Coloring Dostoevsky's World

"Dostoevsky, The Mantle of a Prophet, 1871-1881" by Joseph Frank, Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press, 784 pages, $35

Eli Shaltiel
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Eli Shaltiel

"Dostoevsky, The Mantle of a Prophet, 1871-1881" by Joseph Frank, Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press, 784 pages, $35

When the eagerly awaited fifth and last volume of Joseph Frank's biography of the Russian author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky came out in May, it marked the successful conclusion of one the most ambitious and intriguing biographical enterprises in recent decades. American biographer Frank says that if any of his friends had predicted 30 years ago that he would devote all his scholarly energies to describing the complicated life of this Russian author, he would have said they were out of their minds.

Before the work began, there was nothing in Frank's professional record to indicate any interest in biography, not to mention that of a controversial Russian author. At first, his interest in Dostoevsky was a kind of appendix, a footnote to his purely theoretical forays into literary criticism. In those years - the early 1970s - his specialty was Sartre and existential literature. It occurred to him at some point that certain aspects of Dostoevsky's work might enrich and deepen his understanding of the philosopher-writer from Paris. As he set out to explore this theory, Frank realized that he lacked even the most basic tools: He did not speak Russian, and his knowledge of 19th-century Russian history and culture was almost negligible. He made up his mind to study the language. The deeper he went, the more fascinated he became. He was hooked. He thought it was only temporary and that soon he would return to his beloved French and his dark reflections on modern man in the 20th century.

Like many researchers, the curious critic discovered that he had enough material for a book on Dostoevsky and his work - one slim volume, but original and ground-breaking. From here to realizing Dostoevsky's writings could not be properly understood in total isolation from his life, the road was short.

In the introduction to the first volume of the biography, "The Seeds of Revolt," about Dostoevsky's boyhood and teenage years, Frank writes that he was mistaken to think that one little book was sufficient to convey the twists and turns in the development of this profound writer. Even at this early stage of his research, it was apparent how deeply rooted Dostoevsky's literary oeuvre was in the intellectual and social milieu of his country, past and present. His work was a kind of seismograph, charting the subtle changes in the spiritual and cultural life in Russia. One volume, said Frank, was not enough to convey all this. Two volumes - yes. In the end, he produced five thick tomes of meticulous research, weaving together three distinct themes: literary criticism of Dostoevsky's works, a broad and illuminating view of 19th-century Russian history and biographical data.

From many standpoints, Frank's books are an anomaly in the field of biographical writing today. His work is very far from the "British school," the style that currently rules the roost. Tracing the life of the Russian author is not associated in his mind with any kind of self-discovery. There is no dynamic dialogue going on, as it were, between the researcher and his subject at various stages of the inquiry. As a biographer, Frank maintains a certain detachment from the literary-historical figure he is writing about. If he made any discoveries about himself during the long years he spent in the company of Dostoevsky, he is careful to keep the news to himself. Only rarely does he allow himself to comment on the issues at hand from a modern-day perspective.

`Life and times' tradition

That Joseph Frank is repelled by certain aspects of Dostoevsky's personality seems clear: His aggressive nationalism, for instance. As a Jew, Frank cannot be nonchalant about the primitive anti- Semitic elements in Dostoevsky's writing. Most of the time, however, he allows his readers to be the judge. Frank does not shy away from details, but he knows the secret of how much is needed for a rich and balanced account. His biography is true to the good old "life and times" tradition. The only difference is that instead of the customary two volumes, he has published five.

At the core of this traditional outlook is the assumption that the life of the protagonist cannot be interpreted properly in isolation from the historical circumstances that colored the world around him. The biography of a historical figure is an intricate web of responses and influences. Dostoevsky, more than all the great authors of 19th-century Russia, derived his inspiration from real life, even from the front pages of the newspaper, to the point where the critics of his day felt that this excessive realism harmed his work.

Dostoevsky basically wrestled with one pivotal issue that shaped the intellectual history of Russia in the 19th century: In opening a window onto the West, Peter the Great set off a great wave of introspection and search for identity among his countrymen. To the outside world, the issue was portrayed, somewhat simplistically, as a bitter controversy between those who eyed the West and those who found in Russia - in its traditions, religion and past - everything the nation needed to overcome the hardships of modern times and pursue Russia's "messianic mission" as the heir of Rome.

After experiences that included subversive activities, arrest, trial, a narrow escape from execution, exile to Siberia, and fleeing the country to escape debtors, Dostoevsky returned to Russia in 1870 and soon became the prophet and spokesman of the world of the Slavophiles, the lovers of Russian heritage and tradition. The fifth volume of Frank's biography explores these years - from Dostoevsky's return to his homeland, up until his death.

The title of the book, "The Mantle of a Prophet," has multiple meanings. It sums up the role Dostoevsky played in Russia during the last decade of his life, but also alludes to a poem by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin which Dostoevsky was particularly fond of and often recited at evenings held in his honor.

When Dostoevsky first returned from Europe, the raging controversy over his novel "The Possessed" had not yet subsided. Young radicals accused him of waving the banner of ultra-conservatism, and the critics found innumerable flaws in his writing. But a fascinating transition took place in Russia in the 1870s which helped to win him acceptance.

Waning interest in the West

Frank describes how interest in imitating the West and its values began to wane, even in intellectual circles. The generation of the 1840s, whose chief representatives were Nikolai Chernishevsky, Alexander Hertzen and Ivan Turgenev, lost its appeal, and hunger for Western-style socialism was slowly replaced by appreciation of the old, traditional values of Russian culture. Socialism was deemed mechanical and soulless compared with the Russian village, with its traditional cooperative institutions.

In this atmosphere, Dostoevsky was felt to be expressing the spirit of the nation. His fondness and support for the czarist regime were not forgotten, but he was perceived as a courageous and independent critic, unafraid of denouncing its misdeeds and corruption. Contributing to this newfound appreciation of Dostoevsky was a unique literary enterprise in the history of world literature. Its name notwithstanding, "The Diary of a Writer" was not a diary in the formal sense, but a kind of literary-political monthly in which all the articles were written by one person: Fyodor Dostoevsky. It appeared regularly in 1876-1877, and a heroic attempt to revive it was cut short by the author's untimely death.

For many years, Frank writes, this diary did not enjoy the acclaim it deserved. Like Dostoevsky's other writings, it was written under pressure, with strict deadlines often leaving their mark. Nevertheless, when it is studied with the kind of thoroughness that Frank has brought to the task, one can see how important it is for understanding Dostoevsky and his work.

Contrary to popular belief, Dostoevsky also published fiction in this monthly. In fact, it is here that some of his most beautiful and mature work appeared. Nevertheless, the diary's primary importance lay in its essays on social, political and cultural issues. Some are immediate responses to the events of the day, while others are deeper, more abstract musings on the destiny and mission of Russia. Yet even when writing about Russia's role in what historians call the "Eastern question," addressing military and diplomatic affairs, Dostoevsky weaves in his own incisive views on Russia's standing among the Slavic peoples, the shallowness and bankruptcy of the West, and the betrayal of Russian writers and intellectuals who venerated the West.

Aside from gathering material for his writing from the newspapers, Dostoevsky was a frequent visitor to the courts. He responded to what he saw and heard there through essays brimming with harsh social criticism. These articles make it difficult to label Dostoevsky a reactionary, and explain what it was about him that appealed to young people battling for social reform. To convey a sense of dynamic dialogue with his readership, Dostoevsky made a point of responding to readers' letters - and had no qualms about "inventing" letters, if need be.

Hatred of the Jews

Dostoevsky's anti-Semitic remarks have greatly complicated the attitude toward his work of Jewish readers and fans. One can always come up with lame excuses, as some of his admirers do. But Frank is not among those who try to cover up this painful saga. Moreover, on the basis of Dostoevsky's correspondence and private journals, one can see that the anti-Semitic utterances in his books are not something tacked on for artistic or literary reasons. His approach is racist to the core. Dostoevsky's contact with Jewish readers, male and female, but especially female - even in relationships that were meaningful to him - did not diminish his deep hatred of the Jewish people, whom he believed had harmed and continued to harm the foundations of Russian society and culture. In an article on the Jewish question in "The Diary of a Writer," Dostoevsky reveals ignorance, burning hatred and anti-Semitism of the crudest and most primitive kind. Frank analyzes and explains, but ends on a personal note, expressing sorrow and dismay.

The second literary focus of this massive volume is "The Brothers Karamazov," whose final chapters were published only months before the author's death. Frank's sweeping discussion of this book practically stands on its own. He treats it as the pinnacle of Dostoevsky's work, and succeeds in convincing us that many of the flaws characteristic of his earlier writing have been eliminated here. "The Brothers Karamazov" is Dostoevsky at the height of his maturity and artistic powers. In it, he gives full voice to his views and opinions, again depicting Russia in confrontation with the ills and corruption of Western socialism.

In June 1880, a few months before Dostoevsky's death, devotees of Alexander Pushkin convened in Moscow for the unveiling of a giant statue of the great Russian poet. The gala celebrations that accompanied this event have gone down as a turning point in Russian intellectual history. There is no question that Dostoevsky's participation in these festivities, and the speech he delivered, have helped to commemorate him and establish his rightful place in this history.

In many respects, these festivities marked the triumph of the Slavophiles over those who idolized the West. In days to come, the event was portrayed as a kind of duel between Turgenev and Dostoevsky. There was no doubt about the victor: It was the author of "The Brothers Karamazov" who had the laurel wreath placed on his head.

This detailed, highly dramatic account of the Pushkin festival and Dostoevsky's speech succeeds in bringing home to the reader why this event, on the eve of a revolution that was to take the country in another direction entirely, was such a landmark in the annals of Russian history. In the hands of Joseph Frank, dry facts, familiar to every student of history, are elevated almost to the point of literature.

Dr. Eli Shaltiel is the author of "Moshe Sneh: A Life," published by Am Oved.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op