by Alex Christofi
I can’t help feeling that an autobiography by Dostoevsky would have been fascinating. He had not only a notoriously eventful life, but an amazing facility for transmuting his lived experience into narrative. Reading Dostoevsky’s letters and notebooks, it’s clear that he did, in fact, mean to write his memoirs, but other priorities got in the way: other, more urgent writing projects, his beloved family, and, later, his failing health.
He had sporadically reflected on his past in the years after returning from Siberia, but the idea of a complete account of his life first seems to have been discussed with the journalist Pyotr Bykov, who had asked if Dostoevsky would contribute to a series he was planning on Russia’s great writers. Dostoevsky demurred at first, writing on 15 April 1876 that epilepsy was affecting his memory, but then apparently returned to the idea. Eventually, on 13 January 1877, he wrote to Bykov to apologize that he couldn’t deliver it:
I sensed that the piece was taking too much out of me, raising up before me the life I had lived, and required great love to carry out. If I am free and well, I’ll definitely write it, because I want to and feel a need to – but when I’ll get it written, that I do not know.
Whether we can take Dostoevsky’s excuse on face value is hard to say. Perhaps, now that he and Anna had become publishers themselves, Dostoevsky preferred to keep control over his writing (or perhaps the name Bykov reminded him unpleasantly of the rich widower in Poor People). Whatever the reason, the idea continued to preoccupy him, and on Christmas Eve, 1877, the twenty-eighth anniversary of his journey to Siberia, he wrote a four-point ‘memo for the rest of my life’:
1. To write a Russian Candide.
2. To write a book about Jesus Christ.
3. To write my memoirs.
4. To write the epic Requiem.
N.B. All this, in addition to my new novel and the planned issues of A Writer’s Diary will take at least ten years’ work, and I am already fifty-six.
Sadly, his pessimism on this front was well-founded. By the time he finished writing The Brothers Karamazov he was already in a bad way, leaning on an old umbrella to walk the hundred paces or so to the neighboring churchyard to get some air into his lungs (he had decided by this time that he would only live in apartments within eyeshot of an Orthodox church). He finished a single new issue of A Writer’s Diary after its hiatus and, on 28 January 1881, he died.
How disappointing that he didn’t have time to finish his to-do list! Of course, he would never really have ‘finished’ – he saw writing ideas everywhere he looked, his literary and journalistic output limited only by how fast he could write (or, once he met Anna, dictate). But how dearly I would have loved to read those memoirs. Most novelists spend their fruitful years sat at their desks in quiet contemplation, but Dostoevsky’s had been full of incident. He was a gambling addict and an epileptic, constantly on the brink of financial and physical ruin. As a young man, he had been tried as a socialist revolutionary and narrowly survived a death sentence; yet by the end of his life he was being invited to dine at the Tsar’s table and hailed as a national prophet. He had an impressively turbulent love life. The way he proposed to his second wife is so quietly bashful that you can’t help wanting to hug him. He experienced more than his fair share of tragedy, too, and many of those he was closest to, from friends to family members, died far too young.
Reaching instead for third-person accounts, not least Joseph Frank’s magisterial five-volume intellectual biography, many of his formative experiences felt strangely familiar to me, as if I had encountered them already. I realized that the ghost of an autobiography was threaded through his writings, fictional and non-fictional, a curiosity noted by his first biographer, Orest Miller, who saw great value ‘in subjective passages scattered throughout his novels’. More recently, the scholar Kenneth Lantz has also noted that Dostoevsky ‘exploited his biography for considerable literary power . . . Dostoevsky took considerable pains to let the aura of his life lend vibrancy to his art. The reader becomes aware of a region beyond the novel’s story where the work seems to extend into a penumbra of textuality.’
For me, his most powerful writing was at least partly autobiographical, from the quasi-mystical experience of a severe epileptic fit in The Idiot, which his friend and biographer Nikolai Strakhov described as occurring on Easter Eve 1863, to the experience of Siberian prison in Notes from the House of the Dead, or the thinly-veiled send-up of Ivan Turgenev in Devils. I’m not by any means a Russianist, nor even an academic – but I am a novelist, and I know that when writers conceive fiction, they often shear memories off from their context to use them as the building blocks of their new world. And so, wondering how far I might go in reconstructing the memoirs he might have written, I found myself inverting the literary biographer’s usual method: rather than parsing the events of his life for details that might illuminate his writing, I began to comb his writing – not just the letters and journalism, but the fiction – for sense impressions, memories and habits of thought that might colour the timeline of his life.
Take the famous story of the Peasant Marey, whose real name was Marko Efremov. It happened to him when he was nine; he recalled it again at Easter twenty years later, lying on his wooden bench in Omsk; he wrote about it in A Writer’s Diary at the age of 54, before revisiting Darovoe, where it had happened, a year later, in preparation for The Brothers Karamazov. When he was two, he attended the village church with his mother to receive communion, and saw a dove fly in through one window of the cupola and out the other – a striking image which stayed with him until he wrote it into The Adolescent in the last ten years of his life. When he stopped in Tver on the way to St Petersburg at the age of fifteen, he watched a government courier beat his coachman, the coachman in turn lashing out at the horses. Can he have failed to remember it when he found himself back in Tver in 1859, waiting for the Tsar’s permission to return to St Petersburg? He certainly thought of it when he was drafting Notes from the Underground, in which the protagonist punches his driver in the back of the head, and it remained on his mind as he was conceiving Crime and Punishment. He wrote in a notebook, ‘My first personal insult: the horse, the courier’, and a nightmarish analogue of the incident is etched in Raskolnikov’s dreams.
Dostoevsky’s version of events sometimes differs from others’. On the morning he was arrested for sedition, Dostoevsky recounts a polite conversation with the police, who graciously allow him to dress, whereas an eye-witness account has the police breaking down the door as Dostoevsky’s makes an ungainly attempt to climb out of the window. But even an inaccurate or exaggerated recollection can reveal emotional truths. Think of the infamous mock execution that followed: Dostoevsky’s letter to his brother Mikhail gives a gripping account of the day, but it would seem a missed opportunity not to read it against the fictionalised account given in The Idiot, or the attorney’s rhetorical invocation of the condemned man during the trial in The Brothers Karamazov.
So that is what I’ve done, abandoning the surer ground of a conventional biography in favour of the subjective insights that we might more readily associate with a novel. They say you should write a book that you wish you could read, and there’s nothing I’d have loved to read more than Dostoevsky’s memoirs. The result may not be the book he’d have written, but at least some of it is told in his own words. Because the self is only a story that we tell ourselves to make sense of our own actions, and that, in the end, is what I am determined to recover.
Alex Christofi is Editorial Director at Transworld Publishers and an award-winning novelist. His first work of non-fiction, Dostoevsky in Love, is published by Bloomsbury on 21 January 2021 in the UK and 16 March 2021 in the USA. He would pay to watch an argument about mathematics between Winston Smith and the Underground Man.