Sunday, 19 September 2010

Dostoyevsky's Biography

Whatever I say about Dostoyevsky's Biography by Henry Troyat will not be enough. Ever since I started managing my own blog I have conveniently evaded commenting on world classics; I just felt that the titles speak for themselves. Moreover, some of these classics are so profound and psychological; they are amazing on so many levels and I do not flatter myself to think I even understood 1/3 of them.

Dostoyevsky is one of the authors whom I greatly admire. I have read Crime and Punishment, The Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. All three novels reveal the great psychological genius of Dostoyevsky. The plot is not important, the author gives us a limited portrait of the characters' outward appearance. The most important topics in Dostoyevsky's literature are the metaphysical anguish of the soul, the conflict between God and the Church, the meaning of life, the connection children - father, all seen through the eyes of the ordinary person. What made Dostoyevsky, otherwise an aristocrat, to focus on the beggar, the prostitute, the murderer, the thief, the rapist, the atheist, etc instead of the glamorous Russian bourgeois class. Why do women always play a secondary role in his works? Where does the fascination with God and the church come from? Why focus on the metaphysical expressions of the mind? Many more questions rise in my mind and to many of them the answer was given in Henry Troyat's Dostoyevsky's Biography.

Henry Troyat is a French author, biographer, and historian from an Armenian descent. He was born in Russia in 1907 but his family fled the country due to a threat of a revolution. They settled in Paris, where Troyat received a degree in law. His rich biography includes novels about some of the most eminent Russian figures - Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Boris Godunov, Tolstoy, etc. For Dostoyevsky's Biography Troyat shares in an interview: Many famous people have lead a life, which is not as nearly impressive as their works. Faced with their monotonous lives, the biographer feels the incentive to romantize, invent, interpret, and even make up. Dostoyevsky's case is different. His life path is so rich, passing from infinite despair to miraculous exaltation, that the author is more likely to diminish the tones, than to exaggerate them. It seems as the life of the genial writer is his best novel. 

Having read Dostoyevsky's Biography, I would have to agree with Troyat. Dostoyevsky's life, just like his novels, was full of rises and falls. Born in an aristocratic family, the young Fyodor spent his childhood in a severe isolation. His father deprived the family from any social activity; a typical scrooge, he established an unbearable routine, where Fyodor grew up as a loner. Even as a student in St Petersburg, his father refused to send him enough money and Dostoyevsky lived in poverty. A trend that continued during a big part of his life. Hence, the constantly repeating theme of the complex relationship father - son (mostly evident in The Brothers Karamazov). When his father died, Dostoyevsky felt guilty for ever wishing his death (remember Ivan Karamazov).

The four years in prison in Siberia greatly shaped the author's character. He was accused of a betrayal against the king for his ideas; at that time movements for the abolishment of the serfdom were highly popular. Dostoyevsky portrays his sufferings in Siberia in Notes from the Dead House.

Dostoyevsky's personal life was also difficult. He felt unrequited love several times; the author willingly sacrificed his feelings to connect the women he loved to their chosen ones. These love sacrifices have found their places in his novels as well.

The great author struggled with two sicknesses - epilepsy and gambling. The first tortured his physical body, the second - his mind. As a result most of his life he spend in constant poverty, borrowing money from friends and relatives. His second wife, 24 years younger than him, supported him greatly despite the death of two of their children.

The literary career of Dostoyevsky didn't have the best start either. He was accused of copying Gogol, of  not having a talent, even of lack of understanding of the human nature. Still, the author continued writing  and proved his opponents wrong. As already mentioned, the Russian author focused on the metaphysical anguish of the sole; he didn't care about what happened to the individual. Instead, he was fascinated with the internal dialogue, the motivation; not the actual crime, but what happened before that and after that in the human mind. Dostoyevsky was in love with the Russian people. He believed them to be European prophets, meant to take care of and wake up the Western world. The clash between God and the Church and the problem of the true faith were also central in his literature. Again, mostly evident in the novel that made him famous - The Brothers Karamazov.

I can continue writing about Dostoyevsky's life and how it shaped his talent and this blog will not be enough. As for Henry Troyat, his style is amazing. Dostoyevsky's biography is far from boring and uneventful, but I believe that even if it was, Troyat would still make a masterpiece worth reading from it. Indeed, a very good novel. If you are fascinated with Dostoyevsky, just like I am, you won't let go until you finish it. Highly recommended for all of you Russian fans.


  1. Great review but this is not a correct statment Henri troyat was russian.

    "Henry Troyat is a French author, biographer, and historian from an American descent"

  2. Valid point, thank you.

    I meant to say he is from an Armenian descent, not from an American. All fixed up right now.

    Glad you liked the review.

  3. thanks, his daughter married an american but really he was french

  4. Great review. I love the Russians, Gogol most of all, then Turgenev, then Lermontov. Nabokov least.

    The Darkwood Review

  5. Thank you for your appreciation. It means a lot to me. I also love Russian Literature, but I must say that my favorites are Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. Nabokov I do not like and frankly Bulgakov I do not understand. The Master and Margarita was too complicated for me...