Fyodor Dostoevsky: Book Review
It sounds a weird combination of presumptuous and downright comical to say that when I was in my early twenties I had a “Russian phase.” After a less than inspiring academic track record in high school, I was starting to fancy myself a “reader” and began to read as many impressive-sounding books as I could. Many of these were Russian. Tolstoy, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn… And, of course, Dostoevsky.
Though in hindsight my understanding of the themes and the Russian social, religious, and political realities that inspired these writers was minimal (to put it mildly), I cheerily trudged through works like Crime and Punishment, Devils, The Idiot, Notes from the Underground, and The Brothers Karamazov. I felt very learned and “cultured” reading these books in my basement in a small prairie town. And virtuous. While others were, I was pleased to assume, reading whatever fluff was taking up space on the bestsellers list at the local bookstore, I was heroically struggling through (and being improved by) the classics. I was reading old Russians, and that made me important.
Whatever my motives and however dimly I comprehended what I read, I look back on those few years fondly. I enjoyed my time with the Russians—and especially Dostoevsky. I may not have understood much, but when I read Dostoevsky, I entered another world—a world full of pathos and heroic moral struggle, a world of great faith and doubt and mental anguish, a world full of noble suffering and spiritual vitality, a world full of tortured characters who wrestled with the biggest questions of life—questions about the nature of truth, freedom, morality, and love. It was a world that I often couldn’t wait to return to.
I often think about rereading some of Dostoevsky’s books, but the road from “thinking about” to “doing,” alas, often remains untraveled for me. I did, however, pick up Peter Leithart’s little contribution to Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series called Fyodor Dostoevsky a while back in the hopes that it would jog my memory and inspire me to revisit some of these classic novels. At the very least, I hoped, it would be interesting to get reacquainted with a fascinating historical figure.
Leithart’s is an interesting project. It is a fictionalized re-telling of Dostoevsky’s life constructed around journal entries, conversations, and various events gleaned from larger biographies, Dostoevsky’s own writings, as well as diaries from his wife Anna. Through this collection of sources, we learn of, among other things, Dostoevsky’s early life, his brush with death at the hands of a Russian firing squad, his subversive political views, his oft-frustrated literary aspirations, his disdain for “mechanical” German culture, his problems with gambling and alcohol, his romantic misadventures, his rivalry with Ivan Turgenev, his deep love for Russia and his conviction that his people would lead the way toward a universal brotherhood of all nations, and, ultimately, the remarkable literary achievements that would cement his status as a literary giant and a Russian hero. A life like Dostoevsky’s cannot possibly be retold in an uninteresting way.
And yet, it must be said that the book reads somewhat awkwardly. It reads like a collection of quotes speeches and recorded conversations that are uncomfortably squeezed into an engineered narrative context. Which is more or less what it is, I think. I found the book to lack any kind of flow. It seemed like Leithart had a bunch of important events and speeches and diary entries from Dostoevsky’s life that he wanted to put in a book, and he simply tried to piece together a kind of crude story to link them all together. It’s not that he completely fails—the reader does move through Dostoevsky’s life more or less chronologically, and does get a decent sense of important events that shaped his writing—it’s just that, at least for me, the end result feels forced and unnatural. It feels less like the story of a life than it does a patchwork assembly of a bunch of events from a life.
For those looking for a decent introduction into the person and work of Dostoevsky, I would, with some mild reservations, recommend this book. It is the kind of book that I probably would have profited from reading prior to naively diving into the Russian deep end in my early twenties. It would have given me the basic historical framework that I (mostly) lacked, as well as a useful glimpse into the man behind the strange and beautiful stories I was reading. Fyodor Dostoevsky is a short read, and it does deliver on the implied intention of a series called “Christian Encounters.” You will encounter Fyodor Dostoevsky here. And, hopefully, this initial encounter will provide motivation to seek a longer and more fruitful introduction in the writings of Dostoevsky himself.