Dostoevsky in Love

‘At different times,” writes Alex Christofi in this innovative biography, “all ends of the political spectrum ... allowed themselves to believe that he spoke for them.” Such was the capacious mind and fertile genius of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, a titanic figure who, in the baggy monsters of his novels, depicts the intellectual flux of 19th-century Russia alongside the tragedy of every human heart. He was born under Alexander I and died in the cold early weeks of 1881, shortly before an assassin’s bomb blew Alexander II to bits along with the old order. But Dostoevsky’s work slips the shackles of its period and enters the immortal zone.

A British publishing executive who has written two novels, including the prizewinning “Glass,” Mr. Christofi has produced what he calls “a reconstructed memoir” eliding extracts from Dostoevsky’s public and private writings with the events of his life. After all, as Mr. Christofi says, “the ghost of his autobiography is already present in his writings.” At the outset of “Dostoevsky in Love,” he sets out his methodology (“some ground rules”). Quotation marks signal lines taken directly from Dostoevsky or a contemporary. “Intimate” material drawn from letters, notebooks, journalism or fiction appears, without quotation marks, in italic, indicating, “anything . . . represented as his thought.” It is an ambitious concept, and it works. Mr. Christofi backs up his work with 452 endnotes. In short, he has not made things up. Instead, “where I have ventured to attribute this inner life to a timeline,” he says, “I have paraphrased, combined and abridged what Dostoevsky wrote to fit the context.”

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