November 08, 2011

Peter Leithart, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the most renowned authors of the nineteenth century. His often tragic and dark writing also shines through with gospel light, and his two most well-known works, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, among his other writings, are still often discussed and sighted, and the former, especially, seems to be a favorite among theologians. Peter Leithart has written a short "biography" for the Christian Encounters series for Thomas Nelson. I put biography in quotes because his approach is a little unconventional: Leithart helps readers "encounter" Dostoevsky by constructing the book as mainly consisting of a long conversation between Dostoevsky and his friend Maikov. The conversation is largely fictional, as Leithart makes clear in his foreword, though the notes make clear that he frequently draws on Dostoevsky's own words from his letters and from other sources, lending authenticity to an otherwise fictional narrative. The conversation consists of a reminiscence of key people and events in Dostoevsky's life, and thus provide the basic components of a more traditional biography.

 I found this little book enjoyable to read. The use of a conversation as the structure and primary content of the book adds some interest, and I think Leithart uses it to good effect. But it should be clear that at the same time, while some editorial comments and asides do fill in occasional details or critical commentary, these elements are not as full as would be expected in a more traditional biography, though this isn't likely the point in a series like this one, and shouldn't really be considered a shortcoming.

The two elements I did find oddly missing, though, were more discussion of Dostoevsky's writings and his faith. Both obviously figure in the content of the book, but I was disappointed that only a few of his books come in for mention, and those only briefly. The only real quotations of literature (beyond the aforementioned quotations from Dostoevsky's letters and writings that are woven more or less silently into the conversations) are not of Dostoevsky's writing but of Pushkin, one of Dostoevsky's literary forerunners in Russia, and apparently one who had significant influence on Dostoevsky as well as the wider literary and social fabric of Russia. Likewise, Dostoevsky does wrestle some in these pages with what it means to live for Christ or according to Christ, but his faith isn't probed too deeply. I was hoping for more of an investigation into what he believed and how that impacted and was showcased in his writing and thinking. And while I wasn't looking for a deep psychoanalysis of Dostoevsky's religious affectations, and was certainly not hoping for an evangelical hagiography, I wanted more here.

I want to close with a few positive notes, though, so that my review doesn't slant too negatively. What Leithart does give us is a relatively clear picture of Dostoevsky's social vision, or maybe more properly, his vision for what Russian society should be under Christ. And in this encounter, we get a fell for how his convictions about Christ came to bear in a socially prophetic way in the fight for the identity of the Russian soul. And that clearly has value. And as I mentioned before, this book is well written, and was enjoyable to read. Thanks to Thomas Nelson and the BookSneeze program for the review copy.

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