Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Robert Bird’s biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky is part of Reaktion’s Critical Lives series, which presents the life and work of leading cultural figures of the modern period. Unlike many biographies, especially of literary giants like Dostoevsky, Bird’s book is surprisingly small (at 210 pages) and a breeze to read, unburdened by the usual minuscule details of family history and childhood that make up many biographies. Bird, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago, focuses on the interplay between the great author’s personal life and how he expressed his shifting convictions through his writing. For Dostoevsky fans, Bird’s book is a great introduction to the author’s life, without taking on too much of a commitment with an in depth academic study.
Born into a lower-noble family, Dostoevsky opted out of his inheritance by receiving a lump sum, a decision that caused him to spend most of his life in debt and poverty. Since the age of sixteen, Dostoevsky had wanted a literary career. His first novel, Poor Folk, was published when Dostoevsky was twenty-five. Bird writes that it is a novel “like almost all of Dostoevsky’s writing” as it “is a study of the forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power, and interior ones like illness and sexual desire.” He achieved moderate fame with the novel, which was followed by the popular story “The Double,” but then Dostoevsky is arrested for belonging to a revolutionary group aiming to overthrow the Tsar.
In his interrogations, Dostoevsky defended his political action from his position as a writer, seeing himself as a martyr for literature, not only declaring that literature is what formulates new ideas so that the people can understand them, but also that “without literature society cannot exist, and I saw that literature is dying.” He was sentenced to be executed. As he stood if front of a firing squad, his sentenced was changed to Siberian exile, where he felt “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin.” What followed was ten years of silence in literary output. When Dostoevsky returned to European Russia in 1859, it was thought that he was finished as a writer.
In fact, Dostoevsky had new convictions and new ideological enemies, and was about to write some of the most important works of literature. Before he could “remake himself as a writer,” however, he worked as an editor for his brother’s literary journal, serving as the publication’s ideological leader. An interesting aspect of the biography, as well as biographies of Tolstoy, is the constant importance of literary journals in Russian cultural life. Each of Dostoevsky’s novels, as well as Tolstoy and Turgenev’s and everyone else, was first published as serials in literary magazines, a practice that has now been lamentably lost (save for The Paris Review’s recent serialization of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich). Choosing to oppose the ideology of empiricist-socialism being put forth by Chernyshevsky (in his “What is to be Done?) and Turgenev, Dostoevsky set about writing “Christian literature,” which is “not a literature about Christ, about the Church or even about Christian characters,” at least not until The Brothers Karamazov. Instead, he focused on characters who explored immoral action in a time increasingly without faith, and subsequent aims to better oneself. On a visit to London, Dostoevsky saw Babylon in the burgeoning capitalism of Western Europe. Modernity was the development of a minority enjoying bourgeoisie comfort that existed alongside a mass of growing abject squalor. To Dostoevsky, Western capitalism was the anti-Christ, and he became more grounded in Orthodoxy and Slavophilism, ideologies that would define his later life and work. In one of Bird’s most illuminating passages, Dostoevsky’s work is seen as new explorations of potential responses to his social and economic critique: the criminal (Crime and Punishment), the passionate (The Idiot), the revolutionary (Demons), and the religious (The Brothers Karamazov).
Dostoevsky’s literary fame was recaptured with the publication of Notes from the Dead House, a memoir of his time in the Siberian gulag. He followed with Notes from Underground, which was written while his first wife was dying of tuberculoses. Just when Dostoevsky was reestablishing his reputation, however, his brother passed away, closing his journal and leaving Dostoevsky saddled with debts. The author spent most of his time begging for money and loans through humiliating letters. Getting money was the object of his life. Besides relying on his writing to earn a living, he also developed a terrible gambling habit —terrible because he lost every penny he bet. About to be thrown into debtors prison, Dostoevsky exiled himself to Europe, where he spent the following six years moving from one city to another, trying to keep up with his publishing contracts. Being forced to finish two books within a small period of time, Dostoevsky hired a stenographer to whom he could dictate much of the book that would catapult him to legendary fame, Crime and Punishment, as well as the novella, The Gambler.
Dostoevsky ended up marrying his stenographer, named Anna and twenty-five years his junior. She traveled with him from Dresden to Milan, Switzerland, and back, the whole time spent looking at art works that would feature in his books, negotiating publishing contracts, writing, gambling, and generally living a life of poverty. Anna would give birth to a daughter, who died, and then, later, a son, who died; only two of Anna and Dostoevsky’s four children would survive. The combined stress of debt, family tragedy, and hectic writing obligations exacerbated his epilepsy, and Dostoevsky often experienced violent epileptic seizures. His condition and developing spirituality served as the basis for one of his most popular characters, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, which Dostoevsky wrote abroad and “is the novel that most reveals Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) his world.”
He returns to St. Petersburg in 1872, at age fifty, where he serves as editor of a weekly newspaper and is imprisoned for violating censorship restrictions by printing words uttered by the Tsar, of whom Dostoevsky was an ardent supporter. He then makes a clear “anti-radical thrust” with the novel Demons, which cemented his conservative position. The point of Demons is that ideologies of materialism, revolution, and anarchy will all end in violence and shame. With Anna helping to manage the family’s financial affairs by taking charge of republishing her husbands’ earlier works (much like Tolstoy’s wife Sonya), Dostoevsky is able to turn all his effort to writing, first the novel The Adolescent—a story of the “emergence of the possibility of a new literary image”— and then The Brothers Karamazov, which would be his masterpiece.
The huge novel arose after Dostoevsky made a pilgrimage to the famous monastery Optin Pustyn. There, he met the elder Ambrose, on whom he based the character elder Zosima. Dostoevsky’s study of Russian religious culture in the novel became “probably the most influential representation of Orthodoxy to the world,” and allowed Dostoevsky to become the spiritual advisor to the Tsar. To Dostoevsky, the West has “decided they could get by without Christ,” and he views this loss of Christ as the reason for the entire misfortune of Europe. He saw a similar, yet more violent materialism rising in his Russia, and thought the nation’s only salvation lied in the embrace of Orthodoxy. While the Brothers Karamazov was being serialized, he was viewed as a prophet by many. Suffering from emphysema and tuberculoses, a burst artery in his lung caused Dostoevsky’s death in 1881. He was sixty years old, and had just come to achieve the life of literary fame and financial stability he had always dreamed for himself.
There are layers of irony here. For one, there is the obvious historical irony that it would be Russia that shunned religion and embraced a pure materialism for nearly eighty years after the Bolshevik revolution. Dostoevsky’s prophetic vision went unheeded. And there is also Tolstoy, who seemed to sit on the opposite side of Dostoevsky’s see-saw; Tolstoy would continue to preach a pure, Quaker-based Christianity diametrically opposed to Orthodoxy and the Tsar, for which he would soon be excommunicated and ostracized, but also seen as a second Tsar and Pope for much of the Russian population by the time of his death. Tolstoy would view the Orthodox Church as the epitome of hypocrisy and the Tsarist system as the essence of corruption and ignorance; to him, Dostoevsky would be seen as naïve and a sell-out. The very institutions that Dostoevsky believed would provide the salvation of society were what Tolstoy believed to be the very evils of society.
For better or worse, Bird isn’t interested in drawing parallels, or analyzing prophecies, comparisons, and ironies. At times, one wishes the biography was larger and more in depth. But there are other biographies for that; Bird’s story is a concise and smooth telling of one of the world’s most important figures, and will be enjoyed by anyone who wants to know more about the life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.