Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Timeby Joseph Frank
Joseph Frank's award-winning, five-volume Dostoevsky is widely recognized as the best biography of the writer in any language--and one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century. Now Frank's monumental, 2500-page work has been skillfully abridged and condensed in this single, highly readable volume with a new preface by the author./i>
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Joseph Frank's award-winning, five-volume Dostoevsky is widely recognized as the best biography of the writer in any language--and one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century. Now Frank's monumental, 2500-page work has been skillfully abridged and condensed in this single, highly readable volume with a new preface by the author. Carefully preserving the original work's acclaimed narrative style and combination of biography, intellectual history, and literary criticism, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time illuminates the writer's works--from his first novel Poor Folk to Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov--by setting them in their personal, historical, and above all ideological context. More than a biography in the usual sense, this is a cultural history of nineteenth-century Russia, providing both a rich picture of the world in which Dostoevsky lived and a major reinterpretation of his life and work.
J. M. Coetzee
A. S. Byatt
"A monumental achievement. . . This is not a literary biography in the usual sense of the term. . . . It is, rather, an exhaustive history of Dostoyevsky's mind, an encyclopedic account of the author as major novelist and thinker, essayist and editor, journalist and polemicist. . . . Wrought with tireless love and boundless ingenuity, it . . . [is] a multifaceted tribute from an erudite and penetrating cultural critic to one of the great masters of 19th-century fiction."Michael Scammell, New York Times Book Review
"It is unquestionably the fullest, most nuanced and evenhandednot to mention the most informativeaccount of its subject in any language, and it has significantly changed our understanding of both the man and his work."Donald Fanger, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"In his aim of elucidating the setting within which Dostoevsky wrotepersonal on the one hand, social, historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical on the otherFrank has succeeded triumphantly."J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books
"Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time thus immediately becomes the essential one-volume commentary on the intellectual dynamics and artistry of this great novelist's impassioned, idea-driven fiction. . . . To understand Dostoevsky's often savage satire or nightmarish visions or just the conversations among the Karamazov brothers, one needs to grasp not only the text but also the ideological context. To both of these there is no better guide than Joseph Frank."Michael Dirda, Wall Street Journal
"Magnificent. . . . A deeply absorbing account."James Wood, New Republic
"The ideal one-volume biography of Dostoevsky could only come through a distillation of the much-acclaimed five-volume biography (1976-2002) by Joseph Frank. In compressing his longer work, editor Mary Petrusewicz tightens the rigor of a narrative that already departed from traditional biography by focusing chiefly on the ideas with which the Russian author wrestled so powerfully, providing the details of his personal life only as incidental background. Thus, for example, while readers do learn of formative incidents during Dostoevsky's four years in tsarist prison camp, what they see most clearly is how the prison experience deepened the author's faith in God while dampening his zeal for political reform. In a similar way, Frank limns only briefly the life experiences surrounding the writing of the major novelsCrime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazovdevoting his scrutiny largely to how Dostoevsky develops the ideological tensions within each work. Readers consequently see, for instance, how Napoleonic illusions justify Raskolnikov's bloody crimes, how the Worship of Man dooms Kirillov to suicide, and how deep Christian faith enables Alyosha to resist Ivan's corrosive rationalism. Yet while probing Dostoevsky's themes, Frank also examines the artistry that gives them imaginative life, highlightingfor exampleperspectival techniques that anticipate those of Woolf and Joyce. A masterful abridgement."Bryce Christensen, Booklist(Starred Review)
"Frank displays a brilliant command of Dostoyevsky's heroic endeavors, and his biography reads readily, especially for such a scholarly work. It compares nicely with Leon Edel's multivolume biography of Henry James. Highly recommended."Robert Kelly, Library Journal
"It is wonderfully lucidly written and a marvellous portrait of the man behind the books."Nadine Gordimer, Independent
"This extraordinary biography succeeds in making both irony and great ideas wholly alive, immediately accessible to us. It is a great work, both of scholarship and of art."A. S. Byatt, Sunday Times (London)
"A narrative of such compelling precision, thoroughness and insight as to give the reader a sense not just of acquaintanceship, but of complete identification with Dostoevsky, of looking through his eyes and understanding with his mind."Helen Muchnic, Boston Globe
"One of the finest achievements of American literary scholarship."René Wellek, Washington Post Book World
"Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time at last offers non-specialist readers access to the definitive biography of an important figure in the history of the novel. . . . Patient, cautious, critical but not judgmental, using clear language and a chronologically ordered narrative structure, Frank neutralises the unreliable and hysterical self-constructions of which his subject was capable. The result is like watching an artist building an intricate, large-scale painting around a single figure. . . . Frank's great insight is that, just as no one aspect of Dostoevsky's complex personality can be separated from the others, no part of his writingwhether aesthetic, moral, religious or politicalcan be quarantined from the others. Frank's biography honours the polyphony of Dostoevsky's novelistic imagination: even in truncated form, it is a rare triumph."Geordie Williamson, Australian
"Frank's monumental five-volume study of Dostoevsky deserves to be read, if only as an inspiring lesson about how much more thrilling a focus on ideas can be than the standard biography's obsession with the connections between creativity and the subject's personal life. The series has been condensed with incisive care and respect, giving those with limited time (and budget) a chance to engage with a revelatory vision of the Russian writer's enduring greatness."Bill Marx, PRI's "The World"
"This is the Dostoevsky we encounter in Joseph Frank's superb Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, a one-volume, 984-page condensation of Frank's five-volume biography of the author, written over the course of a long and distinguished career. . . . Few biographers could muster the intelligence and imagination needed to capture all this in a single tome. We should be grateful for Joseph Frank."Peter Savodnik, Commentary
"With the publication of Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time earlier this year, a massive abridgement of five volumes written over three decades, Frank breaks once and for all with his early critic's stilted categories in portraying the human subject. His innovative method of biography, influenced heavily by literary criticism, starts with artistic expression and moves backward, seeking to carefully situate his subject within ideological context. . . . Without a doubt, the genius of Frank's form is in combining three modalities in crafting his narrative: literary criticism, social and intellectual history, and biography."Aaron Stuvland, Politics and Culture
"Joseph Frank's magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevskyone of the exemplary achievements of our erahas invaluably been published in an abridged one-volume edition."Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
"The depth of Frank's achievement is to put the writer and his work in social, political, ideological and historical context."Jeff Baker, Oregonian
"Most of us spend much of our life trying to understand only a handful of people we know and love, in a span of time usually extending just three generations (from our parents to our children). Imagine, then, devoting your life to trying to make sense of one other person long dead, whom you had necessarily never met, with whom you may have nothing in common, and whose times and works must always seem elusive, encoded and frustratingly out of your reach. In a pursuit of that kind, Leon Edel trudged through five volumes on Henry James, Robert Caro is working away on his fourth installment of Lyndon Johnson's biography, and Edmund Morris is finalizing his third book on Teddy Roosevelt. Joseph Frank, though, trumps them all. After writing Feodor Dostoevsky's biography in five volumes, Frank and a gifted editor (Mary Petrusewicz) have now turned that massive, interminable endeavour into an abridged, accessible one-volume edition."Mark Thomas, Canberra Times
"Joseph Frank, emeritus professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford and Princeton universities, fully grasped the pressure of the political and religious issues seething in and around the visionary author to whom he dedicated his career. It took him five highly praised volumes and 26 years (1976-2002) to give a full account of Dostoevsky's life, works and times; this new, hefty condensation was done in collaboration with editor and Russian scholar Mary Petrusewicz, on condition that the original five volumes remain in print, available to anyone 'wishing for a wider horizon.' . . . Frank's magisterial homage deserves no less recognition."Judith Armstrong, The Age
"Frank's five-volume biography has been called 'magisterial' and monumental,' as well as 'nuanced,' 'lucid' and 'penetrating.' The same might be said of this shorter version."Marilyn McEntyre, Christian Century
"Frank's contribution to understanding Dostoevsky is no less than Dostoevsky's own gift to the world of literature."Sarthak Shankar, Organiser
"Interspersed with others, it took me a while to read this altogether majestic bookbut I'm so glad I did. [T]his tomb more than illuminates Dostoevsky's life vast array of brilliant writing."David Marx, David Marx
"One of the greatest literary biographies ever written, Frank's five-volume account details the nearly unfathomable life and literary career of a writer who endured epilepsy and exile."Jonathon Sturgeon, Flavorwire
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DOSTOEVSKYA Writer in His Time
By JOSEPH FRANK
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
The last years of the reign of Alexander I were a troubled, uncertain, and gloomy time in Russian history. Alexander had come to the throne as the result of a palace revolution against his father, Paul I, whose increasingly erratic and insensate rule led his entourage to suspect madness. The coup was carried out with at least the implicit consent of Alexander, whose accession to power, after his father's murder, at first aroused great hopes of liberal reform in the small, enlightened segment of Russian society. Alexander's tutor, selected by his grandmother Catherine the Great, had been a Swiss of advanced liberal views named La Harpe. This partisan of the Enlightenment imbued his royal pupil with republican and even democratic ideas; and during the first years of his reign, Alexander surrounded himself with a band of young aristocrats sharing his progressive persuasions. A good deal of work was done preparing plans for major social reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom and the granting of personal civil rights to all members of the population. Alexander's attention, however, was soon diverted from internal affairs by the great drama then proceeding on the European stage-the rise of Napoleon as a world-conqueror. Allied at first with Napoleon, and then becoming his implacable foe, Alexander I led his people in the great national upsurge that resulted in the defeat of the Grand Army and its hitherto invincible leader.
The triumph over Napoleon brought Russian armies to the shores of the Atlantic and exposed both officers and men (the majority of the troops were peasant serfs) to prolonged contact with the relative freedom and amenities of life in Western Europe. It was expected that, in reward for the loyalty of his people, Alexander would make some spectacular gesture consonant with his earlier intentions and institute the social reforms that had been put aside to meet the menace of Napoleon. But the passage of time, and the epochal events he had lived through, had not left Alexander unchanged. More and more he had come under the influence of the religious mysticism and irrationalism so prevalent in the immediate post-Napoleonic era. Instead of reforms, the period between 1820 and 1825 saw an intensification of reaction and the repression of any overt manifestation of liberal ideas and tendencies in Russia.
Meanwhile, secret societies-some moderate in their aims, others more radical-had begun to form among the most brilliant and cultivated cadres of the Russian officers' corps. These societies, grouping the scions of some of the most important aristocratic families, sprang from impatience with Alexander's dilatoriness and a desire to transform Russia on the model of Western liberal and democratic ideas. Alexander died unexpectedly in November 1825, and the societies seized the opportunity a month later, at the time of the coronation of Nicholas I, to launch a pitifully abortive eight-hour uprising known to history as the Decembrist insurrection. An apocryphal story about this event has it that the mutinous troops, told to shout for "Constantine and konstitutsiya" (Constantine, the older brother of Nicholas, had renounced the throne and had a reputation as a liberal), believed that the second noun, whose gender in Russian is feminine, referred to Constantine's wife. Whether true or only a witticism, the story highlights the isolation of the aristocratic rebels; and their revolution was crushed with a few whiffs of grapeshot by the new tsar, who condemned five of the ringleaders to be hanged and thirty-one to be exiled to Siberia for life. Nicholas thus provided the nascent Russian intelligentsia with its first candidates for the new martyrology that would soon replace the saints of the Orthodox Church.
Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on October , 1821, just a few years before this crucial event in Russian history, and these events were destined to be interwoven with his life in the most intimate fashion. The world in which Dostoevsky grew up lived in the shadow of the Decembrist insurrection and suffered from the harsh police-state atmosphere instituted by Nicholas I to ensure that nothing similar could occur again. The Decembrist insurrection marked the opening skirmish in the long and deadly duel between the Russian intelligentsia and the supreme aristocratic power that shaped the course of Russian history and culture in Dostoevsky's lifetime. And it was out of the inner moral and spiritual crises of this intelligentsia-out of its self-alienation and its desperate search for new values on which to found its life-that the child born in Moscow at the conclusion of the reign of Alexander I would one day produce his great novels.
Chapter TwoThe Family
Of all the great Russian writers of the first part of the nineteenth century-Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Nekrasov-Dostoevsky was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry. This is a fact of great importance, and influenced the view he took of his own position as a writer. Comparing himself with his great rival Tolstoy, as he did frequently in later life, Dostoevsky defined the latter's work as being that of a "historian," not a novelist. For, in his view, Tolstoy depicted the life "which existed in the tranquil and stable, long-established Moscow landowners' family of the middle-upper stratum." Such a life, with its settled traditions of culture and fixed moral-social norms, had become in the nineteenth century that of only a small "minority" of Russians; it was "the life of the exceptions." The life of the majority, on the other hand, was one of confusion and moral chaos. Dostoevsky felt that his own work was an attempt to grapple with the chaos of the present, while Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and War and Peace (he had these specifically in mind) were pious efforts to enshrine for posterity the beauty of a gentry life already vanishing and doomed to extinction.
Such a self-definition, made at a later stage of Dostoevsky's career, of course represents the distillation of many years of reflection on his literary position. But it also throws a sharp light back on Dostoevsky's past, and helps us to see that his earliest years were spent in an atmosphere that prepared him to become the chronicler of the moral consequences of flux and change, and of the breakup of the traditional forms of Russian life. The lack, during his early years, of a unified social tradition in which he could feel at home unquestionably shaped his imaginative vision, and we can also discern a rankling uncertainty about status that helps to explain his acute understanding of the psychological scars inflicted by social inequality.
On his father's side, the Dostoevskys had been a family belonging to the Lithuanian nobility. The family name came from a small village (Dostoevo, in the district of Pinsk) awarded to an ancestor in the sixteenth century. Falling on hard times, the Orthodox Dostoevskys sank into the lowly class of the nonmonastic clergy. Dostoevsky's paternal great-grandfather was a Uniat archpriest in the Ukrainian town of Bratslava; his grandfather was a priest of the same persuasion; and this is where his father was born. The Uniat denomination was a compromise worked out by the Jesuits as a means of proselytizing among the predominantly Orthodox peasantry of the region: Uniats continued to celebrate the Orthodox rites, but accepted the supreme authority of the pope.
Since the non-monastic clergy in Russia form a caste rather than a profession or a calling, Dostoevsky's father was naturally destined to follow the same career as his father. But, after graduating from a seminary at the age of fifteen, he slipped away from home, made his way to Moscow, and there gained admittance to the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in 1809. Assigned to service in a Moscow hospital during the campaign of 1812, he continued to serve in various posts as a military doctor until 1821, when, aged thirty-two, he accepted a position at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, located on the outskirts of Moscow. His official advancement in the service of the state was steady, and in April 1828, being awarded the order of St. Anna third class "for especially zealous service," he was promoted to the rank of collegiate assessor. This entitled him to the legal status of noble in the official Russian class system, and he hastened to establish his claim to its privileges. On June 28, 1828, he inscribed his own name and that of his two sons, Mikhail and Feodor (aged eight and seven, respectively), in the rolls of the hereditary nobility of Moscow.
Dr. Dostoevsky had thus succeeded, with a good deal of determination and tenacity, in pulling himself up by his bootstraps and rising from the despised priestly class to that of civil servant, member of a learned profession, and nobleman. It is clear from the memoirs of Dostoevsky's younger brother Andrey-our only reliable source for these early years-that the children had been informed about the family's ancient patent of nobility, and looked on their father's recent elevation as a just restoration of their rightful rank. The Dostoevskys thought of themselves as belonging to the old gentry aristocracy rather than to the new service nobility created by Peter the Great-the class to which, in fact, their father had just acceded. Their actual place in society was in flagrant contradiction to this flattering self-image.
Medicine was an honorable but not very honorific profession in Russia, and Dr. Dostoevsky's salary, which he was forced to supplement with private practice, was barely enough for his needs. The Dostoevskys lived in a small, cramped apartment on the hospital grounds, and living space was always a problem. Mikhail and Feodor slept in a windowless compartment separated by a partition from the antechamber; the oldest girl, Varvara, slept on a couch in the living room; the younger children spent the nights in the bedroom of the parents. It is true, as Andrey notes, that his family had a staff of six servants (a coachman, a so-called lackey, a cook, a housemaid, a laundress, and a nyanya or governess for the children), but this should not be taken as an indication of affluence. From Andrey's comment on the "lackey," who was really a dvornik or janitor, we see how eager the Dostoevskys were to keep up appearances and conform to the gentry style of life. His job was to supply the stoves with wood in winter and to bring water for tea from a fountain two versts distant from the hospital, but when Marya Feodorovna went to town on foot, he put on livery and a three-cornered hat and walked proudly behind his mistress. When she used the coach, the livery appeared again and the "lackey" stood impressively on the back footboard. "This was the unbreakable rule of Moscow etiquette in those days," Andrey remarks wryly. Dostoevsky certainly remembered this rule, and his parents' adherence to its prescripts, when Mr. Golyadkin in The Double hires a carriage and a livery for his barefoot servant Petrushka in order to increase his social standing in the eyes of the world.
The Dostoevskys' pretensions to gentry status were wistfully incongruous with their true position in society. Dostoevsky would one day compare Alexander Herzen, born (even if out of wedlock) into the very highest stratum of the ruling class, with the critic Vissarion Belinsky, who was "not a gentilhomme at all! Oh no! (God knows from whom he descended! His father, it seems, was a military surgeon)." So, of course, was Dostoevsky's, and the remark indicates what he learned to perceive as the reality of his family's situation. Dr. Dostoevsky and his offspring would never enjoy the consideration to which they felt entitled by right of descent from noble forebears.
* * *
While stationed at a Moscow hospital in 1819, the thirty-year-old Dr. Dostoevsky must have mentioned to a colleague that he was seeking a suitable bride. For he was then introduced to the family of Feodor Nechaev, a well-to-do Moscow merchant with an attractive nineteen-year-old daughter, Marya Feodorovna. Marriages in those days, especially in the merchant class, were not left to chance or inclination. Dr. Dostoevsky, after being approved by the parents, was probably allowed to catch a glimpse of his future bride in church, and then invited to meet her after he agreed to a betrothal; the introduction to the girl was the sign of consent, and the future bride had nothing to say about the matter. Both Dr. Dostoevsky and his new in-laws were similar in having risen from lowly origins to a higher position on the Russian social scale.
The older sister of Dostoevsky's mother, Alexandra Feodorovna, had married into a merchant family much like her own. Her husband, A. M. Kumanin, had risen to fill various official functions, and the Kumanins were among those merchant families whose wealth allowed them to compete with the gentry in the opulence of their lifestyle. The proud and touchy Dr. Dostoevsky, who probably felt superior to his brother-in-law both by birth and by education, had to swallow his pride and appeal to him for financial succor on several occasions. Dostoevsky's own attitude to his Kumanin relatives, whom he always regarded as vulgarians concerned only with money, no doubt reflected a view he had picked up from his father. In a letter to Mikhail just after hearing of his father's death, Dostoevsky tells him "to spit on those insignificant little souls" (meaning their Moscow relatives), who were incapable of understanding higher things. Andrey speaks of the Kumanins warmly; they looked after the younger Dostoevsky orphans as if they had been their own children. But though Dostoevsky too later appealed to them for aid at critical moments in his life, he never referred to them in private without a tinge of contempt.
Dostoevsky always spoke of his mother with great warmth and affection; and the picture that emerges from the memoir material shows her to have been an engaging and attractive person. Like her husband, Marya Feodorovna had assimilated a good bit of the culture of the gentry. In a letter, she describes her character as being one of "natural gaiety," and this inborn sunniness, although sorely tried by the strains of domestic life, shines through everything that we know about her. She was not only a loving and cheerful mother but also an efficient manager of the affairs of the family. Three years after Dr. Dostoevsky became a nobleman, he used his newly acquired right to own land to purchase a small estate about 10 versts from Moscow called Darovoe. A year later, the Dostoevskys hastened to acquire an adjacent property-the hamlet of Cheremoshnia-whose purchase caused them to go heavily into debt. No doubt the acquisition of a landed estate with peasant serfs seemed to make good business sense to the doctor, and it was a place where his family could spend the summer in the open air. But in the back of his mind there was probably also the desire to give some concrete social embodiment to his dream of becoming a member of the landed gentry. It was Marya Feodorovna, however, who went to the country every spring to supervise the work; the doctor himself could get away from his practice only on flying visits.
Located on poor farming land, which did not even furnish enough fodder for the livestock, the Dostoevsky estate yielded only a miserable existence to its peasant population, but as long as Marya Feodorovna was in charge things did not go too badly. During the first summer she managed, by a system of canals, to bring water into the village from a nearby spring to feed a large pond, which she then stocked with fish sent from Moscow by her husband. The peasants could water their livestock more easily, the children could amuse themselves by fishing, and the food supply was augmented. She was also a humane and kindhearted proprietor who distributed grain for sowing to the poorest peasants in early spring when they had none of their own, even though this was considered to be bad estate management. Dr. Dostoevsky reprimands her several times in his letters for not being more severe. Almost a hundred years later, the legend of her leniency and compassion still persisted among the descendants of the peasants of Darovoe. It was no doubt from Marya Feodorovna that Dostoevsky first learned to feel that sympathy for the unfortunate and deprived that became so important for his work.
Excerpted from DOSTOEVSKY by JOSEPH FRANK Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University, author of "Dostoevsky's Unfinished Journey"
Caryl Emerson, Princeton University, author of "The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature"
Meet the Author
Joseph Frank is professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford and Princeton. The five volumes of his Dostoevsky biography, published between 1976 and 2002, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Los Angeles Times book prize, two James Russell Lowell Prizes, two Christian Gauss Awards, and other honors. In 2008, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies awarded Frank its highest honor.
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One of the finest biographies I have ever read. The new combined works of Frank into one edition is a must for anyone who loves both great literature and a compelling biographical story of one of the literary giants of all time.