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Fourth Volume of a Footnote
by Donna Orwin

In the late fifties, Joseph Frank was invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton University. He chose as his subject "Existential Themes in Modern Literature", and as historical background he decided to analyse Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Preparing this ancillary topic, he found himself dissatisfied with the existentialist interpretation of the underground man as a rebel who asserts his freedom, whatever the cost to himself and others. He began to study Notes from Underground more closely, and then to investigate its socio-cultural background. This was the beginning of a project that issued, in 1976, in Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. In 1982 a second volume, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, came out, followed by Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 in 1986, in which Frank finally got back to Notes From Underground. Each of these first three volumes has earned him and Princeton University Press a major prize. What began as a kind of footnote has turned into a life's work and one of the great literary biographies of the century, all the more remarkable because it is being written by a man who is neither an ethnic Russian nor even a professional Slavist by training. The fourth volume, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, has just been published-a fifth and last is planned.
Russian writers have a reputation as a wild lot. Feodor Dostoevsky was no exception: he led an unsettled and mostly unhappy life him that left him short of money and time to write. He complained that his gentry rivals-Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Goncharov-had an unfair advantage because they did not have to make deadlines to keep bread on the table. If only he had their leisure, he would lament, what novels he might write! But then, the novels he managed to produce are not bad, and the tragedies, triumphs, and absurdities of his life furnished the bare bones of his art.
The story of Dostoevsky's life has been told many times before, so why do we need another retelling? Not surprisingly, given his intentions from the beginning, Frank is not writing a conventional biography, but one that centres on Dostoevsky's works: "I do not go from the life to the work, but rather the other way around. My purpose is to interpret Dostoevsky's art, and this purpose commands my choice of detail and my perspective," he said in the first volume. One benefit of this approach is to make the writer into a free agent vis-à-vis the materials of his own life. Frank makes his perspective clear from the very beginning, in the way he treats Dostoevsky's early years. The novelist came from a pious home, merchant class on his mother's side, clergy on his father's. He was the second son of a military doctor who worked his way up to the bureaucratic rank that conferred the status of hereditary nobleman. Dostoevsky adored his gentle mother. He also loved his domineering and hysterical father, was hostile to him, and struggled to forgive him, and there can be no doubt that this difficult relationship lay at the root of his later psychology. But Frank, unlike Freud in his provocative 1928 essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide", does not see the novelist merely as the creature of his own unconscious impulses. This issue is important enough to Frank that he includes his discussion of the limits of Freud's analysis in an appendix to The Seeds of Revolt. For Frank, the writer as writer is free to use his own experiences as he wishes, and we as readers must judge him finally for the wisdom and universality of what he creates.
As a man Dostoevsky was high-strung, irritable, vain; even his doting second wife found him hard to take. With real or supposed enemies, he could be ruthless and vindictive. His parody of Ivan Turgenev in The Devils, although, as Frank contends, it may have redeeming social value, is in the first place a vicious public pillorying of an easily recognizable contemporary. Even less forgivable are Dostoevsky's Russian chauvinism, his narrow-minded attacks on foreign nationals, and especially his well-documented hatred of Jews. While Frank does not hide these flaws, he does not dwell on them. This is my only serious criticism of this otherwise excellent biography. I believe that Dostoevsky's xenophobia and anti-semitism lie at the very heart of his thought and as such require attention that Frank, at least so far, has not given them. Frank's de-emphasis on Dostoevsky's personal failings has more justification. According to Wayne Booth's classic study of authorial voice (in The Rhetoric of Fiction), the writer has two personae. The first is the author as an individual, who has haemorrhoids, chases women half his age, and gambles compulsively (all true of Dostoevsky). The second is the author while he or she is writing a particular work, what Booth calls the implied author, outside the concerns of everyday life, just as the Boothian implied reader gives him or herself entirely over to the act of reading. This implied author is not completely objective, and is somewhat different in each individual work, but neither is he or she deliberately idiosyncratic. Frank cares about and tries to conjure up Dostoevsky as implied author, who in the quiet of his study mobilized all his spiritual and intellectual energies to transform the particular things he knew about himself and others into characters and situations that have universal validity. In his biography, Frank's critical interpretations of artistic works thus function as the defining moments of the life of the implied author of Dostoevsky's works, rather than as documentation of the life of a private individual. The writer's personal foibles, except to the extent that they mar or enhance his work, should not be important to the reader.
In Dostoevsky's case, of course, the foibles do count. A writer can have direct access to the psyche only through his feelings, and Dostoevsky, as one of the greatest and most influential practitioners of the psychological novel, certainly drew on inner knowledge in creating all his characters, from the meanest to the most noble. For the most part, Frank does not analyse the psychologist, and his Dostoevsky may come out more reasonable than the real one was. But he was as self-conscious and smart as he was passionate and impulsive. His works are never confessional or autobiographical in the narrow sense. In them he is always rearranging and making sense of the raw data collected from himself and others. One could even say that this Dostoevsky, the implied author, is more directly present in his works, less adulterated, than the particular individual who, as in real life, must remain a mystery to others.
This is not then a biography in the traditional sense, but neither is it a history of Dostoevsky's ideas. Frank is not repeating the seminal work of Konstantin Mochulsky or Nikolai Berdyaev. He agrees with the Russian symbolist Vyacheslav Ivanov that Dostoevsky's novels are ultimately timeless "novel-tragedies", but he points out that the "conflicting moral-religious alternatives" that create these tragedies arose from "the social-cultural conflicts of Dostoevsky's own time and place".
"If we are concerned with understanding Dostoevsky himself," he says, "rather than the innumerable ways in which he has entered into the consciousness of the modern world, it is indispensable to return to these origins as our point of interpretive departure. Otherwise, we are apt to go sadly astray in assessing the meanings he wished to convey, and even miss the artistic structures through which this meaning is conveyed."
In other words, Frank is concerned first and foremost with interpretation, but he argues that we cannot read Dostoevsky's works properly without knowledge of their historical roots in the writer's life and times. His biography works in the opposite way as well. Thoughtful, often brilliant interpretations of texts prove the relevance of the historical background so vividly evoked.
In The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, Frank gives a balanced account of Dostoevsky's early family life, his religious and cultural background, and the larger cultural milieu that he encountered when he arrived in St. Petersburg, aged sixteen, to prepare for entrance into the academy for military engineers. Setting the stage for Dostoevsky's life and career, this volume also gives an invaluable description of Russian literary life on the threshold of the great age of novels. He was an intense, impressionable boy, living in a world of books and determined himself to write from an early age. In his late twenties, when such a young man today might be writing television scripts for the CBC or teaching creative writing at a university, he got involved in a political conspiracy and was sentenced to hard labour in Siberia after facing a mock execution ordered by the Tsar Nicholas I. One of his co-conspirators went mad, but in the fifteen minutes while he waited to be shot, and during solitary imprisonment before and after it, the young Feodor Mikhailovich discovered inner reserves that convinced him, once and for all, that human beings could never be completely determined by their surroundings. He had already experienced success and failure as a writer: his first book, Poor Folk, had been a great hit, while subsequent works like The Double and White Nights, regarded as minor masterpieces today, flopped with the public as well as with established writers and intellectuals. Now he was commencing a journey into the lower depths of society that would give him first-hand knowledge of a world that he had previously known only through romantic stereotypes.
If Dostoevsky's life in the 1840s up to his arrest could be said to be typical for a youth of his age, what happened to him thereafter was unique, and turned him into a uniquely original writer. One of the big puzzles of Dostoevsky criticism is to figure out what happened in this sparsely documented but crucial period. Frank's second volume, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, does a good job of establishing continuity with Dostoevsky's earlier life. For one thing, according to Dostoevsky's later account, he went to Siberia a socialist, and returned a Christian. Frank takes us from the socialism of Dostoevsky's youth to his later Christianity without resorting simply to the deus ex machina of a miraculous conversion in Siberia. He does this by resurrecting Dostoevsky's earlier relation to socialism in its complexity and with its links to Christianity, and then showing how the writer's thought evolved to an ethical Christianity that preserved what he had valued in his earlier socialism. This is but one example of how Frank explains Dostoevsky's development by replacing hoary clichés with nuanced explanations that make the seemingly impossible plausible. Dostoevsky came back to European Russia in 1859 with a wife and stepson, as well as with the epilepsy that would plague him for the rest of his life. He published Notes from the House of the Dead, a semi-autobiographical account of his years in prison and exile, which made him famous for a second time. He and his elder brother Mikhail established a journal, the goal of which was to mediate among the armed camps into which Russian opinion at that time was divided. Two collaborators at the journal, Apollon Grigoriev and Nikolai Strakhov, laid the philosophical underpinnings of the movement called pochvennichestvo (translated as "native soil movement" in Wayne Dowler's book on this), which Dostoevsky propagated in polemical articles as well in fiction. He became an accomplished polemicist, commenting on political and cultural events as they happened; while long conversations with his new friends gave his thought a theoretical dimension.
His first marriage was unhappy. While caring for his ailing wife, he began an affair with a much younger femme fatale named Apollinaria Suslova. In 1862, accompanied by Apollinaria, he travelled to Europe for the first of many times. (This trip produced one of his most important non-fictional works, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.) He also wrote Notes from Underground, in which the psychological portraiture of historical and literary types typical of his earlier work deepened into a philosophical meditation on his times. "Here for the first time," says Frank in The Stir of Liberation, "Dostoevsky creates a work entirely focused on exposing the moral-psychological dangers that he detects hidden behind the innocuous pieties of radical ideology; and when he combined this theme with a flexible adaptation of the form of the melodramatic thriller, he produced the synthesis of his mature masterpieces." By the mid-sixties, both Dostoevsky's wife and his much-loved older brother had died, his journal and its short-lived successor had folded, and his love affair was Suslova with on the rocks. Frank's third volume ties together all these events and, for me at least, reaches a climax in the magnificent discussion of Notes from Underground.
In the period covered in The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, Dostoevsky continued to reel from crisis to crisis. Looking to remarry, he persisted with Suslova and courted other women as well. He went to Europe again, where he was at times so broke that he couldn't afford even tea for days on end. Because he had assumed all the debts of his dead brother and was determined to support his brother's family, he was in desperate need of money. For 3,000 roubles, he agreed to produce a novella for an unscrupulous publisher by a certain date or relinquish the rights to republish all his works for nine years. The stenographer, Anna Snitkina, who helped him just beat the deadline, became his wife, and this happy marriage eventually brought him the children and stability he sought. In the short run, however, the newly married couple wrestled with money troubles and, once abroad, couldn't return for fear of debtor's prison. This involuntary expatriation fuelled Dostoevsky's xenophobia and led to a famous blow-up with Turgenev in Baden-Baden, as well as to Dostoevsky's further alienation from leftists like Alexander Herzen, whom he had previously admired. In Germany, and then in Switzerland, probably because of his financial situation, Dostoevsky gambled ferociously. He would often lose every penny and then some, so that he would have to pawn his wife's spare dress or their wedding rings to pay his debts. The couple's first child was born, and, to their immense grief, died a few weeks later. They moved to Italy for a while and then back to Germany for the birth of their second child, Lyubov, who remained healthy. The Dostoevskys returned to Russia only in 1871.
During all this time, at home and then abroad, Dostoevsky followed politics and culture closely, often taking less extreme positions than might be supposed from his right-wing reputation. In discussing the sources of Crime and Punishment, for instance, Frank shows how Dostoevsky was of two minds about young radicals seeking to undermine the government. He deplored their methods, but he sympathized with their idealistic desire for change. In the aftermath of the first attempt on the Tsar Alexander II's life in 1866 (by a crazed student), Dostoevsky worried as much about the heavy-handed reaction of the government as about the actions of the Left. While he did participate actively in political debate, and did take what we would call right-wing positions on most issues, Frank's nuanced explanations of his politics draw our images of writer and political thinker a little closer together.
Volume IV is long, over five hundred pages, but, true to his method, Frank spends relatively little time chewing over the juicy details of Dostoevsky's private life. Not surprisingly for a Dostoevsky scholar, he is able to see things through the eyes of his subject, so that the sensational makes psychological sense. His tone strikes a middle note between subjective warmth and objective chill. Dostoevsky the man comes across as believable, neither god nor demon. The account of the Dostoevskys' life abroad is typical of his style. He makes me, the reader, understand how Anna puts up with her difficult husband, how she forgives him for his outbursts and lapses without surrendering her dignity, and how he adores her for her tolerance and love. I see Dostoevsky avoiding Turgenev in Baden-Baden because he owes him money and because he is ashamed of his gambling. (Perhaps, Frank speculates, he remembered the highly unflattering picture of gamblers in Turgenev's just published novel Smoke.) But precisely because of those blasted fifty roubles, Dostoevsky must call on Turgenev and, most uncomfortable of all, his gambling fever may make it necessary to ask for another loan. So the meeting takes place. Dostoevsky, unbeknownst to Turgenev, hates Germany and feels constantly humiliated there. Turgenev, for his part, is smarting from criticism of Smoke as anti-Russian and out of touch with current Russian realities. He turns the conversation to the novel, perhaps hoping for sympathy from someone who had championed his earlier Fathers and Children when it was attacked from all sides. Then, according to Dostoevsky in a letter to a friend, "`I advised him, for the sake of convenience, to order a telescope from Paris. `What for?' he asked. `It's far from here,' I replied. `Train your telescope on Russia and examine us, because otherwise it is really hard to make us out.'" Stunned, Turgenev explodes, and then the two men, having shouted themselves out, retreat to safe topics and say their goodbyes. Propriety requires that Turgenev return Dostoevsky's call, which he does at ten in the morning when he knows that Dostoevsky is not available. Painting with a fine brush (and I only sketch an outline of the fuller picture in the book), Frank makes this familiar anecdote fresh. More importantly, he retrieves it from the realm of myth back to reality, where I grasp it as a quarrel between two living personalities.
Even in Frank's moderate hands, Dostoevsky's life continues to read like one of his novels. But what makes these years miraculous, and what makes his life different from those of his characters, is his literary production. From 1865 to 1872, working under often intolerable conditions, he wrote three major novels and two novellas. One after another they emerged, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and The Devils. Frank reviews each of these in three stages: at its sources in Dostoevsky's life and times, as it develops from idea to finished product, and as a finished work of art. Fine as he is as a biographer, Frank is in his full glory here, as literary historian and critic. He does not reconstruct the whole history of each work or its whole meaning, of course, any more than he resurrects the whole man in his biography. He summarizes at times, but more often he provides detailed snapshots along the paths that most interest him. As a literary critic myself, I do not agree with every detail of his analysis. But at the very least he is informative, even for experts in the field, while at his best he is original and inspired.
The great novels written during the period covered in The Miraculous Years are seen, respectively, as a struggle between Christian and atheistic consciousness (Crime and Punishment), a portrait of a truly good man and his fate in the modern world (The Idiot), and a study, both satiric and sympathetic, of the origin, the aspirations, and the likely outcome for society of the Russian revolutionary movement (The Devils). In Russia today, these novels, especially the last one, read like cautionary tales.
I love the moments when Frank locates a major theme of a work in something extremely personal for Dostoevsky, when, for instance, he links the letters of the repentant gambler to Anna to the central focus on compassion in The Idiot, or, in another key, when he uncovers the beginnings of The Devils in a struggle within Dostoevsky between the pamphleteer and the tragedian. He also illustrates how Dostoevsky incorporates and transforms important political events or documents into his art. The ideas of Raskolnikov echo those of Dmitry Pisarev, the champion of nihilism in the 1860s, especially as expressed in Pisarev's article on Turgenev's Fathers and Children and the polemics that resulted. Chapters 23, "History and Myth in The Devils, I", asks whether Dostoevsky distorted the true nature of the revolutionary movement in Russia at the time. Neat detective work worthy of Porfiry, the detective in Crime and Punishment, leads Frank to conclude that, although Dostoevsky may criticize the revolutionaries, he does not slander them. In a case of truth being as strange as fiction, Frank uncovers evidence that Sergey Nechaev, the real-life professional revolutionary upon whom Peter Verkhovensky is based, was as unscrupulous and fanatical as his literary counterpart. Chapter 24 looks at the literary-cultural origins of The Devils, and especially the genealogies of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the writer Karmazinov (based on Turgenev), and the enigmatic genius of the novel, Nikolai Stavrogin.
Great works of art, like great ideas, are never comprehended in their entirety by one reader or generation of readers. We read them through the prism of our own needs and experience: it is not they, it is we who change.
The job of the literary critic is to introduce us to new authors and to re-establish our ties to the classics. Joseph Frank grew up with the existential Dostoevsky. In our time, when freedom is becoming the problem instead of the answer to the troubles of society, he is giving us a Dostoevsky who is concerned with the limits of freedom. In a classic example of the old becoming the new again, his Dostoevsky is a Victorian with a sense of responsibility which we have lost and for which we now yearn. This Dostoevsky was a kind of super-journalist who, in his own words, created a fantastical realism because only it would truly mirror reality as he found it in his own soul and in the newspapers of his time. He created the underground man not as a model to emulate but as an example of divided modern consciousness. Don't get me wrong. Dostoevsky in Frank's version is still the greatest defender of human freedom. But Frank wants to remind us that Dostoevsky, both in his life and his works, came to equate true freedom with self-overcoming. Neither the me-generation with its endless self-indulgence, nor our present-day culture of victims would fare well in a Dostoevsky novel.

Donna Orwin is the author of Tolstoy's Art and Thought, 1847-1880 (Princeton University Press) and is a visiting professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature department at the University of Toronto, where she is also a resident fellow in the Centre for Russian and East European Studies.


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