Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time
By Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press – £16.95
I heard the music of the spheres,
The flight of angels through the skies,
The beasts that crept beneath the sea,
The heady uprush of the vine;
And, like a lover kissing me,
He rooted out this tongue of mine
Fluent in lies and vanity
A.S.Pushkin (The Prophet).
As is written in the Preface of this simply uber sublime book: ”No modern writer rivals Dostoevsky in the grandeur of his presentation of […] eternal Christian dilemma – the fierceness of his attack on the presumed goodness of God, on the one hand, through Ivan Karamzov, and his attempt to counter it with the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor and the preaching of Father Zosima on the other.”
The above skeletal dissertation of surely one of the finest and most inventive writers ever, does much to trigger a cascade of didactic thought and the st(r)oking of one’s academic curiosity. For who else in relatively modern literature, agonisingly questioned unto such a ponderous, yet poignantly heroic, religious endeavour, as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky?
As is written at the outset of chapter three, Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time (‘The Religious and Cultural Background’): ”Dostoevsky’s contemporary, Alexander Herzen, remarks in his memoirs that ”nowhere does religion play so modest a role in education as in Russia.” Herzen was, of course, talking about the education of the male children of the landed or service aristocracy, whose parents had been raised for several generations on the culture of the French Enlightenment and for whom Voltaire had been a kind of patron saint.”
Lest we forget that of all the great Russian writers of the early nineteenth century, such as Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov and of course, the aforementioned Herzen; Dostoevsky ”was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry.” A rather turbulent facet of both his life and his literary, social outlook, that subliminally, yet without question, always influenced the view he fully embraced so far as his own position as a writer was concerned.
These 932 pages are a linear, credible, not to mention chronological testament to this fact; which, if nothing else, places the book’s author, Joseph Frank, upon the lone pedestal of great biographical writing (in relation to Dostoevsky). In and of itself, this should come as absolutely no surprise, as his award-winning, five-volume Dostoevsky is already widely recognised as perhaps the finest biography of the troubled Russian genius in any language.
In fact, many consider it to be one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century; which is where this somewhat condensed version comes into play. Frank’s monumental, 2500-page work has herein been most skilfully abridged into one, very readable volume. I say skilfully abridged, as it’s not something I’d particularly relish having to do – shredding fifteen hundred pages off one’s own magnum opus – but there you go.
This may go some way in explaining why Bryce Christensen of The Booklist has subsequently written: ”No one could produce a better one-volume biography of Dostoevsky than the author of a much-acclaimed five-volume biography… A masterful abridgement.”
Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time is indeed, a masterful piece of work. It’s the sort of read wherein the subject matter can become so absorbing, that one (perhaps subliminally) finds oneself questioning one’s own place and meaning in the world – even if only politically or from a strained stand-point of ergonomics.
Such semi-self-introspective consideration is somewhat brought to bear in chapter 27 (‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’), wherein Frank resolutely captures Dostoevsky’s fraught vision of yesteryear’s Europe: ”[…] the image that Dostoevsky conveys is of a society rotten to the core with greed for gold yet consumed with vanity at its own moral perfection. All of French life under Napoleon III is seen as a sinister comedy, staged exclusively for the purpose of allowing the bourgeoisie to enjoy both their continual accumulation of wealth and the spectacle of their ineffable virtue. Dostoevsky writes that ”all their [the workers] ideal is to become property owners and to possess as many things as possible”. While the bourgeoisie fears everyone – the working class, the communists, the Socialists – all such apprehensions are the result of a ludicrous mistake. No group in the West really represents any threat to the hegemony of the spiritual principle embodied in the bourgeoisie.
What, after all, has become of the ideals of the French Revolution under the Second Empire, the ideals of liberte, egalite, and fraternite? In momentary accord with Karl Marx and the Socialists, Dostoevsky views political freedom and legal equality, unaccompanied by economic equality, simply as repulsive fictions invented by the bourgeoisie to delude the proletariat. As for fraternite, this, Dosteovsky says, is in the most curious position of all. Europe is always talking about brotherhood and has even raised it to the status of a universal ideal, yet brotherhood is the very antithesis of the European character.”
Were the current French President, Francois Holland, or the European Union as a whole even partially cajoled into acting upon such raw, loaded and impeccable foresight as to what translucent ‘brotherhood’ ought to mean, let alone stand for; then perhaps the wretched economic crisis of the last few years might never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
But then what does ‘the dream of a ridiculous (Russian) man’ know?
Interspersed with others, it took me a while to read this altogether majestic book – but I’m so glad I did. Apart from being somewhat cathartic and most illustrative of the human mind (and its all encompassing, never-ending ability to at least try and understand humanity); this tomb more than illuminates Dostoevsky’s life vast array of brilliant writing. As whether socially or personally, historically or ideologically; it really is all here. In more ways than one. To quote J. M. Coetzee: ”In his aim of elucidating the setting within which Dostoevsky wrote – personal on the one hand, social, historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical on the other – Frank has succeeded triumphantly” (New York Review of Books).