A Spouse Divided

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece by kevin birmingham. new york: penguin press. 432 pages. $30.
The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by andrew d. kaufman. new york: riverhead. 400 pages. $30.

IN THE FALL OF 1866, FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY FOUND HIMSELF barreling toward every writer’s worst nightmare: a deadline he couldn’t ignore. Having signed an ill-advised contract to avoid a trip to debtor’s prison, he now owed the publisher Fyodor Stellovsky a new novel of at least 160 pages by November 1. If he failed to deliver, Stellovsky would be entitled to publish whatever Dostoyevsky wrote over the next nine years free of charge. A more practical man might have spent his summer on the project for Stellovsky, but Dostoyevsky was simultaneously preparing segments of Crime and Punishment for serialization, and his plan to write one novel in the morning and another at night hadn’t panned out. By the beginning of October, he had not produced a single page of the promised novel. Staring down the literary equivalent of indentured servitude, he decided to try a new method to pick up the pace: hiring a stenographer and writing by dictation.

Dostoyevsky was forty-four, a compulsive gambler, epileptic, recently widowered, and saddled with what would now be hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt as well as several greedy dependents. He was “hitting bottom,” he said. What he needed was not just someone to help him speed-write a novel, but someone to manage his career, his emotions, his family, and his finances. What he needed, in other words, was a professional wife. He found an ideal candidate for the job in Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, the twenty-year-old stenographer who arrived at his home in early October. After three weeks, the manuscript for The Gambler was complete. Another week later, Anna and Dostoyevsky were engaged.

Their “meet-cute,” such as it was, serves as a pivotal plot point in two new books, one a biography of Dostoyevsky and the other of Anna herself. In the first, Kevin Birmingham’s The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece, Anna is the titular saint whose love rescues Dostoyevsky from near-certain ruin. (The “sinner,” presumably, refers to both of the men in the subtitle.) Though Anna is a central character, she does not appear until late in the narrative, which primarily focuses on the intellectual context for Crime and Punishment. As Dostoyevsky put it, the novel is about a young man named Raskolnikov who, “after yielding to certain strange, ‘unfinished’ ideas floating in the air,” murders a pawnbroker and her half-sister. The premise, Birmingham claims, was partially based on Dostoyevsky’s research into the trial of Pierre-François Lacenaire, a well-educated French poet who had committed murder on hazy ideological grounds some thirty years earlier.

At the time, it was widely reported that Lacenaire was reading Rousseau’s The Social Contract—a convenient fact for Dostoyevsky. After a youthful dalliance with liberalism, he had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia and returned as an anti-Enlightenment reactionary determined to protect Russia from the pernicious influence of the West. Philosophes like Rousseau had located free will in the expression of individual desires and impulses, but for Dostoyevsky, they had it backward: the Christian value of self-sacrifice represented “the highest form of self-mastery, the greatest freedom of one’s own will.” Behind young radicals’ talk of a future utopia in which individual selfishness would be channeled toward the greater good, Dostoyevsky detected something darker. He worried that they would resort to violence in service of their lofty ideas. Far from creating a perfect society, he warned, righteous murder would merely serve to flatter the egos of the perpetrators—a supposition he dramatizes in Crime and Punishment. Like Lacenaire, Raskolnikov conceptualizes his murder in vague philosophical terms, but his reasoning is unsound, a set of justifications masking his ambition to be like a Napoleon, a man to whom rules and laws do not apply. As Birmingham puts it, “Raskolnikov grabs the ax to prove he is extraordinary.”

Birmingham sets out to provide the first “sustained attention to what Lacenaire meant to Dostoyevsky.” But amid summary and analysis of the novel, Dostoyevsky’s life up to the point of its completion, and the intellectual climate in Russia, Lacenaire gets comparatively little real estate. The evidence of Dostoyevsky’s engagement with the French murder case is simple—his journal, Vremya, published a lengthy report on the subject, and he was planning an additional essay on Lacenaire the year before he started work on Crime and Punishment—and Birmingham’s continued interweaving of the two stories can feel belabored. As Birmingham admits, the murder in Crime and Punishment is actually an amalgam of several cases: the man who took an ax to a cook and a washer-woman, the student who got expelled and decided to kill a postman, the seminarian who murdered a girl in a shed.

Anna Grigoryevna Dostyevskaya in the Dostoyevsky Room of the Historical Museum of Moscow, 1916. The Collection of State Central Literary Museum, Moscow.
Anna Grigoryevna Dostyevskaya in the Dostoyevsky Room of the Historical Museum of Moscow, 1916. The Collection of State Central Literary Museum, Moscow.

After Birmingham establishes the connection between Lacenaire and Dostoyevsky, his narrative spins off into their separate fates: the guillotine for Lacenaire, romance and redemption for Dostoyevsky. Within this structure, Anna is straightforwardly framed as Dostoyevsky’s savior, their future family his salvation—and even Crime and Punishment is transformed. Though Dostoyevsky had planned to end the story with Raskolnikov’s suicide, something about his relationship with Anna made him change his mind. Instead, Raskolnikov meets Sonya, Dostoyevsky’s paradigmatic self-sacrificing woman, who has been driven to prostitution to help her family. At her urging, Raskolnikov confesses, not for moral reasons but in order to open up what Birmingham characterizes as “the possibility of a new life with Sonya.” It is this denouement that Birmingham emulates in a final chapter titled “The Wedding.” With Anna, Birmingham writes, Dostoyevsky was “choosing marriage and a new life.” Readers of The Sinner and the Saint might be forgiven for interpreting it as a happy ending. Soon enough, Anna’s dowry, her wedding ring, and even her underwear would be pawned to support her husband and his roulette addiction—but Birmingham cuts off his thread before the love story curdles into something less wholesome.

If the wedding provides an easy conclusion to Birmingham’s narrative, it is a point of departure for Andrew D. Kaufman’s The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky. In Kaufman’s telling, Anna and Dostoyevsky’s courtship is drained of its romance. Hardly taken with his stenographer at the start, Dostoyevsky repeatedly forgot her name, and, mid-proposal, called her “not a real beauty, perhaps.” His phrasing was so awkward, in fact, that Anna assumed he was asking her advice on whether to marry an entirely different young woman. As it turns out, Dostoyevsky had recently ventured marriage proposals to three other women, two of whom go unmentioned in The Sinner and the Saint. “He does not need a wife like me,” said one of the objects of his affection. “His wife needs to devote herself entirely, entirely to him.”

That kind of all-encompassing devotion came easily to Anna Snitkina. In the early days of their marriage, Kaufman reports, Dostoyevsky was far from an ideal husband. He picked fights, minimized their relationship in secret correspondence with an old flame, ran off to gamble and then begged Anna to send him more money, and went back to sleep when she was in labor with their first child and needed him to summon the midwife. He was jealous, both romantically and professionally, and lashed out whenever a man kissed her hand too enthusiastically or she achieved any form of independent success. Yet no matter how Dostoyevsky treated her, Anna idolized him. She referred to her husband as “my sun, my god!” Kaufman writes, “He was her life’s work.”

Most biographies of Dostoyevsky, according to Kaufman, have implied that “Snitkina was put on this earth for the sole purpose of rescuing a great man from his self-destructive tendencies and bringing glory to his name.” Such accounts, he argues, have “failed to acknowledge her agency.” In contrast, Kaufman wants to acknowledge Anna’s au-tonomy in choosing to rescue Dostoyevsky. He congratulates her on “fulfilling her lifelong mission: supporting her husband’s fiction career.” And he claims, “She created a model of female agency that still has the power to inspire those of us—women and men alike—who seek meaning and fulfillment in our own troubled times.” In moments like these, The Gambler Wife feels less like a biography than a hagiography—a defense of Anna against the opinions of her critics.

Kaufman bends over backward to give Anna the credit she has historically been denied. Her resolution to store Dostoyevsky’s notebooks with her mother and brother, thereby saving them from confiscation, merits a paragraph of applause: it is “one of many such crucial, culture-shaping decisions she would make in the years to come.” Such effusiveness has the unfortunate side effect of cheapening Kaufman’s praise for Anna’s more substantive accomplishments. She not only continued assisting with Dostoyevsky’s novels, but also negotiated with his creditors and started an in-house operation to publish his works—a skillfully operated business that dug the family out from under its debts.

Anna seems not to have engaged significantly with the content of her husband’s work, but Kaufman overemphasizes the contributions she did make. He notes that when she wanted a character’s hair or clothing changed, Dostoyevsky trusted her judgment, and that anecdotes she told him sometimes found their way into his fiction. But there is no documentation of a more serious collaboration, apart from Anna’s role as the moral backbone of Dostoyevsky’s fiction, “the ideal behind his creations.” In her relationship with her husband, Kaufman writes, she embodied “the principles of Russian courage, moral integrity, and active love that had become central to his worldview.”

Kaufman is keenly aware that Anna’s self-abnegating form of love may not be legible to a present-day audience, and he toggles between the language the Dostoyevskys used to describe their marriage and the anachronistic vocabulary of contemporary therapy. Dostoyevsky’s “pathologies” are of particular interest. His father was “emotionally abusive,” and roulette is a “psychological security blanket.” At various points throughout, Dostoyevsky is diagnosed with “narcissism and abusive tendencies,” “emotional insecurity after years of traumatic relationships,” and a tendency to “seek out relationships with emotionally unavailable or even abusive women.” His marriage to Anna, meanwhile, had “the trappings of an unhealthy codependency.” Some scholars, Kaufman chides, have accused Anna of “enabling” or failing to “restrain Dostoyevsky more forcefully.” Still, it would be unfair “to paint Anna’s behavior purely in terms of pathology.”

Kaufman’s gravest concern is reserved for Anna’s feminist bona fides. He calls Dostoyevsky “a reflexive misogynist” and criticizes him as at times “condescending, even patriarchal.” In shaping her life around her husband’s, Kaufman admits, “Anna did behave in ways that are unlikely to inspire the admiration of contemporary feminist readers.” But he makes much of the fact that Anna called herself a “girl of the sixties,” a term popular among the Russian feminists of her generation, women who smoked, cut their hair short, and became politically active. A traditionalist at heart, Anna did none of those things. Her affinity with feminism, according to her daughter, did not extend beyond the desire for independence—an ambition she had dispensed with before the age of twenty-one, when she married Dostoyevsky. But Kaufman seems to view any choice Anna made as in some sense feminist, simply by virtue of a woman’s having chosen. Her decision to marry Dostoyevsky, for example, was one of a handful of “risks that place her squarely in league with other daring nineteenth-century Russian feminists.” A question Kaufman deems “worthy of nuanced consideration” is: “In dedicating herself to her husband’s work, for instance, was Anna betraying her longtime dream of becoming an emancipated woman?” Straining to see Anna on her own terms, he aims to undermine “the implicit bias readers and scholars alike have brought to their understanding of the Dostoyevskys’ relationship.” But it is hard to understand the Dostoyevksys’ relationship as anything other than a patriarchal arrangement, even if it was one to which Anna willingly acceded.

If Birmingham’s way of dealing with that arrangement is to fashion it into a neat happily-ever-after, it’s not clear to me that Kaufman’s approach is ultimately more feminist. Husbands can fairly be blamed for underappreciating their wives, but the same isn’t true of historians: not every woman who is overlooked by history is overlooked for a bad reason. Being married to a brilliant and abusive man does not in itself make a woman interesting.

What would a feminist account of the great novelist and his unfortunate wife entail? Counterintuitive as it sounds, we might look to the man himself for a hint. Dostoyevsky makes for a strange case study in the extent to which we should separate the work from the life, because he insisted that ideas be judged on the basis of the behavior they allow us to justify. This was a career-long preoccupation, and perhaps his central subject matter—how ideas interact with personalities, how ideological disputes can function as emotional proxy battles, how we sometimes use grand theories to obscure our most demonic impulses. If Raskolnikov’s crime is an indictment of the Western liberal values he internalized, what does Dostoyevsky’s treatment of Anna say about his own set of illiberal ideas? By the standards he set himself, it might be fair to evaluate his philosophy of self-sacrifice in light of the fact that another person renounced her will for his, sacrificing herself on the pyre of his ambition, while he sacrificed nothing in return. But that is a suggestion that would take a more Dostoyevskian biographer to make.

Rebecca Panovka is a writer and the coeditor of The Drift.