Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time Hardcover – Nov 8 2009
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Co-Winner of the Etkind Prize, European University at St. Petersburg
"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 evenhanded--not to mention the most informative--account 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 wrote--personal on the one hand, social, historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical on the other--Frank 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 novels--Crime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazov--devoting 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, highlighting--for example--perspectival 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 writing--whether aesthetic, moral, religious or political--can 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 Dostoevsky--one of the exemplary achievements of our era--has 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 book--but 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
From the Back Cover
"Although the pace has quickened, the serene and magnificent persistence that Joseph Frank brought to his five volumes resonates fully in this distilled story. If (as Frank tells us) Dostoevsky 'felt ideas,' then Frank 'feels biography' at any scale, with a perfect sense of proportion."--Caryl Emerson, Princeton University, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature
"[This book] ensures Frank's status as the definitive literary biographer of one of the best fiction writers ever."--David Foster Wallace
"The editing and deep thought that have gone into this magnificent one-volume condensation of Frank's magnum opus are to be greatly admired. This is the best biography of Dostoevsky, the best reading of some of the major novels, the best cultural history of nineteenth-century Russia. Just the best."--Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University, author of Dostoevsky's Unfinished JourneySee all Product Description
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Here are some of the major points discussed at some length in Frank's biography that are most germane to an understanding of Dostoevsky the author:
* Of all the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century - including Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy - Dostoevksy was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry. On his father's side, he was descended from Lithuanian nobility, but the family had fallen to "the lowly class of non-monastic clergy." While his family was not poor, it certainly was not wealthy, and in the course of his life Dostoevsky had much greater exposure to the Russian masses than, say, his contemporaries and rivals Turgenev and Tolstoy. One result was that throughout his life Dostoevsky evinced genuine empathy for the Russian peasantry still untouched by secular Western culture.
* The core formative experience of Dostoevsky's life began in 1849, when he was twenty-seven and arrested for belonging to a group that studied and espoused certain tenets of European Liberalism that, in the unsettled circumstances of the day, were feared by the Tsar and his advisors to be revolutionary. Dostoevsky, along with others, was brought to a square in Petersburg for public execution. At the very last moment, while the first group of three stood blindfolded before the firing squad, the execution was cancelled. Instead Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor at a prison camp in Siberia. The mock execution both steeled Dostoevsky and awakened him to the extraordinary blessing and infinite value of life itself. In exposing him to the lowest depths of society and the truly outcast and desperate, the four years in prison in Siberia gave Dostoevsky uncommon insights into human psychology.
* Dostoevsky was deeply religious (of the Russian Orthodox faith), but he also understood, as well as perhaps any author in history, the conflict between faith and reason. He resolved that conflict in inimitable fashion, albeit along the lines of Kierkegaard's "leap of faith."
* For Dostoevsky "it was a moral-psychological necessity of the human personality to experience itself as free". Consequently, he rejected all modern or "scientific" dogmas of determinism and materialism. Indeed, in all of literature he is one of the foremost spokesmen for human free will.
* He was keenly interested in the contemporary events and politics of Russia and he integrated sensational events or scandals into his fiction and he used his fiction to comment on the major social, political, and cultural issues of the day.
In addition to discussing Dostoevsky's life and the social-political and ideological context for his novels, Frank also devotes considerable attention to an explication and interpretation of each of Dostoevsky's major works. These discussions were invaluable to me as I read through all of Dostoevsky's major works over the past year. As matters developed, I did not read DOSTOEVSKY: A WRITER IN HIS TIME straight through. Rather, I read the biography up to the discussion of Dostoevsky's first major work, "The House of the Dead" (an account of his time in the Siberian prison camp), then I read the work itself, then I returned to the biography to read Frank's discussion of that work and continued on to the next major work, "Notes from the Underground", which I then read, and I continued in similar fashion through "Crime and Punishment", "The Gambler", "The Idiot", "The Devils", and "The Brothers Karamazov." It turned out to be an excellent way of making my way through Dostoevsky's oeuvre with enhanced understanding.
I should add that Frank's biography is, for such an authoritative work, surprisingly readable. Joseph Frank is Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, but his DOSTOEVSKY, thankfully, is NOT freighted with academic jargon and syntax. It is in many respects a model of literary biography.
This biography is the best biography of Dostoevsky and easily one of the greatest biographies of all time. I have no issues with the scholarship of the impeccable Joseph Frank or the readable style of his wonderful prose.
I simply want to warn potential buyers that this book has a few important faults:
1. It's size is gargantuan and hard to hold. Literally, your arms will tire trying to read this. The size puts unnecessary strain on the spine. It takes a solid month of heavy reading to finish it, so your arms will get a workout and the spine/covers will wear out. The individual five volumes are much more manageable in your arms and feel better as you read.
2. You miss a lot of great details by not reading the extensive five volume edition. I tried reading volume one side-by-side with this book and was surprised to see many important stories, illustrations, and interesting tidbits that were left out of this edition. I completely understand the rationale behind this: if they kept it all in it would be even bigger and more unwieldy (see problem #1).
In summary, if you have enough time and interest to read this 1,000 page biography of Dostoevsky you'd probably have enough time and interest to read the complete story, the way it was originally intended by Joseph Frank. Buy the hardcover (they're clothbound and ready to be read over and over for years to come)! Hope this review was helpful.
Frank's objective in the abridged version is unwavering: to furnish readers with the context--social, cultural, literary, and philosophic--that will help forward a better understanding of the work (xiv). Whether or not Frank's biographical approach ought to be generalized as a model is debatable but such an approach, few would contest, is uniquely useful for Dostoevsky; the Russian literary giant was so shaped and consumed by the intellectual debates in the second half of the 19th century that his writing emanates almost naturally in capturing and defining the era's ideological--and Western literature's eternal--strivings.
There is nearly unanimous consent that Frank is a paragon of his form, with words such as `magisterial,' `authoritative' and `monumental' being the cliché in describing his analysis of Dostoevsky's life and times. Often is Frank's work called one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century and the best of Dostoevsky in any language. So, the question insists: how ought one evaluate this distilled version? Mary Petrusewicz's abridgement of the original five volumes and Joseph Frank's stamp of approval on her work provides a chance to re-consider both Frank's form and analysis in its newly calibrated and accessible style. On a more substantial level and mirroring Dostoevsky's accumulation of literary ability through time, Frank's most recent Dostoevsky is one brought forth with increased complexity and perception coming with age and experience; in short, Frank's own Brothers Karamazov as a preeminent biographer.
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. Centering on Dostoevsky as his subject to pioneer this form, whose literature and epoch are not highly accessible or self-explanatory, is fortuitous if not unique to this particular venture. Perhaps for this reason, Frank's comprehensive treatment reads like a novel by Dostoevsky himself: meticulous, idea-driven, and patiently insistent on unearthing layer after layer of the human condition in all its beautiful and terrible complexity. Frank's form yields telling results. For instance, one simply cannot estimate the satirical impact and historical rootedness of Stavrogin and Verkhovensky in Demons without understanding the rise of the Russian nihilists, influenced as they were by Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, one of Dostoevsky's several ideological nemeses. Revolutionary fervor sweeping Europe was highly susceptible to misappropriation, Frank intimates, and in Demons Dostoevsky sought unabashedly to expose the false pretense and ideological buffoonery of a well-intentioned movement without a moral fixedness in religious faith (656). In fact, Dostoevsky captured the ideological fanaticism of the nihilists in Demons so well that Albert Camus would remark years later that he and not Karl Marx was the greatest prophet for the twentieth century.
Given his form, it is not surprising that Frank's narrative shifts considerably among the several forces swirling around the author's life, but, it also connects very well--from his upbringing in a lowly family obsessed with status and recognition to his literary maneuverings and early ideological compromises in the Petrashevsky circle. A benefit of Frank's style is in positioning and scrutinizing Dostoevsky's stories as a rich panorama of enfleshed ideas--ideas that move through time to gain precision without losing their consequential significance. For instance, Dostoevsky's trial, mock execution and exile in Omsk are probed to relate a time of deep introspection and significant ideological formation for the young writer. The full impact of nearly ten years of forced labor and military conscription tempered Dostoevsky's views on the goodness of humanity and his early, almost perfunctory sympathy toward the Utopian Socialist cause (399). Under dire conditions in Omsk, one could say, the literary giant was born, formulating ideas about the necessity of human freedom and the deforming effects of oppression on the human psyche that would enrich his character construction vastly.
In multiple ways Dostoevsky's exile would serve to greatly inform his literary license and his later mantle as a prophet for the Russian people. "It is the great teacher," Nietzsche conjectured, "that shows us how to bear steadfastly the reverses of fortune, by reminding us of what others have suffered." Dostoevsky assuredly suffered alongside criminals--mostly peasants--and Frank leverages the insight he methodically gained as a psychologist-prisoner to elucidate an intriguing perspective on the class structure at the center of the Russia's ideological struggles.
The revolutionary debate among the educated class centered ostensibly on the value and worth of the peasantry in the ushering in a new socio-political arrangement. All of these ideas Dostoevsky insisted, gave little or no credit to the peasant class or to the traditional moral fabric of the Russian obshchina (peasant community). Literature served an overt purpose and the revolutionary ideas as well as the literary establishment reflected only a small stratum of society. Frank quotes Dostoevsky reflecting on this theme in Tolstoy's novels: "There has not yet been a new word to replace that of the gentry-landowners," (612). Clearly, Dostoevsky regarded himself as uniquely capable of supplying such a new word and the early burden of representing and defending the peasants to the revolutionaries really masked the larger debate on the content of human nature.
Later on, the tension between the nihilists' complete rejection of established ideas and social institutions and Dostoevsky's affirmation of the inexorable values in the Russian peasantry reveals his incessant desire to seek out the source and landscape of human nature: what's inherent to the human condition and what is not? what is morally worth retaining and what is not?--a debate that is no doubt still pivotal to the political and social systems today.
Frank's interlocking method also enriches common motifs in Dostoevsky's literature. Nearly omnipresent in all novels is a scathing critique of liberalism in its several manifestations--atheism, rationalism, utilitarian morality, and egoism--unraveling beautifully under Frank's illustrative lens, deeply passionate but comprehensive enough not to render it too quickly in vogue. A specific example of this is in disinterring a fresh perspective on Notes from the Underground, a sneering polemic against rational egoism. The social conditions surrounding the resentful and self-loathing Underground Man remain consistent in Frank's analysis while the depth of Dostoevsky's satirical wit is flipped on its head.
The established interpretation posits the Underground Man as a tormented irrationalist in a world saturated with Chernyshevsky's ideology of rational egoism (315). But Frank credits Dostoevsky with a much more subtle usage of satire, claiming that the Underground Man is actually living in a self contradiction--accepting the precepts of rationalism in his head all the while fully rejecting it in his heart or emotively and intuitively (421). This dialectic of self-contradiction seems eminently plausible if only because of the breadth of Frank's scope in relating Dostoevsky's ultimate moral-spiritual project; his ardent belief that rational egoism necessarily implied a utilitarian morality (doing right by numbers) to the exclusion of any other moral frame. In the end, the depth of cunning and subtlety in Notes from the Underground is retained as a severe critique of a foolhardy idea, according to Dostoevsky, that was too simplistic to be grasped to its logical and soul-stifling conclusion.
In digesting his work, Frank highlights what many have considered Dostoevsky's unequaled technique of following ideas through to their ultimate end. This usage of what Dostoevsky himself referred to as "fantastic realism" stretches the interpretive scope of his work between being strictly a writer in his time and a socio-cultural prophet for an entire people. As Frank claims early on, Dostoevsky had a special talent for "feeling ideas" so perceptibly that his characters' personalities are more pathological than normal. The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin claims that in Dostoevsky's work one sees not who a character is but rather how a character is conscious of him or herself--an agonizing self consciousness that pervades his work, especially Crime and Punishment.
Hoping to achieve the same penetrating insight into Dostoevsky's personality and psychology does not seem to be Frank's primary concern here if only to withhold speculation that would overanalyze his subject. What Frank does offer however is a perceptive reading of Dostoevsky that gains considerable traction with his analysis of ideological and historical context. This is done in a nimble and judicious fashion, offering an interpretation without foreclosing on alternate ones; detailing the facts without overplaying their presence and meaning in his artistic expression. In this manner, Frank does well in capturing the genius of Dostoevsky as a decidedly nuanced commentator of Russian history and an adroit navigator of the insistent philosophical questions his turbulent era brought to the fore. In an era when ideas held such consequential weight, ranging from censorship to exile, Dostoevsky sought unfailingly to reconcile the ideological frenzy with monumental aspects of Russia's historical experience.
Culminating Frank's analysis is a straightforward, eighty page hermeneutic on Dostoevsky's last and most well received novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Even in the abridged format Frank's interpretation of Brothers could read as a stand alone literary achievement; although, much like the novel's own stand alone chapter "The Grand Inquisitor," Frank's best work is in setting up the story. His interpretation connotes a novel fraught with the usual tensions, all interlinked and profoundly relevant to Russia's "place" in the world: reason and faith, Slavophile and Western, nihilism and moral responsibility, good and evil, certainty and doubt. Reason and faith however form the primary lens by which Frank proceeds to view the unfolding drama that ranks in the Western canon on par with Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante. This lens, argues Frank, assumes something of a nexus between Dostoevsky's artistic accomplishments and his occasionally discordant religious and ideological impulses. Thus, its characters and plot accurately captures both the eternal greatness and the eternal mystery of the author himself.
Toward the end of his life most Russians regarded Dostoevsky as perfectly emblematic of their plight and place. In the final sections of the book, Frank's otherwise cerebral analysis capably expresses Russia's love and admiration for their "prophet". As a reader and speaker during the country's celebrated Pushkin Festival, Dostoevsky seals his memory (813). A letter to his wife during the festivities implies a rather clumsy incredulity at his last novel's reception. "A horde of people, young people, gray-haired people and ladies, rushed up to me and said, `You are our prophet. You have made us better since The Karamazovs'" (821).
After Dostoevsky's final appearance during the festival that featured a laudatory and messianic interpretation of Pushkin's work and its accursed characters set against the Western reforms of Peter the Great, the crowd literally shouted that he had solved the question of the tormented "Russian soul" so brooding in all of Pushkin's work. Such a reception must have been immensely gratifying after a life spent dramatizing and combating the moral and spiritual confusion of late 19th century. In a poem many years later, Anna Akhmatova reflects on Dostoevsky's legacy as prophet whose perception of his country's ideological struggle was a uniquely sacred one:
The Country shivers, and the convict from Omsk
Understood everything, and made the sign of the cross over it all.
Seen by many as the father of existentialism, Dostoevsky was passionately connected to the social, political and ideological movements of 19th Century Russia and Frank's depiction of the man is less an analysis of his works as much as an attempt to (and succeed in) seemlessly intertwine the events of both his individual life (from his unwanted schooling at the Academy of Military Engineers, to his early forays into journalism, to an eventual four year incarceration in Siberia) and the raging philosophical movements of his time (utopian socialism, determinism, Russian radicalism, Nihilism as well as various shades of Christianity) with the output of his career as both a prominent novelist and essayist.
Frank purposefully sets out to avoid the `purely personal biography' (which has been covered by numerous others) and seeks to explore and define what he terms the "eschatological imagination"; the fusion of the ever-evolving political and sociological backdrops of the times with the way these philosophies infuse his characters (from his essays and novels including `Poor Folk,' `Crime and Punishment' and the final masterpiece `The Brothers Karamazov') with a zeal that carries his stories out to their ultimate conclusions.
The depth and details portrayed by Frank are astonishing in both their breadth and their inalienable connection to the subject at hand. It is worth noting that a project of this scope could not have been accomplished without the insightful editing required to reduce the five volume set to a single (albeit massive) book and still maintain the magnitude and absorbing details of the original works largely intact. In this regard, this work is largely credited to Stanford PhD, Mary Petrusewicz, whose efforts should not go without mention.