Possibly more than any other 19th-Century European novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky continues to tie his readers into knots of psychic suspense. His heroes--the Underground Man, the murderer Raskolnikov, the demonic Stavrogin, the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan Karamazov--unfold their questions, quandaries, and rebellions and, in the process, remain uncannily contemporary.
Dostoevsky himself runs a close second to his characters in perennial fascination. No general rule requires a novelist’s life to be as colorful and dramatic as his characters’, but among his Russian contemporaries Dostoevsky easily won the prize. His youthful involvement in revolutionary conspiracy led to a death sentence commuted on the scaffold to Siberian prison and exile. Succeeding stages in his career, though somewhat less theatrical, were full of turmoil and contradiction. The epileptic compulsive gambler and tormented lover was also a devoted father and husband (in his second marriage), a molder of public opinion, and a prolific and popular novelist, though never a clear frontrunner in the field. (His rivals were Turgenev and, of course, Tolstoy.) Moreover, new facets of his character and life continue to emerge.
Geir Kjetsaa’s biography, translated from Norwegian, is a useful addition to Dostoevskiana in English. A distinguished scholar, Kjetsaa is also a gifted storyteller who does not disdain the gossipy but revealing anecdote. Eminently readable, his book is for the reader who wants a lively, intelligent summary of Dostoevsky’s career.
Until recently biography has played a minor role in the growing body of writing on Dostoevsky in English. Two earlier Russian works by Konstantin Mochulsky and Leonid Grossman, translated in 1967 and 1974 respectively, still carry authority. However, a wave of Soviet Dostoevsky scholarship beginning in the mid-'50s has produced a 30-volume edition of works and letters and other documentary material. These new sources make the biographical enterprise attractive once again, as witness the eminent Joseph Frank’s projected five-volume study, of which three have appeared.
Kjetsaa’s discussions of Dostoevsky’s fiction and important journalism are relatively brief but illuminating. However, he is most effective in treating the vexed questions and legends that persist around Dostoevsky. Central among these is the story, allegedly a family tradition and first launched by his daughter Lyubov in 1921, that Dostoevsky’s first epileptic fit followed the news of his father’s murder by his serfs. On the basis of this and his own theoretical speculation, Freud wrote his discredited but still influential essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” In 1975, Joseph Frank exposed Freud’s disregard of facts in his oedipal construct. Also in 1975 new archival finds made it highly probable that Dr. Dostoevsky died of natural causes. Kjetsaa adds something new: some biographers (Frank) maintain that the central fact for Dostoevsky’s psychology and his art was his belief that his father was murdered. “But,” he says, “there is no proof that the writer held this conviction.” These arguments recall some chapter titles from “The Brothers Karamazov": “There was no money. There was no robbery” “There was no murder either.”
Kjetsaa’s treatment of other major issues will stimulate some and frustrate others. His handling of the question of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism is the least satisfactory. On the other hand, his unqiue access to Dostoevsky’s underlined “New Testament” extends our awareness of that text’s importance for his works and outlook. In sum, Kjetsaa’s book is a good introduction to his subject.