Joseph Frank and the Unknown Dostoevsky

As a tribute to the late Joseph Frank (1918-2013), I reprint my review, slightly updated here, of the first volume of his great biography of Dostoevsky, which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 21, 1976).

Some great writers leave books behind that are like monuments, chiseled in alabaster, inviolable, or like tall mountain peaks which must be climbed simply because they’re there. Dostoevsky is one major writer who will never harden into a classic. He forces his readers to grapple with his books in a personal way, with some of the same intensity he brought to writing them. The author of the definitive biography, Joseph Frank, describes “the unusual sense of excitement that Dostoevsky manages to create from page to page, and the almost hypnotic fascination, quite aside from plotting, that he never fails to exercise on his readers.” At moments Dostoevsky seems to reach out and grab the unwary reader by the throat, enclosing us in an atmosphere of emotional violence that is sometimes comical but can also come to feel suffocating.

It’s no wonder that Dostoevsky has proved such an awesome burden to those who have tried to write about him, especially in the English-speaking world, where he was discovered late and where his work has always seemed a little strange, bizarre, formless, even pathological. To Henry James the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were “loose baggy monsters” and “fluid puddings,” powerful but inimitable. Brilliant critics like R.P. Blackmur and Philip Rahv worked intermittently for decades on books on Dostoevsky and died without completing them. As an independent young critic writing for the literary quarterlies in 1945, Joseph Frank made his reputation with a dazzling and original essay on “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” Much later, he taught comparative literature for many years at Princeton and Stanford and published a widely admired collection of essays on modern writers, The Widening Gyre (1963), which included an expanded version of his essay on spatial form. The first volume of his long-awaited book on Dostoevsky, published in 1976, was twenty years in the making, and even the author may have wondered at times whether it would see the light of day. (The fifth and last volume would not appear until 2002.) The book was worth waiting for. From its auspicious beginning, dealing with Dostoevky’s little known early years through his imprisonment and mock execution in 1849, Frank’s book proved to be a masterful work of cultural biography; it explored the young writer’s Russian milieu in a way that had never been attempted in English. Indeed, this biography, with its increasingly detailed successor volumes focusing on major works, including 140 pages on The Brother Karamazov in the final volume, is certainly the most ambitious book on Dostoevsky undertaken in any language. But I found the first volume, dealing with Dostoevsky’s life and work before his arrest, trial, and exile, especially eye-opening, for it cast a fresh light on a poorly understood phase of his career.

Essentially Frank wrote three different but overlapping books within this opening volume, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. The first is a lively personal biography, the second a close study of Dostoevsky’s intellectual and political development, and the last a thoughtful work of literary criticism on his neglected early novels and stories. Eschewing the speculative flights of more partial critics, whose novel theses are more daring but more questionable, Frank weighs and balances evidence with an appealing judiciousness, yet also a modesty that invites trust and confidence. While mastering all the pertinent scholarship Frank has managed to preserve some of the wide-eyed curiosity of the inquisitive amateur. His cultural expansiveness, which takes the subject in its broadest connections at every moment, reminds one of Michael Holroyd’s panoramic treatment of Lytton Strachey, which singlehandedly revived Bloomsbury as a matter for continuing fascination. But where Holroyd’s book was glib and gossipy, Frank writes with a measured clarity that proves it’s possible to be utterly serious without excluding the general reader.

This is most true of the biographical part, especially the first hundred pages, where Frank keeps Dostoevsky’s early life within a narrative framework and patiently revises the accepted harsh image of Dostoevsky’s childhood and his father, a military physician and small landowner, who was probably murdered by his own serfs in 1839, when his 18-year-old son was away at school. Like Dostoevsky himself in his Diary of a Writer, Frank stresses the piety, near-poverty, and close-knit domesticity of Dostoevsky’s upbringing, which was no different from the wealthier, less religious and more Europeanized upper-class educations of nearly all his great literary rivals. Dostoevsky’s father send him to Petersburg to become and army engineer, but the literary and intellectual ferment of the great city in the 1840’s made him a writer and radical instead, until the Czarist authorities catastrophically intervened.

Frank concludes this volume in 1849 when Dostoevsky’s career seemed to come to an abortive early end. At the age of 27 he and his friends were arrested for their participation in a circle of liberal intellectuals who met weekly to discuss reforming the system, an absolute monarchy which still kept twelve million peasants in a state of agricultural serfdom. Only four years earlier the writer had awakened like Byron to find himself famous, when the celebrated critic Belinsky had proclaimed his first novel, Poor Folk, then still in manuscript, a work of genius. Instead his arrest led to a ten-year hiatus in his writing life, including periods in prison, labor camp, the army, and Siberian exile, as well as a ghastly death-sentence and mock execution that fixed itself in his mind like a burning brand.

These experiences gave a different weight and shape to Dostoevsky’s imagination, so that the book we have here is about Dostoevsky before he became the Dostoevsky we know. Yet the twilight world of prison and exile was all too continuous with the dark, tortured side of his own psyche, fostered by uncertain health and delicate nerves, and the influence of his favorite Romantic writers—Schiller, Hoffmann, Gogol, Balzac—whose passionate work he loved and sometimes imitated. Reading these early works of Dostoevsky, especially the one indubitable masterpiece, The Double (1846), which Frank strangely undervalues, or the brilliant first chapter of Netochka Nezvanova (1849), an unfinished novel cut short by his arrest, we’re amazed at how much is already there of the writer who has become much more than a writer, who has become for us, with Freud and Nietzsche, one of the buccaneers of modern thought, explorers of the irrational and unconscious underpinnings of the human psyche.

The anxious Petersburg clerks, dreamers, and would-be artists who populate these stories not only show the most paradoxical turns of feeling and behavior, but they already reveal the rootlessness and insecurity we associate with the shadowy byways of the modern city. In The Double an ambitious clerk, Golyadkin, is gradually evicted from his own life and driven mad by a diabolical alter-ego, another Golyadkin (who is something between a sordid actuality and a suppressed part of his own mind). As the critic Dmitri Chizhevsky has shown, this displacement highlights the dilemma of “finding one’s place,” a niche of one’s own, and “shows that Golyadkin’s place was illusory to begin with.”

In the 1950s we might have treated this (like Chizhevsky) as a psychological or existential problem, an instance of ontological insecurity. To Frank this approach, which he himself took toward the writer in those days, shows the extent to which—in our sense of Dostoevsky’s modernity and immediacy—we tear him from his own place in the Russian world of the mid-nineteenth century. To recapture the texture of that world Frank learned Russian, and came to see Dostoevsky as a writer who brought into sharp focus all the cultural tensions of his age. In dealing with the clerks and dreamers of the early stories he emphasizes the social roots of their personal insecurities, “the crushing of the human personality in the Russian world of despotism and unconditional subordination.” This may account for Frank’s special animus toward Freud’s famous essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” which stresses the neurotic and personal sources of the writer’s imaginative patterns, but which is based on biographical evidence that has since proved flimsy and unreliable.

What most surprised me was that Frank’s attempt to restore Dostoevsky to his historical setting does so little to distance him from us. In an essay on Notes from Underground fifteen years earlier, the first fruit of his research on the Russian milieu, Frank came close to miring Dostoevsky in the local polemics which the story itself works to transcend. But there’s no trace of a reductive approach in book itself, and time and again Dostoevsky’s world reminds us of our own. If the rigid political framework and class structure of the Czarist order seem remote—though less remote, say, than the reactionary monarchist France of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black—yet the passionate ideological ferment inside that constricted world seems eerily familiar to us. Dostoevsky’s pictures of urban bureaucracy and urban poverty are closer to us than the church-and-army world of Stendhal, and the seething tensions of a nascent urban intelligentsia make his characters seem strikingly modern in their hopes and in their marginality.

Russia in the 1840s was a changing world frantically resisting the pressure for change, which came both from within and from Western Europe. Radicals such as Belinsky and Alexander Herzen wrote in an Aesopian language, like Eastern Europeans today, but within the limits of a heavy-handed censorship and a small, fragmented intelligentsia, the latest Western ideas were hotly debated. The Czar himself hinted at the abolition of serfdom, and the debating circle which Dostoevsky attended was quietly ignored for years by the authorities. But the frightened Russian reaction to the European revolutions of 1848 brought all such talk and toleration to an end. Thus the interruption of Dostoevsky’s career in 1849 coincided with a sharp break in Russian political and cultural life, while his return to Petersburg ten years later, under a more liberal Czar, coincided with a turbulent revival of the ferment of the 1840’s. His great political novel The Possessed (1873) deals directly with the links between the radical sixties and the liberal forties.

Though Dostoevsky’s politics were drastically changed by imprisonment and exile, and he reacted with horror (yet a shock of recognition) to the new radicalism, Frank is surely right to treat him as “the chronicler of the moral consequences of flux and change” and “the future novelist of the spiritual crises of the Russian intelligentsia.” Frank’s subtitle, “The Seeds of Revolt,” is well chosen, for his book illuminates both the roots of Russian socialism and the seeds of Dostoevsky’s own rebellion against it, in the name of a Christianity which, in Frank’s words, “always retained the strongly altruistic and social-humanitarian cast of the 1840s.”

The book’s only weakness comes from its painstaking care as it sorts out the strands of Dostoevsky’s political and intellectual development and finally his literary growth, where the brisk pace of the early biographical chapters slows down to something far more detailed and minute. Thanks to Frank, no one in the future will ever doubt the seriousness and depth of Dostoevsky’s involvement with radicalism in the 1840’s, which undermined neither his basic Christianity nor his insistence on the autonomy of art (both under attack then, as later, in radical circles). Valuable as it is for Frank to pin down these loyalties and the friendships that went with them, he risks losing his reader in a proliferation of detail, in minor figures, momentary alliances, and transient ideological currents. Similarly, in the literary-critical chapters that conclude the volume, Frank taxes the reader’s patience by paraphrasing the wildly improbable plots of minor fictional works. Yet he also gratifies us by giving serious attention to each of Dostoevsky’s first three novels.

Despite the value of this criticism, what draws our eye are the anticipations of greater things to come, which break through time and again like lightning bolts across a cloudy sky. Frank resists looking ahead too omnisciently to the later career, but in his immensely eloquent chapter conclusions he allows himself a flash forward that’s like a payoff for the preceding detail. Thus an overlong analysis of some forgotten newspaper columns, which Dostoevsky himself never bothered to reprint, concludes brilliantly with a paragraph showing how this “feuilleton style” foreshadows the unique narrative voice of Notes from Underground. As his subtitle suggests, Franks has a truly organic sense of the writer’s development, and he has a superb grasp of the lines of growth and continuity.

What makes the Russians so interesting, aside from the greatness of their writing, was the furious intensity with which they absorbed ideas and pursued them to their practical conclusions, with inferences which, as Dostoevsky remarked, were “not even suspected” by their European originators. The Germans thought them up; the Russians acted them out. Kirilov in The Possessed commits suicide to assert the freedom of the will. While the ideological passions of will never have the chic appeal of Bloomsbury’s kinky passionlessness, at least those who were involved with the left in our sixties owe it to themselves to discover the antecedents of their hopes and failures.

Time and again the Russians were willing to live or die for ideas that were only debated abstractly in the West; the Russian revolution was one late example, and Lenin gave Marxism that practical bent its founder sometimes lacked. Dostoevsky was appalled by the consequences of these ideological furies, even as he shared them and dramatized them in the riveting emotional atmosphere of his work, whose strength it is to render ordinary life with the terrible clarity and power of hallucination.