people read Crime and Punishment?

It’s definitely worth it. It’s hard to choose only five books. The temptation is just to put down Dostoevsky’s five long novels and say, look, here’s your reading list, off you go. Some people will be upset that I haven’t included The Brothers Karamazov, which in some ways is the culmination of his work.

I think Crime and Punishment is probably his most conventional novel. It’s effectively a sort of literary crime novel, and is in some ways quite typical of its time. It’s got a fascinating structure, where a full 80% of the novel comes after he’s committed the crime but before he reaches the punishment. So for the majority of the novel, you are in suspense and, despite the title, a part of you genuinely believes he might get away with it. It’s a real literary feat, I think, to bring you onside with a guy whose avowed mission is to kill an old woman with an axe. If you think about what his contemporaries were doing, I think it’s an incredible novel – in terms of the precedents that are set and the boundaries of what the novel can be and how risky it can be. It also explores a lot of the themes that preoccupy him in a really fine resolution.

One thing I wanted to mention: I recommend this specific translation by Oliver Ready, because his new translation gives us the clearest possible sense of how vivid the language can be. There has been a whole, long, troubled translation history of Dostoevsky, and huge arguments over whether you should be literal or true to the spirit. I think if you haven’t picked up a Dostoevsky book and enjoyed it, Oliver Ready’s translation is where you should go to get a sense of what he can do as a writer. Ready’s equal to the task of translating Dostoevsky. It’s an incredible edition.

Great tip, thank you. And – just as a sidebar – do you have a particular translation of The Brothers Karamazov that you favour?

This is just my personal taste, but I really like Constance Garnett’s. She’s quite true to Dostoevsky’s Victorian style. She’s not perfect, though. The other major translation was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Debate rages over which of these is better. In general terms, I’d say Garnett is a bit more graceful at the expense of sometimes smoothing over rough patches, and the Pevear-Volokhonsky is maybe truer to the original. But some people find that literal-ness to get in the way of the reading experience. I personally prefer Garnett.

Finally, could you tell us what Dostoevsky has come to mean to you?

What’s been fascinating about immersing myself in his writing for the last few years has been watching someone tackle some of the biggest questions we face as a species. You know: what it means to be good, the existence of God, how to create a functioning society. And a number of questions we still wrestle with, like free speech. Watching him get closer and closer to his perfect argument, or his best articulation and never quite feeling that he’s reached it. But there’s this incredibly satisfying feeling of him spiralling around the truth, getting ever closer.

I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint the one perfect sentence that will solve everything. But I do think that endeavour is worthwhile, and something we could all aspire towards.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Alex Christofi

Alex Christofi

Alex Christofi is Editorial Director at Transworld and the author of the novels Let Us Be True and Glass, winner of the Betty Trask Prize for fiction. He has written for numerous publications including The Guardian, The London Magazine, New Humanist, The White Review and the Brixton Review of Books, and contributed an essay to the anthology What Doesn't Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival. Dostoevsky in Love is his first work of non-fiction.

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Alex Christofi

Alex Christofi

Alex Christofi is Editorial Director at Transworld and the author of the novels Let Us Be True and Glass, winner of the Betty Trask Prize for fiction. He has written for numerous publications including The Guardian, The London Magazine, New Humanist, The White Review and the Brixton Review of Books, and contributed an essay to the anthology What Doesn't Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival. Dostoevsky in Love is his first work of non-fiction.