Feodor’s Guide: Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky

“Dostoevsky wasn't just a genius­ — he was, finally, brave.”


The citizen secures himself against genius by icon worship. By the touch of Circe’s wand, the divine troublemakers are translated into porcine embroidery.
— Edward Dahlberg, “Can These Bones Live?”

“At the present time, negation is the most use­ful of all — and we deny — “
“What, not only art and poetry… but even… horrible to say…” 
“Everything,” repeated Bazarov, with indescribable composure. 
— Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and its narrator are just about impossible really to understand without some knowledge of the intellectual climate of Russia in the 1860s, particularly the frisson of utopian socialism and atheistic utilitarianism then in vogue among the radical Russian intelligentsia, an ideology that Dostoevsky loathed with the sort of passion only Dostoevsky could loathe with.

In 1957, Joseph Frank, as he was wading through some of this particular-context background so that he could give his Princeton comp-lit students a halfway comprehensive reading of Notes, started to get interested in the fiction of Dostoevsky as a kind of bridge between two distinct ways of coming at text, a purely formal aesthetic approach v. a social-dash-ideological criticism that cares only about the thematics and the philosophical assumptions that lie behind them. That interest — plus 40 years of what must have been skull-crunching scholarly la­bor — has yielded the first four volumes of a projected five­-book study of Dostoevsky’s life and times and writing. Proba­bly all serious scholars of Dos­toevsky are waiting bated to see if Frank can hang on long enough to bring his encyclopedic study all the way up to the early 1880s, when Dosto­evsky finished the fourth of his great novels, gave his famous Pushkin speech, and died. Even if the fifth volume doesn’t get written, though, the ap­pearance now of the fourth ensures Frank’s own status as the definitive biographer of one of the best fiction writers ever.

** Am I a good person? Do I even, deep down, really wish to be a good person? Or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people will approve me? Is there a differ­ence? **

Frank persuades us that Dostoevsky’s ma­ture works were fundamentally ideologi­cal novels and simply cannot be read un­less one understands the polemical agendas that inform them and to which they were directed. Thus the concatena­tion of universal and particular that char­acterizes Notes From Underground (1) in fact characterizes all of the best work of FMD, a writer whose “evident desire,” Frank says, is “to dramatize his moral-spiritual themes against the background of Russian history.”

A nonstandard feature of Frank’s projects is the amount of straightforward critical attention he pays to the actual books Dostoevsky wrote. “It is the production of such masterpieces that makes Dostoevsky’s life worth recounting at all,” his preface to The Miraculous Years goes, “and my purpose, as in the previous volumes, is to keep them constantly in the foreground rather than treating them as accessory to the life per se.” At least a third of this latest volume is given over to close readings of the stuff Dostoevsky produced in this — Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and Demons. These readings aim to be explicative rather than argumentative or theory-driven — i.e., their aim is to articulate as fully as possible what exactly Dostoevsky himself wanted the books to mean. While this approach seems to act as if there’s no such thing as the Intentional Fallacy (2), it seems prima facie justified by Frank’s own project, which is always to trace and explain the novels’ genesis out of Dostoevsky’s own ideological engagement with Russian culture.

** What does “faith” mean? Isn’t it crazy to believe in something there’s no hard proof of? Is there any difference between “faith” and a bunch of nose-pierced natives sacrificing virgins to volcanoes because they believe it’ll produce good weather? How can somebody have faith before they’re pre­sented with a sufficient reason to have faith? Is somehow needing to have faith a sufficient reason for having faith? **

To appreciate Joseph Frank’s achieve­ment, it seems important to emphasize how many different approaches to biog­raphy and criticism he’s trying to marry. Standard literary biographies spotlight an author and his personal life — especially the seamy or neurotic stuff —and pretty much ignore the specific historical context in which he wrote. Other studies — especially those with a theoretical agenda — focus almost exclu­sively on context and treat an author and his books as mathematical exponents of the prejudices, power dynamics, and metaphysical delusions of his age. Some biographies act as if their subject’s own works have already been all figured out, and they treat a personal life’s relation to meanings the biographers assume are al­ready fixed and inarguable; whereas most of this century’s “critical studies” treat an author’s books hermetically, ignoring facts about the writer’s circumstances and be­liefs that can help explain not only what the work is about but why it has the par­ticular individual magic of a certain writer’s own unique voice and vision. (3)

** But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, isn’t the reason for this decision my desire to be less lone­ly, meaning to suffer less pain? So can the de­cision to be less selfish be anything other than a selfish decision? **

Frank’s four volumes compose an ex­tremely detailed and demanding work on an extremely complex and demanding au­thor, a fiction writer whose time and cul­ture and language are alien to us. Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinar­ily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old (4), Dosto­evsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly (5). Then there’s the kind of soppy-seeming formal­ity of the 19th-century culture Dosto­evsky’s characters inhabit. These are char­acters who, e.g., when they’re absolutely furious at each other, do stuff like “shake their fists” and call each other “scoundrels” and “fly at” each other (6). Speakers use exclamation points in quan­tities now seen only in comic strips. So­cial etiquette is stiff to the point of absur­dity. People are always “calling” on each other and either “being received” or “not being received” and obeying rococo con­ventions of politeness even when they’re insulting each other (7). Plus obscure military ranks and bureaucratic hierarchies abound; plus rigid and totally weird class distinctions that are hard to keep straight and understand the implications of, espe­cially because the economic realities of old Russian society are so strange (see, e.g., the way even a destitute “former student” like Raskolnikov or an unemployed bu­reaucrat like the Underground Man can somehow afford a servant and a cook).

The point is that there is real and alienating stuff besides just the death-by­-canonization that stands in the way. But Dostoevsky is worth the work despite his place astride the Western canon. One thing that canonization and course assignments (8) obscure is that Dostoevsky is­n’t just great, he’s fun. His novels almost always have just ripping good plots, lurid and involved and thoroughly dramatic. There are murders and attempted mur­ders and police and dysfunctional-family feuding and spies and tough guys and beautiful fallen women and unctuous con men and inheritances and silky villains and scheming and whores. Of course the fact that Dostoevsky can tell a really good story isn’t alone enough to make him great — if it were, Judith Krantz and John Grisham would be great fiction writers, and as matters stand they’re not even very good. What keeps them and lots of other seriously gifted plot-weavers from being very good is that they don’t have much talent for (or interest in) characteriza­tion — their plots are usually inhabited by undeveloped or broadly drawn stick fig­ures. (In fairness, too, there are writers who are great at making complex and ful­ly realized human characters but who don’t seem able to insert those characters into a believable and interesting dramatic plot. Plus others — usually the type re­garded as most “literary”  — who seem able/interested in neither plot nor charac­ter, whose books’ movement and appeal depends entirely on rarefied aesthetic or meta-aesthetic agendas.)

The thing about Dostoevsky’s char­acters is that they live. And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and “round.” The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them. Recall, e.g., the proud and pa­thetic Raskolnikov, the naive Devushkin, the beautiful and damned Nastasya of The Idiot (9), the unctuous Lebedyev and spi­derish Ippolit of the same novel; Stavro­gin; C&P‘s ingenious maverick detective Porfiry Petrovich (without whom there would be no commercial detective stories and eccentrically brilliant cops); Marme­ladov, the hideous and pitiful alcoholic; or the vain and noble roulette addict Alek­sey Ivanovich of The Gambler; the gold-­hearted whores Sonya and Liza; the beautiful stone-hearted Aglaya; or the unbelievably repellent Smerdyakov, that living engine of slimy resentment in whom I see parts of myself I can barely stand to look at; or the child- and Christ-like, idealized and all-too-human Myshkin and Alyosha (the doomed human Christ and tri­umphant child-pilgrim, respectively). These — many more — live, and not be­cause they’re just accurately drawn types or facets of human beings, but because, acting within plausible and ripping good plots, they dramatize the profoundest parts of all human beings, the parts most conflicted, most serious: the ones with the most at stake. Dostoevsky’s characters also — and without ever ceasing to be hu­man and real — represent ideologies and philosophies of life: Raskolnikov the “ra­tional egoism” of the 1860s left, Myshkin mystical Christian love, the Underground Man the influence of European posi­tivism on the Russian character, Ippolit the raging human will confronted by death, Aleksey the perversion of Slavophilic pride in the face of European perfidy… on and on.

FMD’s concern was always what it is to be a human being — i.e., how a person, in the particular social and philosophical circumstances of 19th-century Russia, could be a real human being, a person whose life was informed by love and values and prin­ciples, instead of being just a very shrewd species of self-preserving animal.

** Is it possible really to love somebody? If I’m lonely, empty inside, everybody outside me is potential relief: I need them. But is it possible to love what you need? Does love have to be vol­untary to be love? Does it have to not even be in my own best interests, the love, to count as love? **

It’s a famous irony that Dostoevsky, whose fiction is famous for its wisdom and compassion and moral rigor, was in many ways kind of a prick in real life — vain, self-­absorbed, arrogant, spiteful, selfish. A fel­low with a pretty serious gambling problem, he was almost always broke, whined constantly about his poverty, was always badgering his friends and colleagues for emergency loans that he never repaid, held grudges, and pawned his young wife’s coat in cold weather so he could gamble, etc. (10) But it’s also well-known that Dostoevsky’s own life was full of incredible suffering and tragedy. His Moscow childhood was so miserable that never once in any of his books does Dostoevsky set or even men­tion any action in Moscow (11). His remote and neurasthenic father was murdered by his own serfs when FMD was 17. Seven years later, the publication of his first nov­el, (12) and its endorsement by critics like Belinsky and Herzen, made Dostoevsky an instant superstar at the same time that he was starting to get involved with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of revolutionary intellectuals who plotted to incite a peasant uprising against the tsar. In 1849 FMD, the Mclnerney of his era, was arrested as a conspirator, convicted, sentenced to death, and underwent the “mock execution of the Petrashevtsy,” in which the conspirators were blindfolded and tied to stakes and at the “Aim!” stage of the firing-squad process when an imperial messenger rode up with a supposed “last-minute” reprieve from the merciful tsar.

His sentence commuted to impris­onment and exile, the epileptic Dosto­evsky ended up spending almost a decade in balmy Siberia, returning to St. Peters­burg in 1859 to find that the Russian lit­erary world had all but forgotten him. Then his wife died — unpleasantly — then his beloved brother Mikhail died, then his literary journal Epoch went under, then his epilepsy started getting so much worse that he was constantly terrified that he’d die or go permanently crazy from the seizures (13). Hiring a 22-year-old stenogra­pher to help him complete The Gambler in time to satisfy a publisher with whom he’d signed an insane deliver-or-forfeit-all-roy­alties-for-everything-you-ever-wrote con­tract, Dostoevsky married his amanuensis four months later, just in time to flee Epoch‘s creditors with her, wander unhap­pily through a Europe whose influence on Russia he despised (14), have a daughter who died of pneumonia almost right away, writing constantly, penniless, often literal­ly hungry, often clinically depressed in the aftermath of tooth-rattling grand mal seizures, going through cycles of roulette binges and then crushing self-hatred. Vol­ume IV details a lot of Dostoevsky’s Eu­ropean tribulations via the journals of his young new wife, Anna Snitkin (15), by all ac­counts a really nice and patient person whose emotional martyrdom as the Spouse of this guy ought to qualify her as patron saint of the codependency recovery movement or something (16).

** What is “an American”? Do we have something in common, as Americans? Or do we all just happen to live inside the same arbitrary boundaries? How is America different from other countries? Is there something spe­cial about it? Forget about special privileges that go with being an American — are there special responsibilities that go with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom? **

Frank doesn’t try to whitewash the icky parts (17), but he takes great care to relate Dostoevsky’s personal and psychological life to his fictions and the ideologies that inform them. That FMD is first and final­ly an ideological writer (18) makes him an es­pecially congenial subject for Frank’s con­textual approach to biography. And the four volumes of Dostoevsky make it clear that no personal event was as important to the genesis of the “mature” FMD than the mock execution, a period of several min­utes when the frail and neurotic 28-year-­old aesthete believed his life was over. The result was some sort of very deep “conver­sion experience,” though it gets compli­cated, because the Christian convictions that inform Dostoevsky’s writings there­after are not those of any organized church, really, and are also bound up with a kind of mystical Russian nationalism and a political conservatism (19) that led the next century’s Soviets to suppress FMD’s work and any evidence of its influence (20).

** Does this guy Jesus Christ’s life have any­thing to teach me even if he wasn’t “divine”? What are the implications that somebody who was supposed to be God’s relative and so could have turned the cross into a planter or some­thing with just a look still voluntarily let them nail him up there, and died? And did he know? Did he know he could break the cross with just a look? — Speaking of knowing: did he know in advance that the death’d just be temporary? Had God clued him in? I bet I could climb up there, too, if l knew an eternity of right-handed bliss lay on the other side of six hours of pain — Does any of this even matter? Can I still believe in JC or Muhammad or Buddha or whomever even if I don’t “believe” they were relatives of God? Plus what would that even mean, anyway: “believe in”? **

What seems most important is that FMD’s near-death experience changed a typically vain and trendy young writer — a very talented one, true, but still somebody whose basic ambitions were for his own literary glory (21) — into somebody who be­lieved deeply in moral/spiritual values (22), more, into somebody who believed that a life lived without moral/spiritual values was not just incomplete but depraved (23).

So, for me anyway, what makes Dos­toevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any seri­ous American reader/writer will find him­self driven to think hard about what ex­actly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so themat­ically shallow and lightweight, so impov­erished in comparison to Gogol, Dosto­evsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we — under our own nihilist spell — seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate ques­tions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextu­al quotation or incongruous juxtaposi­tion, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-­reading-experience flourish.

Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture. The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and “Great Novels” since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that se­rious literature will be aesthetically dis­tanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be “serious.”

But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlight­enment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about. The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius­ — he was, finally, brave. He never stopped worrying about his literary reputation, but he also never stopped promulgating ideas in which he believed. And he did so not by ignoring the unfriendly cultural circum­stances in which he was writing, but by confronting them, engaging them, specif­ically and by name (24).

Maybe it’s not true that we today are nihilists. At the very least we have devils we believe in. These include sentimentali­ty, naivety, archaism, fanaticism. Maybe it’d be better to call our art’s culture one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia (us) distrust strong belief, open convic­tion. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie — and, looking around us, we see that it is indeed so. But the Dostoevsky one sees in Frank’s biog­raphy would point out — more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and scream — that if this is so it is because we have abandoned the field.

Take a look at just a snippet from the famous “Necessary Explanation” of Ip­polit in The Idiot:

“Anyone who attacks individual charity,” I be­gan, “attacks human nature and casts contempt on personal dignity. But the organiza­tion of ‘public charity’ and the problem of in­dividual freedom are two distinct questions, and not mutually exclusive. Individual kind­ness will always remain, because it is an indi­vidual impulse, the living impulse of one per­sonality to exert a direct influence upon another… How can you tell, Bahmutuv, what significance such an association of one personality with another may have on the des­tiny of those associated?”

Can you imagine any of our impor­tant contemporary novelists allowing a character to say things like this? — not, mind you, just as hypocritical bombast so that some ironic hero can put a pin in it, but as part of a 10-page monologue by somebody trying to decide whether to commit suicide. The obvious response to the question is also a true one: such a con­temporary novelist would be ridiculous. Such a speech in our art would provoke, not outrage or invective, but worse: one raised eyebrow and a very slight smile. (Maybe — if it was a really major novelist — ­a very subtle deadpan line in a Letterman monologue.) The novelist would be — and this is our own age’s truest vision of hell — ­laughed out of town.

So he — we, fiction writers — won’t­ — ever — dare try to use serious art to ad­vance ideologies (25). The project would be as culturally inappropriate as Menard’s Quixote. We’d be laughed out of town. Given this — and it is a given — who is to blame for the philosophical passionless­ness of our own Dostoevskys? The cul­ture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t — ­could not — laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcen­dent fiction. But how to do that — how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them. ❖

David Foster Wallace is the author of, most recently, Infinite Jest (Little Brown)

1) Volume III, The Stir of Liberation, con­tains I bet as fine an explicative reading of Notes as has ever been done, tracing its gen­esis as a reply to the “rational egoism” made fashionable in Chernyshevsky’s 1863 nov­el What Is To Be Done?, and identifying the Underground Man’s intended function for Dostoevsky as basically a parodic caricature. Frank’s persuasive explanation for the frequent misreading of Notes (a lot of critics don’t read the book as a serious Hamlet-grade archetype) also helps explain why Dostoevsky’s master­pieces are often read and admired even without any real appreciation of their ideological agendas: “the parodistic function of [the Underground Man’s] character has al­ways been obscured by the immense vital­ity of its artistic embodiment” — that is, in certain ways, Dostoevsky was too good for his own good.

2) Frank never in four volumes mentions the Intentional Fallacy or tries to head off the objection that his biography commits it all over the place. This is real interesting to me. In a way it’s understandable, because the tone Frank maintains through all his readings is one of maximum restraint and objectivity: he’s not about imposing a cer­tain theory or way of decoding Dostoevsky, and he steers way clear of arguing with oth­er critics who’ve applied various axes’ edges to FMD’s stuff. When Frank does want to criticize or refute a certain reading (as in oc­casional attacks on Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, or in a really brilliant refutation of Freud’s 1928 “Dostoevsky and Patricide” in the Appendix to Volume I), he always does so simply by pointing out that the historical facts and/or Dosto­evsky’s own notes and letters contradict cer­tain assumptions a critic has made. His ar­gument is never that somebody else is wrong, just that they don’t have all the facts… which again gives implicit au­thority to Frank’s agenda of providing completely exhaustive and comprehensive context, The Whole Story.

3) It is the loss of an ability to counte­nance and discuss the particularity of works of literary genius that is maybe most to be loathed about the theory in­dustry’s rise to power in contemporary fic­tion-criticism. A lot of poststructural the­ory is fascinating in its own right, but when it comes to actually reading some piece of fiction, most theoretical readings consist in just running it through a kind of powerful philosophical machine. This is in all meaningful ways equivalent to dis­secting a flower instead of looking at it or smelling it. Dissection has its place, as do systems and general applications of method, but so does appreciation, and so does countenancing the singularity of something beautiful. It is Professor Frank’s determination to treat both the ideological forces at work around Dosto­evsky’s fictions and the completely dis­tinctive and unabstractable way in which FMD transforms those forces that makes his biography so valuable, I think.

4) How familiar — I mean emotionally fa­miliar, resonant — does the syntax of Hawthome and Poe and Bierce seem to you?

5) Especially in the excruciatingly Victorianish translations of Ms. Constance Garrett, who, in the ’30s and ’40s cornered the FMD/Tolstoy translation market, and whose 1935 rendering of The Idiot has stuff like (I’m scanning almost at random):

“Nastasya Filippovna!” General Ep­anchin articulated reproachfully. “I am very glad I’ve met you here, Kolya,” said Myshkin to him. “Can’t you help me? I must be at Nas­tasya Filippovna’s. I asked Ardelion Alexan­drovitch to take me there, but you see he is asleep. Will you take me there, forI don’t know the streets, nor the way?”

“The phrase flattered and touched and greatly pleased General Ivolgin: he suddenly melted, instantly changed his tone, and went into a long, enthusiastic explanation.” And even in the acclaimed new Knopf translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose (in, e.g., Crime and Punishment) is still like:

“Enough!” he said resolutely and solemnly. “Away with mirages, away with mirages, away with false fears, away with specters!… There is life! Was I not alive just now? My life hasn’t died with the old crone! May the Lord remember her in His kingdom and — enough, my dear, it’s time to go! Now is the kingdom of reason and light and… and will and strength…and now we shall see! Now we shall cross swords!” he added presumptuously, as if addressing some dark force and challenging it… Umm, why not just “as if addressing some dark force”? Umm, can you challenge a dark force without addressing it? Or is there, in the Russian, something that keeps the above from being redundant, stilted, bad? If so, why not recognize that in English it’s bad, and clean it up in an acclaimed new Knopf translation? I just don’t get it.

6) What on earth does it mean to “fly at” somebody? It happens dozens of times in every FMD novel. What, “fly at” them in order to beat them up? To get in their face? Why not say that, if you’re translating?

7) Q.v., from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s acclaimed rendering of Notes:

“Mr. Ferfichkin, tomorrow you will give me satisfaction for your present words!” I said loudly, pompously addressing Ferfichkin.

“You mean a duel, sir? At you pleasure,” the man answered…

8) Somebody has only to spend one term trying to teach literature in school to realize that the quickest way to kill a writer’s vitality for potential readers is to present that writer ahead of time as “great” or “classic.” Because then the author becomes for the students like medicine or vegetable, something that the authorities have declared “good for them” that they “ought to like,” and then the students’ nictitating membranes come down, and everybody’s dead. Should this surprise anybody? We could learn a lot from bored students who hate to read, in my opinion.

9) Who was, like Faulkner’s Caddie, “doomed and knew it,” and whose heroism consists in her haughty defiance of a doom she also courts — FMD seems like the first fiction writer really to understand that some people love their own suffering. Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it a cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is vastly ironic: in our own age and culture of enlightened atheism we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs; and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche; and yet Dostoevsky is among the most deeply religious of all writers…

10) Frank doesn’t blink this sort of stuff, but in his account we learn that Dostoevsky’s character was paradoxical: insufferably vain about his literary reputation, FMD was also tormented his whole life by what he saw as his inadequacies as a writer; a leech and a spendthrift, he also did stuff like voluntarily assume financial responsibility for his stepson, for the unbelievably nasty family of his dead brother, and for the debts of the famous journal Epoch that he and that brother and coedited. Frank’s fourth volume makes it clear that it was these honorable debts, not general dead-beatism, that sent Mr. and Mrs. FMD into exile in Europe to avoid debtor’s prison, and that it was only at the gambling spas of Europe that Dostoevsky’s gambling mania kicked in.

11) Sometimes this allergy to Moscow is awkwardly striking: q.v. the start of Part Two of The Idiot, when Prince Myshkin — the novel’s protagonist — has left St. Petersburg for six full months in Moscow: “Of Myshkin’s adventures during his absence from Petersburg we can give little information.” Frank doesn’t mention much about this Moscophobia that I could find.

12) Poor Folk, a regulation ” social novel” that frames kind of a goopy little love story with depictions of urban poverty sufficiently ghastly to elicit the approval of a socialist left that in 1840s Russia more or less equalled the literary episcopate.

13) It’s true that FMD’s epilepsy, including the mystical illuminations that attended preseizure auras, gets no more than cursory attention from Frank, and a reviewer like the Times of London’s James L. Rice (himself the author of a weird book on epilepsy and Dostoevsky) complains that Frank “gives no idea of the malady’s chronic impact” on Dostoevsky’s religious ideals and representation in his books. Other critics who complain that Frank doesn’t pay enough attention to FMD’s pathology include Stephen Jan Parker of the NYTBR, who spends a third of his Volume III making arguments like: “It seems to me that Dostoevsky’s behavior does conform fully to the diagnosis criteria for pathological gambling as set forth in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.” As much as anything, it’s reviews like this that ought to make us appreciate Frank’s own even-handed breadth and absence of specific axes to grind.

14) I don’t want to neglect the observation that Frank’s biography often provides good and interesting dirt. W/r/t FMD’s adventures in Europe, we learn in Volume IV that his famous 1867 fight with Turgenev (whom Frank clearly doesn’t like, and portrays as a kind of yuppie with a monocle) had offended Dostoevsky’s passionate nationalism by attacking Russia in print and moving to Germany and declaring himself a German, was also partly over the fact that Dostoevsky had years earlier borrowed 50 thalers from Turgenev and promised to pay him back right away and never did. Frank is too restrained to point out that it’s much easier to live with stiffing somebody if you decide that person’s an asshole.

15) An unexpected bonus is that Frank’s volumes are full of marvelous and funny and tongue-rolling names — Snitkin, Dubolyobov, Appolinaria, Strakhov, Golubov, von Voght, Katkov, Nekrasov, Pisarev. You can see why Russian writers like Gogol and Dostoevsky raise to fine art the employment of epithetic names.

16) Q.v.: “Poor Feodor, he does suffer so much… and is always so irritable, and liable to fly out about trifles… It’s of no consequence, because the other days are very good, when he is so sweet and gentle. Besides, I can see that when he screams at me it is from illness, not from bad temper.” Frank quotes large amounts of this sort of stuff without much evident awareness that the Dostoevskys’ relationship was in certain ways pretty sick, at least by 1996 standards: “Anna’s forbearance, whatever prodigies of self-command it may have cost her, was amply compensated for (at least in her eyes) by Dostoevsky’s immense gratitude and growing sense of attachment.” Beattie, Bradshaw, et al. would have a field day with this.

17) See also, e.g., Dostoevsky’s disastrous passion for the utter bitch-goddess Appolinaria Suslova, or the mental gymnastics he performs to justify his roulette, or the fact, amply documented by Frank, that FMD really was an active part of the Petrashevsky circle and as a matter of fact did deserve to be arrested, pace a lot of biographers who’ve tried to claim that FMD was just at the wrong radical meeting at the wrong time.

18) I guess you could argue that Tolstoy and Hugo and Zola and the 19th-century titans were ideological writers. But the thing about Dostoevsky’s gift for character and for rendering the psychological and moral and spiritual conflicts within (not just between) people is that it let him dramatize extremely heavy and serious moral themes without ever seeming preachy or reductive, that is, without ever blinking the difficulties or moral and spiritual conflicts or making goodness or redemption seem simpler than they really are. You need only compare the protagonists’ final conversions in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and FMD’s Crime and Punishment to appreciate Dostoevsky’s ability to be moral without being moralistic.

19) Here’s another thing Frank discusses brilliantly in Vol. III’s chapter on House of the Dead — part of the reason why FMD abandoned the fashionable socialist principles of his twenties is that years of imprisonment in Siberia with the absolute bottom-feeders of society taught him that the peasants and urban poor of Russia totally hated the upper-class intellectuals who wanted to “liberate” them, and that they were kind of right for hating them. If you want to get some idea of how Dostoevskian irony might translate into modern U.S. culture, try reading House of the Dead and Tom Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” at the same time.

20) This state of affairs is one reason why Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, published under Stalin, had to seriously downplay FMD’s ideological involvement with his characters: a lot of Bakhtin’s praise for Dostoevsky’s “polyphonic” characterizations and the “dialogic imagination” that allowed Dostoevsky to refrain from injecting his own values into his books is the natural result of a Soviet critic trying to discuss an author whose reactionary views the State wanted forgotten. Frank, who takes out after Bakhtin at a number of points, doesn’t really make clear the constraints Bakhtin was operating under.

21) Should I find it depressing that the young Dostoevsky was just like young U.S. writers today, or kind of a relief! Docs anything ever change?

22) Not surprisingly, FMD’s exact beliefs are idiosyncratic and complicated, and Frank does a good job of tracing them out as they’re dramatized in the novels (the effect of egoistic atheism on the Russian character in Notes and C&P; the deformation of Russian passion by worldly Europe in The Gambler; and, in The Idiot‘s Myshkin and The Brothers Karamazov’s Zosima, the implications of a Christ literal­ly subjected to nature’s scientific forces, an idea central to every­thing Dostoevsky wrote after he saw Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ at the Basel Museum in 1867).

But what Prank has done phenomenally well is distill the enormous amounts of archival material that exist by and about FMD, helping make it comprehensive instead of just using parts of it to bolster a particular critical stance. E.g., near the end of Vol. III, Frank finds and cites obscure notes for “Socialism and Christianity,” an unfin­ished essay, that give a reason­ably succinct picture of Dostoevsky’s beliefs. Q.v.:

Christ’s incarnation… provided a new ideal for mankind, one that has retained its validity ever since: “N.B. Not one atheist who has disputed the divine origin of Christ has denied the fact that He is the ideal of humanity. The latest on this — Renan. This is very remarkable!” And the law of this new ideal, according to Dostoevsky, consists of the return to spontaneity, to the masses, but freely.… Not forcibly, but on the contrary, in the highest degree willfully and consciously. It is clear that this higher willfulness is at the same time a higher renunciation of the will.

23) PMD’s particular foes were the Nihilists, the radical progeny of the ’40s socialists, whose name comes from a speech in Tur­genev’s Fathers and Sons. But the real battle was wider. It is no acci­dent that Joseph Frank’s big epigram for Vol IV is from Kolakowski’s classic Modernity on Endless Trial, for Dostoevsky’s abandonment of utilitarian so­cialism for an idiosyncratic moral conservatism can be seen in the same light as Kant’s awakening from “dogmatic slumber” into a radical Pietist deontology nearly a century earlier: “By turning against the popular utilitarianism of the Enlightenment, [Kant] al­so knew exactly what what was at stake was not any particular moral code, but rather a question of the existence or nonexistence of the distinction between good and evil and, consequently, a question of the fate of mankind?’

24) Ploughing through the his­torical and linguistic impediments actually to read this author makes it very clear why Dostoevsky deserves his canonical spot. In his novels, great and profound issues simultaneously transcend and are rooted in the particularities of place, time, history, character. The irony of his now being abstracted by canonization is that he is almost unequalled in his ability to make abstractions concrete and bare ideas alive and vital.

25) We will, of course, without hesitation use art to parody, ridicule, debunk, or protest ide­ologies. But there is a difference.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 4, 2019