Joseph Frank (1918–2013), the eminent literary scholar and biographer of Dostoevsky, died in March 2013 at the age of ninety-four. He was well known for his interpretations of literary modernism, essays on twentieth-century French and German literature, and reflections on the great theorists of the novel. The unique approach and meticulous scholarship of his five-volume study of Dostoevsky (published 1976–2002) made it one of the great achievements in literary scholarship.

On the morning of December 22, 1849, Dostoevsky was condemned to death. Arrested eight months earlier for participation in a radical discussion group, he had languished in prison. Resisting the temptation to soften his fate by implicating others, he read Jane Eyre and wrote his happiest story.

Told nothing of where he was going that chilly morning, he was led from his cell to join other prisoners in a march to the Semenovsky Square. There, amid stakes, scaffolds, and coffins, they were read a sentence of death and offered last rites. Dostoevsky, who was a believer, turned to one of his fellow prisoners and said: “Today we will be in paradise,” but his friend, an atheist and materialist, replied mockingly, “A handful of dust!” At the last possible moment, when the guns were trained on the condemned, an imperial courier galloped up with the news that Tsar Nicholas, defender of the faith and emperor of all the Russias, had commuted their punishment to Siberian imprisonment followed by service in the army. The entire scene had been planned in advance as part of the punishment. Dostoevsky, it seems, was not Russia’s only master of psychology.

Over the course of his five-volume narrative of Dostoevsky’s life, Frank tells the author’s story with an eye to detail and an unequalled sense of ideologically charged incidents. By universal consent, Frank’s biography has no rival in any language. If we consider the almost religious reverence Russians show to literature, this achievement becomes all the more remarkable.

Frank came to Dostoevsky late, when he already had a distinguished career dating to the 1930s as a journalist and cultural critic. His interpretation of literary modernism, Spatial Form in Modern Literature (1945), rapidly became a classic. Without even having earned a bachelor’s degree, he was accepted in 1952 as a doctoral student by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, where he worked on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and decided to learn Russian. He planned to write a one-volume biography of Dostoevsky, but, like Dostoevsky’s unplanned masterpiece The Idiot, the work took on a life of its own.

I met Frank in the early 1970s when, as a Yale graduate student, I attended a lecture on his forthcoming work. The lecture was actually read by Frank’s friend, Yale’s Robert Louis Jackson, because Frank had a stammer. It was only much later I understood that this stammer, once much worse, had been the defining fact of his life. He had retreated from speech into literature and developed in writing the expressive power otherwise denied him. I have often wondered whether Frank’s initial attraction to Dostoevsky reflected his sympathy with Dostoevsky’s own malady—epilepsy—which also became a source of insight.

Frank proposed a different kind of biography. Usually, he explained, biographers focus on an author’s closest acquaintances, personal concerns, and quotidian experiences. They treat the composition of the works as just another event in the author’s life. Readers discover the real person on whom a famous character was based and the real tragedy that inspired a hero’s suffering. However interesting, such accounts reduce masterpieces to symptoms.

Frank wondered at this approach. For surely the main reason we care about the author in the first place is his works! The development of the writer’s thought and art should therefore be the biographer’s principal concern. In his first volume, Frank explains that he focuses only “on those aspects of [Dostoevsky’s] quotidian experience” that serve to deepen our understanding of what makes the works profound. “My work is thus not a biography, or if so, only in a special sense—for I do not go from the life to the work, but rather the other way round.” Accuracy to “the hierarchy of values in the life of any creative personality” requires elucidating the “socio-cultural milieu in which the author lived.” Above all, Frank traces Dostoevsky’s role in the intellectual debates of his time and the way in which they shaped the ideas, images, and incidents of his novels.

Regardless of whether or not this approach would work equally well with all novelists, it fits this one perfectly. Dostoevsky lived ideologically, argued with his friends and co-workers in philosophically charged terms, and, as one of his characters describes himself, actually “felt ideas.” In retelling the famous execution scene and its aftermath, Frank shows how details others overlook shaped Dostoevsky’s thought about how the mind works in extreme situations. That conversation with a condemned materialist was to resonate in his descriptions of revolutionaries, murderers, and suicides. The peculiar mix of despair and hope that gives his novels their distinctive tone reflect this moment as Frank describes it.

Or consider Frank’s account of how Dostoevsky met his second wife. In desperate need of ready cash, Dostoevsky had signed a contract with the unscrupulous publisher Stellovsky to deliver a novel by a certain date. Stellovsky was actually interested in the forfeit provisions, which would have allowed him to publish all Dostoevsky’s works, including those to come, for free. A month before the deadline, Dostoevsky mentioned to a friend that the novel he was working on, Crime and Punishment, was far from ready. Alarmed, his friend mentioned that there was a new science, stenography, and suggested that Dostoevsky hire someone from the first graduating class and just dictate a novel off the top of his head. The stenographer he employed eagerly anticipated meeting the writer who was already a legend at her home but was shocked by his weird appearance. Only later did she learn he was just recovering from an epileptic seizure.

The crucial moment came when he offered her a cigarette. Only Frank, with his attention attuned to the symbols of the day, ever noticed this incident’s importance. Smoking was then not merely a badge but a requirement for every young radical. As it happened, Dostoevsky had long wanted to remarry, but the sort of strong, independent woman interesting to him was likely to despise his conservative, Christian opinions. And so when the stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna, announced she did not smoke, he immediately wondered: in that case, perhaps she believes in God? In fact, she did, and, as the dictation proceeded, he day by day grew more interested in her. Gradually he gave the passages of the novel a second meaning as a coded message of love for her.

They finished the book just before the deadline. Dostoevsky called it The Gambler ostensibly because its hero, like Dostoevsky himself, suffered from a gambling addiction, but also because in completing it he had won his high-stakes match with Stellovsky.

Anticipating this possibility, Stellovsky left town so that the novel could not be delivered in time. Dostoevsky was in despair until the ever-practical Anna Grigoryevna advised him to register his attempted delivery with the local police as proof of his timeliness. A few days later, Dostoevsky gambled again. He paid a visit to Anna Grigoryevna, who was living with her parents. Explaining that the dictation had proven so successful that he wanted to employ her for another novel, he asked her advice about its ending. The story, he explained, concerned an older man resembling himself who proposed to a younger woman resembling her, but he could not figure out how the heroine would answer. Anna Grigoryevna got the point, and though she wanted to think it over, knew that the morbidly sensitive man would be deeply hurt. So she replied: “Why should she not marry him, if she loves him?”

Only after she married him did she realize what her life would be. The couple had to escape abroad so he would not be thrown into debtor’s prison. Moving from one cheap hotel to another, they lived in terrible want and lost a child—in Dostoevsky’s view, because of poverty. When he finished one novella he did not have the postage to send it to Russia. As he tried to escape from debt, he gave in to his gambling addiction. In between visits to the pawnshop, letters to his publisher pleading for advances, and epileptic seizures, he wrote The Idiot and The Possessed. Frank brings to life the dark obsessions, mystical transports, religious despair, and political messianism that filled Dostoevsky’s mind as he struggled to write under conditions that those aristocrats, Tolstoy and Turgenev, never faced. He noted spitefully: “Turgenev would die at the very thought!” It did not help that he owed Turgenev money.

Despite his precarious position, Dostoevsky refused to cheapen his works or to hew an ideological line. Often considered the greatest political novel every written, The Possessed describes in detail what we have come to know as totalitarianism. It’s all there: attempts to transform human nature, ruthless egalitarianism, a system of universal spying, and the sacrifice of what one gleeful terrorist calls “a hundred million heads.” Since just about everyone else in Russia saw the future as a triumph of liberalism and gentleness, they regarded Dostoevsky as mad. Frank shows us just what signs Dostoevsky read in the thinkers of his time that enabled him to grasp, before anyone else, what these intellectuals would do if they ever seized power. No wonder the Bolsheviks despised him.

When critics spend decades on a writer, they usually lose their objectivity and become defense attorneys. With Dostoevsky, the real test is his anti-Semitism. Although Dostoevsky once advocated Jewish rights, he later adopted the sort of views that helped inspire the Nazis. When Frank was only beginning his project, he wrote an essay (which I criticized) putting the best face on Dostoevsky’s noxious opinions. But by the time Frank completed the final volume, he demonstrated the courage to reverse himself and show that in fact Dostoevsky’s views were even worse than appeared. In The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Alyosha is asked whether Jews really perform ritual torture and murder of Christian children, and he answers, “I don’t know.” I had guessed that Dostoevsky would have said the same, but Frank shows that, in fact, he was privately sure these accusations were true.

Drawn as he was to the political left, Frank recognizes just why Dostoevsky could find his enemies attractive as well as dangerous. Destructiveness has its own aesthetic, and Frank quotes Dostoevsky’s comment that, to the French Communards, the burning of Paris “doesn’t seem madness, but, on the contrary, beauty.”

When a conservative paper dismissed the Russian terrorist movement as a group of “idle and undeveloped” misfits, Dostoevsky replied that the very opposite was the case. I myself was one of them, he reminded readers, “I also stood on the scaffold condemned to death and I assure you that I stood in the company of educated people.” Even the most refined and morally best people can find it impossible to resist a reigning “cycle of ideas and concepts.” The point of The Possessed, he explains, is that “even the purest of hearts can be drawn into committing a monstrous act. And therein lies the real horror: that one can commit the foulest and most villainous act without being in the least a villain.”

Dostoevsky’s own anti-Semitism, as Frank describes it, illustrates the point. In pulling no punches about this horror, Frank remains true to Dostoevsky’s courageous spirit and so honors him all the more.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 8, on page 76
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