A review of Dostoevsky, by Joseph Frank
Volume One: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 (1976)
Volume Two: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 (1983)
Volume Three: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 (1986)
Volume Four: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (1995)
Volume Five: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (2002)
Prizes and praise have not been wanting for each of the five volumes of Joseph Frank's recently completed biography of Feodor Dostoevsky (Volume Five was reviewed in these pages by Thomas G. West, Fall 2002). Taken together they constitute one of the most stupendous accomplishments of American literary criticism of the past 25 years. What has been lacking is a summary overview of Frank's critical method, with its rare and scrupulous attention to the development of Dostoevsky's artistry, to his quite polemical involvement in the major defining political and social exchanges of his day, the great attempts to determine the nature of the Russian national character, and to the many disappointments and new beginnings of his tumultuous career. This choice of critical perspectives has succeeded in drawing out with enormous effectiveness the character and the thought, the life and the work of one of the most important creative artists and thinkers since the Renaissance, whose struggles, complexities, and evolutions remain as important today as they were in those traumatic decades of Russian 19th-century society.
From the Introduction to the first volume (reconfirmed in the Introduction to Volume Four), Frank sets out his own critical approach. By concentrating on the memorable accomplishments of Dostoevsky—the reason we are interested in his life at all—Frank goes against one of the popular tendencies of the biographies of our time, which blur all critical salience by seeking to incorporate every scrap of known material—relevant or irrelevant—into the "life," as if it were a matter of supreme importance where a certain individual stood on a certain morning in May. Frank is determined to concentrate on the issues of the life that produced the great works and to place the growing thought of Dostoevsky himself in the social and cultural context of Russia in those crucial and changeful decades of the 1840s and 1860s.
Here we come to one of the most determinant aspects of Dostoevsky's character—the indomitability of his will, what he meant when he referred to himself as possessing "the vitality of a cat." There were many grave cuts across his life, but after each crisis and fall he emerged stronger than ever, eager to make a new start, filled with conviction and with faith. These changes of fortune emerge most dramatically when Frank's many volumes are seen as being of a piece. Along with the unbearable defeats, we can follow the successes of Poor Folk, of The House of the Dead, of Crime and Punishment, all as it were bringing Dostoevsky back from the dead, and achieving what his writerly instinct always desired: full recognition of his enormous talents and of his role as the true portraitist of the Russian character. It would not be until the final years that this early dream of success is realized under far different circumstances and with greater Ã©clat than he had ever imagined. It is in these years that Frank's own fifth volume rises to the level of a masterpiece, as if endowed with the power of that which he narrates.
The first reversal comes with Dostoevsky's arrest for being a member of a radical circle when he was one of the most promising young writers of St. Petersburg in the 1840s. This is the beginning of the complex story of continuity and change—of the tumultuousness of conversion, what Dostoevsky called the "regeneration of [his] convictions." Through an insightful reading of Dostoevsky's upbringing, and how it differed from that of the landed gentry, Frank gets both components right, the continuity in the midst of such radical change.
At the start of Volume Three, Frank reminds us that "few great writers in modern literature have been subject to such abrupt and dramatic changes of fortune, both in personal life and literary career, as Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky." But there is one such writer (not perhaps modern in the narrower sense of the word), and that is Dante. At the moment of praise and acclaim, when he also represented a powerful voice in the Florentine Signoria, Dante suffered the severe blow of life-long exile, from which he was never to return to his much-beloved native Florence. This shock of fortune, including a sentence of death, went deep into Dante and was much like the shock suffered by Dostoevsky when he was forced to endure the final excruciating moments of what he did not know was a mock execution. Dante of course lived to be feted and celebrated in the noble houses of northern Italy, while Dostoevsky survived four years in a Siberian penal colony, followed by a slightly longer period as a military conscript. But for each this deprivation became the basis of triumph. Without his exile, which became the dominant plot-line of his Commedia, Dante would not have become the Dante we have come to know. He would have remained a poet of sonnets and canzoni, easily overshadowed by the extraordinary lyrical talent of Petrarch. Similarly, Dostoevsky's literary reputation would only have rested on Poor Folk, some desultory tales, and the much derided, yet minor masterpiece, The Double, which following the spectacular success of Poor Folk was regarded as a work of some lunacy. This is only the beginning of the dramatic story that Frank has to tell. Dostoevsky had to survive other grave crises: following the success of The House of the Dead, he endured the crushing blows of the death of his wife, the death of his beloved brother Mikhail, the mistaken suppression of his booming journal, Vremya(Time), and the collapse of its successor Epokha (Epoch). Saddled with debt, responsible for his brother's family, Dostoevsky once again found liberation and strength in disaster, and became in the ensuing years the great novelist whom we value.
The entire story is a complicated and engaging one, to which Frank brings all the qualities of a masterly literary critic. The first is selectivity, that is, the capacity to choose and elevate in importance works that should command attention—this also includes an adroit use of valuable background material. Second is the calm objectivity and insight that winnow contending arguments and after due deliberation arrive at a just assessment, showing not only that balance which can be merely a product of a mechanical stuffiness, but the finer balance, the fine tuning that Camus called that "équilibre supérieur." Third is the unerring sense to bring to the fore fragments or neglected works and show their importance in the formation of Dostoevsky's thought. In Volume Three, for instance, in that remarkable chapter "Will I Ever See Masha Again," from some fragments that Dostoevsky jotted down while his deceased wife's body lay on the table in the next room, Frank shows the fullest evolution in Dostoevsky's religious thought (which must be emphasized again and again, particularly his faith in the resurrection of the body, that somehow we will see our "forefathers" again). So, too, he gives great and deserved attention to Dostoevsky's notes toward an unfinished article, "Socialism and Christianity." But the five volumes are filled with such extractions, where pieces that might have been neglected or ignored are brought to the front and shown to be of primary value. Nor to be forgotten, because it is a necessary critical tool in analyzing Dostoevsky's position as a polemicist as well as a novelist, is Frank's fair-mindedness, his combination of sympathetic generosity with an unflinching independence that is not reluctant to indicate the shortcomings of some of his subject's ideas. The voluminousness of Frank's endeavor not only allows him to offer full and acute literary analysis of the great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov, it permits him to give detailed attention to what might appear to be minor works, The Double, The House of the Dead, The Gambler, even that chilling short story, A Gentle Creature, and to show their fuller importance in Dostoevsky's emotional make-up as well as in the evolution of his work.
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Volumes One (1821-1849) and Two (1850-59) do more than set the stage. They show that Dostoevsky's family life and early training were far from abnormal; they were devoutly and conventionally Christian. Contrary to some received opinion, Dostoevsky was a believing Christian throughout his life, whatever his doubts, vacillations, and personal transformations and versions of Christian philosophy. He was, after all, as he himself repeated, "a child of [his] century." To be sure, beneath the conventionality there were tensions, the awareness of which only sharpened his later novelistic tendency to see beneath surface appearances. But Frank, judiciously adhering to known facts, takes issue with Freud's famous essay, "Dostoevsky and Parricide." Resisting the temptation to read backwards from The Brothers Karamazov into Dostoevsky's life, he shows that while a fretting and irascible type, Dr. Dostoevsky was far from a brute. He may have been a stern taskmaster, but as his son realized this was because he earnestly desired the success of his children. Perhaps prefiguring Dostoevsky's own later attacks of epilepsy, he was a nervous man. He did impregnate a serving girl and was thought to have been killed by his serfs (which later evidence now disputes). At the time of his father's death Dostoevsky, away in St. Petersburg at the Academy of Engineers, had not seen him for two years. If there were any sense of guilt it was over the fact that his retired father, burdened by the increasingly straitened financial conditions of an unyielding farm, was always ready to comply with the young student's needs for more funding.
From the portraiture of Dostoevsky's youth, we can discern qualities emerging that align him with other significant figures of a religious or artistic genius. For one, Dostoevsky had a precocious presentiment of the imminence of death and dying, only exacerbated in later life by the increasingly frequent epileptic seizures. Endowed with this hyper-imaginative sensibility he had a tendency to write in extremis, to render and to respond to the apocalyptic. He was a visionary, which carried with it the defects of an ardent if abusive assertiveness. He also had that unusual capacity to fully identify with what he was reading, whether it be Russian literature, Sir Walter Scott, or the Gothic novel. He became what he read and was endowed with what could be called ultimate seriousness (despite certain tendencies toward satire). His lifetime of conviction and faith was to be fully recognized and revered by his contemporaries in Dostoevsky's own later years. Finally, he had an openness to experience, which most fully came into being when the family would spend their summer months at Darovoe where the father had purchased a small estate. He particularly displayed this willing openness to peasant life, a trait which held him in good stead and allowed him to penetrate if not participate fully in the lives of the convicts described in The House of the Dead. In all of this Dostoevsky was quite different from both Turgenev and Tolstoy, who as landed gentry always felt a great distance from peasant life. Moreover, each of these later rivals both attest to the absence of any religious instruction in their early training (the influence of Voltaire seemed to prevail), and were brought up like most of their peers, not on the familiar classics of Russian literature, as was Dostoevsky, but on foreign literature, particularly French. But this openness has other reaches as well. In its very capacity to transform itself it leads to unexpected revelations. Most of Dostoevsky's major novels underwent remarkable changes in their development, as if some ulterior purpose was manifesting itself and the novel could not rest until that ultimate purpose had been achieved. Here (as in other most significant points) Dostoevsky differs most notably from Turgenev, who always seems to write from within the boundaries of his conscious intent. Dostoevsky's very openness sweeps him up and carries him beyond what he had at first intended. He was open to growth and thus to further discovery.
In St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky, along with his brother Mikhail, was determined to make his mark as a writer. Suddenly, almost miraculously, success came overnight with the wild reception given to Poor Folk by his friends, and more importantly by the dominant literary critic of the time, Vissarion Belinsky (with whom Dostoevsky would later admit some estrangement over the latter's dismissal of Christ). This was a breakthrough work that managed to fit into Belinsky's new critical position that art should show "social tendencies." The success of Poor Folk revealed several things. First, that the social concerns of Dostoevsky were alive from the start and that they were concerns that he never relinquished, hence his great sympathetic if critical portrayal of some of his rebels, who were driven by a hatred of social injustice. But of equal importance, this breakthrough work and the huzzahs it provoked (Dostoevsky was literally carried through the streets) aroused Dostoevsky's demons, in particular, a megalomania. As with Macbeth, his demons met him on the day of his success, and this made him the object of caricature. Like Rousseau, he was a shy creature and socially inept—he is alleged to have fainted when introduced to an attractive woman. But also like Rousseau, his ineptitude derived ultimately from a superior sense of himself and his calling. Rousseau turned from a cuddly bear into a boor after the tumultuous success of the First Discourse; something similar happened to Dostoevsky after his first great success. His bright star was further tarnished when Belinsky, while recognizing his talents, turned against The Double. When Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 he had become the victim of heady and overheated praise only to suffer the cold shoulder of incomprehension at a work that later criticism could see as bearing one of the hallmarks of his genius—his taste for the fantastic. Frank recognizes The Double as a flawed work—mainly because the double is not merely a product of a serious hallucinogenic malformation but also seems to assume an objective reality and is seen by other people. But the importance of the creation cannot be overlooked, because Dostoevsky is here discovering his theme, the malady of the Russian soul, the role played by the need to assume a role, the pathological development of a hypertrophied self-consciousness. In The Doublethe cause is the stifling bureaucratic oppression, but later this same danger of a premeditated self-consciousness that alienates one from his own most authentic and sympathetic being will be played out on the larger screen of the social and political ideas imported from the West, to which the susceptible Russians proved to be only too vulnerable. Dostoevsky himself felt that The Double was flawed, and he set out to revise it at the time he was completing another St. Petersburg work about a young man from the provinces with unfulfilled dreams and ambitions—of a Napoleonic sort. As we contemplate the schism in the soul between deliberative models and authentic being, we must not forget that Dostoevsky considered St. Petersburg to be the most "premeditated" of cities.
Volume Three (1860-1865) covers Dostoevsky's return from exile, his reemergence as a literary figure, and his own head-long entrance into all the political ferment of the newly sensed freedoms brought about by the liberalizing policies of Alexander II and the freeing of the serfs in 1861. For instance, 150 newspapers and journals were created in Russia between the death of Nicholas I in 1855 and 1860. Into this new welter of opinion, Dostoevsky, with his own convictions reaffirmed, entered with a sense of urgency and focus, and he was determined to make a splash. He did so with the phenomenal success of his prison memoirs, The House of he Dead, which Frank judges rightly to be a masterpiece of a genre that was to become all too common (of Dostoevsky's works it was Tolstoy's favorite).
Frank gives ample weight to its success as a work of social reform. Readers were horrified at the descriptions of the brutal floggings. There was also an uproar at the senseless bureaucratic rigidity with which the ill and the dying were treated. Any reading of The House of the Dead must serve to qualify if not totally dispel any accusation that Dostoevsky was an outright reactionary, xenophobe, and anti-Semite (the last volume does give a nuanced account of Dostoevsky's own conflicted views on these matters, even of the notorious "The Jewish Question"). The House of the Dead shows Dostoevsky's openness to the various peoples of the far-flung Russian Empire; his tolerance and love for the Chechen Muslims is apparent as is his respect for the resolute independence of the Jew Ismay. Dostoevsky was not an inveterate reactionary but rather a moderate reformer, who militated for the liberation of the serfs and who throughout his life was outraged by social injustice and acts of brutality.
But in Frank's more complex reading other qualities emerge, those that enter into Dostoevsky's greatness as a novelist. Among the first are his analytical intelligence and his unblinkered awareness of the "phenomena of nature." These qualities might be attributed to what Nicholas Berdyaev, that most lucid analyst of the Russian character, referred to as their "paganism." Dostoevsky was indeed Terentian in that nothing that was human could be considered alien, or uninteresting.
The House of the Dead shows Dostoevsky's skill in describing life lived at the extremes, for instance the bath-house scene (praised as Dantesque by Turgenev) where a hundred convicts at a time are obliged to sweat it out hunched one on top of the other. But the most interesting scenes show some of the better instincts of the men, their residual remembrances of a better life. Come the Christmas season and cognizance is apparent even among the most hardened that they are participating in a noumenal event. They have an instinctual reverence for the holy—which to be sure soon turns to drink, drunkenness, and stupefaction. But with the Easter season it is different, and again men who have committed horrible crimes display a reverence for the meaning of life conveyed in the religious ceremony. In one of the best chapters, Dostoevsky describes their naïve appreciation of the aesthetic in the acting abilities of their confederates. Here Dostoevsky intervenes to lament the waste of human talent that has occurred as well as the richness of the Russian folk traditions.
This brings us to one of his most critical and abiding insights—the need for human freedom, which will inform his next two major works and will set him most at odds with the new radical intelligentsia of the 1860s. In what could be identified as his "Dostoevskian" manner, he sees through the most paradoxical and convulsive behavior into its genuine motivations. Thus, a prisoner will work months at good behavior, even amass a sum of money, only to blow it all in an outbreak of drunkenness and brawling, almost certain to receive the punishment of flogging and increased prison time. Dostoevsky does not look upon this as would a bluestocking but sees underneath it an unquenchable desire to be free, to be somebody, to express one's rights as an individual. In The House of the Dead—and the title increasingly becomes ironic—Dostoevsky shows his fascination with the varieties of human existence, with the importance of life itself and hope, and the ways humans will take to express their individuality, their enduring need for freedom.
These remarkable tendencies will form the basis of the tandem works, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions and Notes from Underground, works that begin to show the intellectual drives of the Dostoevsky of the great novels. There the bureaucratic malaise of The Double will be replaced by the foreign grafts of European ideas and culture that will in turn be responsible for creating a newly divided consciousness, one that is quite alien to the native virtues of the Russian character. The Double has been displaced; the double is now the devil, an infectious mass contagion that has broken through the borders of national consciousness.
When Dostoevsky made his first trip to the West he saw into the future and decided he did not like it. Not by having read books and come with preconceptions, but rather instinctively by experience and observation, he became a critic of the advanced stages of European consciousness. And he understood them not at their weakest links but at their most sacrosanct presumptions, the bourgeoisie and the aspirations of socialism, all based upon the triumph of reason and virtue. Dostoevsky was an inveterate walker and through all hours of the night he saw with Disraeli that the English were indeed two nations. London, that teeming colossal city, is one from which the masses have seceded, "slunk into weekend drunken torpor, hidden away in their underground." Dostoevsky's tone is apocalyptic: "these millions of people abandoned and driven away from the human feast, shoving and crowding each other in the underground darkness into which they have been thrown by their older brothers, gropingly knock at any gate…."
Paris is different; they both worship Baal but the Londoners manage to disregard the inequity, while in Paris they disguise it behind an exalted manner—a veneer of nobility of demeanor, of protestations of virtue, and of high-sounding eloquence, what Rousseau described in the First Discourse as a play-acting of forms. But there is an insecurity in the bourgeoisie. Since their motive is security their ethos is standstill. They have achieved the level of their attainment. They have no new worlds to conquer and yet must always be busy for fear of slipping. And yet there is also a smugness, a self-contentment as if they were quite sure of success in this world and salvation in the next. Of course Dostoevsky was not to witness the enormous capacity Western bourgeois societies had to transform themselves. But neither does one need to wonder what his reaction would have been to the slaughterhouse of World War I, nor to the triumph of Bolshevism in his own country.
Dostoevsky had the unenviable task of arguing against virtue, against an optimistic rationalism. He speaks as a novelist from the broad human experience of lived ideas and is tired of the blackboard schema of juvenile projections that are simply undone by the realities of the human condition and human history. There are conditions of reality that cannot be contrived, that if not innate are at least bred with the bone. Western society is too individualistic truly to embrace socialism. All attempts at liberty, equality, and brotherhood must fail because there is no adequate grounding for these possibilities in the conditions of society. For these reasons the bourgeois repeatedly repulsed the socialists, who are now reduced to replacing their present goals with future projections. And it is for the sake of this future utopia that present sacrifices must be made. The sterling future prospect thus seems to justify all actions in the present. Make no mistake, Dostoevsky is fully aware of the coercive nature of this bartering of the present, and he repeats the added fourth term to the triadic slogan of the French Revolution: "liberté, egalité, fraternité—ou la mort." We know the genuine meaning of this addition, but it bears a more menacing implication, not self-sacrifice in the struggle to make these values prevail, but death to the other should he fail to comply. "Sois mon frère, ou je te tue."
These are the ideals, Western ideals, that have infiltrated the Russian intelligentsia of the 1860s in whatever modified form, and that have disturbed the consciousness of the most eager, the most naïve, the most generous. In a critical tour de force Frank shows how Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground parodies these ideas, with particular reference to Chernishevsky's What is to be Done, a kind of radical bible for the generation of 1860. In fact, the underground man's divided consciousness is a direct product of that alien infusion, resulting in his own "secession" and his retreat to the underground. Undervalued and misunderstood in its time, Notes from Underground has truly become one of the profound metaphors of modern literature. Dostoevsky has found what every novelist desires: a spokesman, an unreliable one, paradoxical, narcissistic, one who in his own "inertia of consciousness" reveals the consequences of the radical ideas. Yet his insights are accurate and roughly of the same hue as those of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. The underground man's tone of defensive self-mockery, what Frank quite accurately calls his "inverted rhetoric," derives from his attack on virtue. How does one argue against virtue? Quite obviously one adopts the self-strangling tone of the underground man. But what if "virtue" is based upon the wrong set of facts? What if it makes future projections of which we have no way of knowing whether they can be realized, or if realizable whether they are desirable when they should appear? Or what if they entail inevitable counter-results such as the revenge and rebellion of the psyche in acts of subversiveness, such as Dostoevsky witnessed in the urges for freedom in prison? It is quite clear that we should not prefer the way of life of the underground man, but that does not mean that his criticisms are invalid.
This is underscored by the notorious excision by Dostoevsky's censors where the underground man himself acknowledges not only his own incompleteness, but also his own awareness that he is in search of a fuller existence. "I know that it is not the underground that is better, but something different, altogether different, something that I long for, but I'll never be able to find." Inexplicably the censors excised what that something was, namely, "the necessity of faith and Christ" (as we learn from a letter by Dostoevsky). Why the censors behaved as they did is one of the more spectacular enigmas of literary history. But however wrong they were politically they may have had some point aesthetically. Despite his extraordinary insights, the underground man must remain underground, he must remain a victim of the inertia of consciousness, of his own inability to transform his own doubleness as both critic and victim. To remove him from this inverted and perverse dialectic would betray the logic of the story. It would also subvert the magnificent paragraph that follows, where the underground man, in the fullest expression of his consciousness, imagines the criticisms that are directed against him: "'Perhaps you really have suffered, but you don't respect your own suffering. There's some truth in you too, but no chastity; out of the pettiest vanity you bring your truth out into the open, into the market-place, and you shame it…and without a pure heart there can be no full, genuine consciousness.'"
The great novels follow these works, with all of the precedent ideas entering into and elevating their scope and importance. Besides providing full and detailed critical analyses (and I emphasize the word critical, because while sympathetic, he is too capable a reader not to recognize flaws), Frank describes the important genesis, evolution, and final completion of Dostoevsky's powerful and even massive works. We must recall that as a life-long devotee of Schiller, Dostoevsky held to the transcendent powers of art, an imaginative art that was itself an avenue of knowledge and power. Thus he was able to resist all the calls to a more tendentious art. Moreover he took much pride in the prophetic nature of his work—that he was so in tune with what was happening with the young Russian intellectuals that he was able to penetrate and even predict their inner thoughts and actions. He also had great hope for the future development of these divided souls, including Raskolnikov and even (although the odds seem against it) Ivan Karamazov, as if they will spring even higher because of their bent souls. They will suffer much, but eventually the divided consciousness itself, with the proper directions, and reformations brought about by suffering and long time, might even surge higher than those who know no such breaks in the continuity of their being. In this Dostoevsky might be painting his own self-portrait.
"Crime and Punishment," Frank informs us, "began as the idea for a long short story, the first person confession of a murderer, presumably planned to be somewhat the same length as Notes from Underground." For three chapters Frank then recounts the genesis and the gestation and provides an indispensable reading of Dostoevsky's first great novel. From the superb scholarly editions of Dostoevsky's works compiled by Soviet scholars, we have the notebooks that Dostoevsky kept while working on Crime and Punishment and are able to observe the changes the novel underwent: "it was only as the work developed and expanded in his hands that it took on [its] multifaceted richness." The most important change was from first to third-person narration. There were also the gradual and necessary revelations of Raskolnikov's true motives. At first utilitarian they later (under examination by the amazing creation—Porfiry, the investigating official) prove to be of a different sort; they are the kind of thought of which Dostoevsky had become increasingly suspicious since it lay at the root of the radical projections—the thought that for the sake of a future good one can legitimize a present crime. Great names—Moses, Romulus, and others—have been associated with this thought, called "foundation sacrifice." And in the realm of the complex decisions concerning the interests of state, it has had its defenders, particularly, however heavily qualified, Machiavelli. But what happens when this broader theory becomes the hand-me-down of an individual? Can he, simply to prove that he is able to, that he is a "great man," overstep the lines of good and evil? Where is the compelling necessity, the greater public good? Raskolnikov of course fails because his actions possess none of these justifications but also because his beliefs are more of a foreign infection, an alien virus that contends with his true instincts.
Just as Crime and Punishment developed from novella to novel, so The Devils in even more spectacular fashion moves from political pamphlet-novel, heavy on satire, to an imaginative work of enormous proportions, where historical individuals are transmuted into great mythic and representative types born from Dostoevsky's own intense feelings and experience. To my mind it is his greatest work, and Frank calls it "perhaps [Dostoevsky's] most dazzling accomplishment," but later will refer to The Brothers Karamazov as his "greatest work." With the aid of notes concerning the composition, Frank follows meticulously the development before giving his own reading. Clearly the greatest addition, the added presence that takes possession of the novel like some Romantic demigod, but one who falters, is that of Stavrogin, apparently based upon the leader (Nikolay Speshnev) of the more interior circle of political radicals with whom Dostoevsky was associated prior to his arrest in 1849. But Stavrogin emerges from real types to blend with the mythic heroes of previous generations, the aristocratic generation of the 1820s. He is the aristocratic leader, responsible for all, but beholden to none. He is the lost prince, the missing tsarevich for whom all yearn, yet he is an imposter, a false claimant. He understands all, sees through all, yet is committed to nothing. Believing he enjoys an aesthetic impunity beyond good and evil, thus uninvolved with ethics and with history, he is rightly compared to Faust in his self-imputed sense of inviolability.
Going beyond Stavrogin, this is a novel with the deepest rootings in Dostoevsky's consciousness of Russian intellectual life and its representative figures, one of which is the feckless Romantic idealist of the 1840s, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, who has sired but not fathered the leader of the radical generation, Peter Verkhovensky. Liberal fathers and radical sons, the inexorable and mysterious nexus between the two, gentleness and light if ineffective carelessness—all help to create an aggressively brutal and deluded rationalistic nihilism. This is the theme Dostoevsky explores and broadens into a whole spectrum of characters and interests: Kirillov, Shatov, the lacerated women, the Sir Politick Would-Be's of the Russian provincial scene. The spectacle is rife with satire, with comedy and with tragedy, and Frank gives them all their due.
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It is impossible to comment on all of the observations and apercus of Frank—and they are many and worthy of a novel of such rich dimensions. Despite his own critical awareness of its blemishes, he can still conclude: "The Devils remains unsurpassed as an astonishingly prescient portrayal of the moral quagmires, and the possibilities for the self-betrayal of the highest principles, that have continued to dog the revolutionary ideal from Dostoevsky's day down (even more spectacularly) to our own." Not the least of the reasons for this preeminence is the notorious conclusion of Shigalovism: "Starting out from limitless freedom I end with limitless despotism."
By far the most dramatic of Frank's five volumes is the last, where he movingly describes how Dostoevsky, by virtue of his political journalism and broader reflections on Russian life in the Diary of a Writer and the serial publication of The Brothers Karamazov, became more than a cult figure. He became a spiritual leader, adored and even admired by those who were upset by The Devils. Physically he was shrunken, frail, withdrawn and even morose, but when he spoke people felt they were hearing a voice that had come back from the dead, a soul who had sojourned in the underworld, one like Oedipus at Colonus who had been scarred by the gods, and thus who spoke knowingly of the mysteries of the heart and the tangled webs of human history. He was more than a manifest literary genius; here was a man who understood and presented the profoundest issues of religion and philosophy with a touching simplicity, as if he had lived through them and come to know them from his most intimate personal experience. He had overcome the divisions of consciousness, the terrible doubleness of which he was the most expert witness and had achieved a remarkable unity of being. Through the bitter travails of his own life he had become a national figure, one who altered and raised the level of discourse, removing it to where human needs and experience are universal.
Dostoevsky terminated his column, Diary of a Writer, which had acquired a huge following, in order to begin work on The Brothers Karamazov. Reading the installments of this massive novel people realized that there was a true literary genius in their midst, one who in the scope of his imaginative undertaking had surpassed his contemporaries. Unlike the other major novels, The Brothers Karamazov underwent no radical transformations in the course of the writing. This is because, as Frank shows in his own meticulous following of the novel's growth, it was something Dostoevsky had been writing all his life. Rebellion and regeneration, the divided and the integral consciousness, the image of Christ as the final model for mankind: These were not newly won concerns but those that entered into all of his major works from even before Notes from Underground. Nevertheless, the serial publication did present some problems, as people read the Pro and Contra episodes in isolation and identified the author with Ivan's rebellion and with his prose-poem, "The Grand Inquisitor." They failed to realize that one of the constant aspects of Dostoevsky's artistry was always to enter into the thoughts, the voice, the ways of speech of his characters, and only to introduce indirect commentary on their failings by juxtaposition with what follows or by the evident consequences of their thoughts and actions. Dostoevsky had thus to reassure troubled allies, advising them to wait for the next installment, the meeting with Father Zosima, which was intended as the material refutation of Ivan's metaphysical rebellion. Later he would write that the entire book was its refutation. He would also with impatience retort to his radical attackers that he understood rebellion far better than they because he had been there.
Despite what he knew was a race with death, Dostoevsky was beseeched and consented to give public readings of his work—one can think back to the more private but awe-provoking readings Rousseau gave of his Confessions. But the most fitting symbols of his full emergence were the festivities surrounding the unveiling—long overdue—of the Pushkin statue in Moscow, June 1880. This event had come to be regarded as a grand contest between Turgenev and Dostoevsky, the two literary rivals at odds over the future directions of Russian society.
Dostoevsky delivered one of his most astonishing speeches, one that was followed by a half-hour of convulsive applause and cheering. Speaking simply, directly, without dramatic exclamation, he traced Pushkin's career, emphasizing the portrait of the wanderings of the aimless aristocrat Onegin, contrasted with the stalwart moral beauty of Tatyana that was the natural expression of the Russian popular character; then he launched into his conclusion that Pushkin represented the best of the Russian character, open, generous, and now standing ready to provide a new model against the decrepit West, with its stern Roman Catholicism and the analytical skepticism of the Enlightenment. It is only from Russia that a new vision of Christ would come offering a different model for self-sacrifice and subjugation of the ego. Pushkin was a national poet, the voice of the Russian people, and he was universal by these very means. In the very process of the talk, Dostoevsky himself, now clearly Pushkin's heir, had moved from a pan-Slavism to a pan-humanism.
As with the other great novels (I here neglect The Idiot, Raw Youth, and others), Frank then provides a highly dependable reading of each of the 12 books of The Brothers Karamazov.
He thus comes to the end of his own Dostoevskian journey, one that has brought to life in all their full significance the great author's bitter defeats and personal triumphs. If I have one difficulty it is my sense that stretched over five volumes, this incredibly dramatic story is too extended—and thus diluted—for even the mythic common reader. While fully aware of the advantages of the biography's voluminousness, I would call on Frank and the Princeton University Press to bring out a one-volume abridgement, where all the essential elements would be present, but also where the incredible story of Dostoevsky's life and work would stand out in clearer outline. I am emboldened to offer this egregious suggestion by the very skill and succinctness with which Frank provides summaries and anticipations in the Introductions and Conclusions to the various volumes. In any event, no one should be deprived of reading Frank's description of Dostoevsky's final days, pages that would make the stones weep.