Book review: Leithart’s Dostoevsky

I’m no Russian literature connoisseur, but I enjoy reading heady Russian authors once in a while. Especially in wintertime. In fact, only in wintertime. I also appreciate Peter Leithart’s intellect and writing talents, even if I don’t understand half of it. So when I saw that Leithart branched out from his theological treatises and wrote a biography on Russian literature legend Fyodor Dostoevsky, I knew I had to read it.

For the above named reasons, I was excited to read Leithart’s Fyodor Dostoevsky, a 2011 installment in Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters Series. Unlike most current best-selling biographies like Steve Jobs’ and Charles Hodge’s that run 500 pages or more, this is a selective 175 pages. Leithart uses a conversational writing device, framing Dostoyevsky’s life in Fyodor’s first-person conversation with a old friend. Thus, much of this biography reads more like historical fiction.

Leithart’s prose is tight, gripping, and enjoyable. It is written almost like a biopic, complete with flashbacks. The flashbacks come fast and furious, making this biography a quick read. I enjoyed Leithart’s style, as it highlights the most important and formative chapters in Dostoevsky’s amazing life. Leithart touches on Dostoevsky’s banishment to Siberia, deep Christian commitment, sins and struggles, health issues, love affairs, early formative years, political protests, and writing career. Dostoevsky was anything but boring. His lifelong struggle with and against evil and social injustice is the thread that ties the book together.

Because of the complexity of The Russian’s life and mind, 200 pages is impossible to give an exhaustive account. Leithart did do extensive research for this book, as evidenced by the copious notes that grace each chapter. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Dostoevsky’s letters and writings, or his contemporaries’. That said, it is not for those looking for a detailed historical account of Dostoevsky’s life. Instead, it is enjoyable to get some brief context on his life or to read a light background of his. I would have easily enjoyed it in the summer as much as I did in the winter.

I found myself wishing that Leithart examined Dostoevsky’s works and themes in more depth. I loved reading about some of the inspiration behind some of his major novels (namely Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov), but it was a cursory glimpse at best. Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia was also not discussed in great detail, which I found odd considering it was one of his most formative events.

In summary, I was glad I read this somewhat fictionalized biography of one of my favorite authors. It reads well and is a good introduction to a Russian icon. Go into it with expectations of “listening” in on a conversation between old friends, and not an exhaustive biography. If you don’t, then you might come away disappointed that this book doesn’t do justice to Leithart’s talents or to Dostoevsky’s brilliance.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson in exchange for an objective review. The views are my own and only my own.

One thought on “Book review: Leithart’s Dostoevsky

  1. If you'd like a book that deals with FMD's works and themes, I highly recommend Rowan Williams' Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Of course, there are many, many books that deal with his literary output (notably by M. Bakhtin), but Williams covers more than just literary criticism. Though not a true biography, it is a good companion to the biography.

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