Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (Christian Encounters Series), by Peter Leithart

This book puzzled me a bit at first. It's a sort of slightly fictionalized light biography of Dostoevsky, told in vignettes. Leithart's narrative frame has the novelist sitting with an old friend, arguing about the Russian soul and reminiscing over old times. Each chapter starts that way and then leads into flashbacks to important times in Dostoevsky's life. The flashbacks happen in approximately chronological order, but it's not always entirely clear where or when you are; it ends up a bit jumpy.

There is plenty of conversation in these vignettes, which are descriptive and short. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Dostoevsky's own words, and I did feel that I was hearing his voice. The author knows his material very well and tries to evoke 19th-century Russia and its issues without getting too heavy or difficult, but those might be conflicting goals and I thought there was not enough depth. One way Leithart simplifies matters is by leaving out any use of the traditional patronymic name. I found it odd to see Dostoevsky portrayed as speaking to his secretary (and future wife) as Anna instead of Anna Grigorevna, and so on.

The focus here is on getting to know Dostoevsky as a person and especially as a Christian man. His thoughts about how to solve Russia's problems (through Christ and reform) are often touched on. His temperament and health problems are also thoroughly described. Leithart does not shy away from problems in the writer's life by smoothing over his adultery and troubles with gambling. The final chapter was the part I enjoyed most; it's about Dostoevsky's famous speech on Pushkin as a universal poet and contains a good portion of the piece.

Overall it's a fairly enjoyable book and a nice introduction to Dostoevsky; it's just very light. Sort of a biography-for-beginners. I felt that there was never enough depth. I also found that some expressions really jarred me, as when Dostoevsky is described fussing around a friend "like a Jewish mother." So my feelings about the book are ambivalent.

This volume is one in a series of similar books titled "Christian Encounters," which profiles historical figures as various as Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet, and Winston Churchill. I'm rather curious to see how some of them are handled and would read other books from the series.

I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.


Jenny said...

I've been waiting for you take on this one! Regarding the "Jewish mother" comment, I read that Dostoevsky was anti-Semitic in real life, so I think the two (or was it three) mentions of Jews were in regards to that. But since it was indeed a light biography, that part of his character wasn't explored further.

Jean said...

It was just a descriptive comment (p. 71), but it was such an Americanism, and using it to describe a 19th-century Russian was just really odd. I'm not sure what Dostoevsky's feelings were, but 19th-century Russia did not treat Jewish people well. So I wound up thinking about pogroms.

Sarah Familia said...

Hi Jean,

Thanks for stopping by my blog! It's always great to connect with other LDS homeschoolers. Some of my favorite posts to write are book reviews, but I'm always afraid nobody will read them. Looks like I'm wrong. I love that your blog is entirely book-focused.