Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 18501859
by Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press, 320 pp., $25.00
The second volume of Joseph Frank’s very searching biography of Dostoevsky has now appeared. Two more will follow. Its overwhelming merit is that it does not stop at the personal life and character of an extraordinary man but concentrates on the novelist reacting to the literary and the fluctuating influences of Russian political and social history in his time. For all the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century Russia itself was a haunting figure in the novelists’ imbroglio. Russia melts into the man and we can partly separate them, yet much cannot be separated.
Professor Frank is scholarly in his inquiry: he is clear, persuasive, and free of academic jargon. Dostoevsky has so often seemed an unreliable and mystifying projector of versions of his life and his beliefs that he can easily strike us as incoherent. Frank’s is a patient and ever-curious and sympathetic investigation of a man and a writer who was very much a “double,” who can easily confuse us with his poses, his powers of self-dramatization, and his contradictions.
In the first volume Professor Frank corrected the surmise that Dostoevsky’s father—who was murdered by his peasants—was close to the brutal old Karamazov. He was not. He was the hard-working puritanical doctor, ambitious for his children’s education, especially the literary aspect of it, anxious that they should rise in the world. He was a religious man with a peculiar sectarian inheritance, and proud, as a doctor, to be entitled to call himself a noble, albeit of the lowest civil grade in the Russian system introduced by Peter the Great. (Privately the doctor held himself to be descended from the old traditional Lithuanian aristocracy.) Poor as he was he did rise to become a small landowner with a few serfs. The son learned the family legend only too well, and the initial source of the guilt he felt about his father arose from his continual begging for money so that he could cut a figure in Petersburg as a nobleman. The guilt was not, as Freud argued, Oedipal. It is very strange that the Dostoevsky family was silent about the murder of the father by his serfs. Such murders were common, but were felt to be a “shame.”
In the first volume Frank went into Dostoevsky’s involvement with the radical idealists who met at the house of Mikhail Petrashevsky. There were extremists in the group, notably a rich and elegant aristocrat, Speshnev, who, for a time, swayed the young novelist who vacillated to the point of breakdown. He told his doctor—or so it was said—”I have taken money from Speshnev…and now I am with him and his. I’ll never be able to pay back such a sum, yes, and he wouldn’t take the money back…. From now on I have a Mephistopheles of my own.”
In the second volume Professor Frank goes at length into the arrest and trial of the group and analyzes Dostoevsky’s sometimes …