Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture
by Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press, 237 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Joseph Frank writes that an interest in existentialism led him during the 1950s to make a close study of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and then to undertake his life’s work, a biography of the Russian writer, of which three volumes have now appeared, with two to follow. The work is already established as a classic, not only for its strenuous erudition but also for the depth of insight it reveals into the relation of Dostoevsky to the social and cultural life of his age. Professor Frank’s preface to the first volume claims that “one way of defining Dostoevsky’s genius is to locate it in his ability to fuse his private dilemmas with those raging in the society of which he was a part.” Hence the extensive and detailed reconstruction in his biography of that society and its intense intellectual activity. His new book, Through the Russian Prism, is a collection of twenty essays, most of them connected with his work on the biography.
Dostoevsky is an obsessional writer like D.H. Lawrence, who felt a fascinated revulsion when he came to read the novels during the “Dostoevsky fever” that swept the West at the beginning of this century. But whereas Lawrence is often isolated in his own obsessions, Dostoevsky in his fiction, from Crime and Punishment onward, and in most of his writings on public issues, maintains a lively play of intelligence, a restlessness, a questing passion that make his obsessions irresistible. In the words of Strakhov, the first biographer of Dostoevsky, he was one who “so to speak, felt thought with unusual liveliness” [Strakhov’s emphasis].
Strakhov said that “the best conversations I was ever lucky enough to have in my life” were with Dostoevsky. It seems no accident that Frank’s lead essay in the collection (which originally appeared in these pages) should review the “dialogues” of the philologist Roman Jakobson, with his wife, Krystyna Pomorska, who published them in 1980 (English translation, 1983). Frank’s original study of how Jakobson sought to reveal the concealed inner structure of literary works and language is followed by an essay on “The Voices of Mikhail Bakhtin,” in which Frank describes Bakhtin’s inventive way of reading Dostoevsky. He cites not only Bakhtin’s well-known notion of the “dialogic” or “polyphonic” novel but especially his idea of “double-voiced discourse,” or language affected by awareness of the discourse of others:
By focusing on the acute sensitivity that each Dostoevsky character exhibits toward the others, and exploring how each echoes and vibrates in the others’ psyches, Bakhtin hits on the secret that distinguishes Dostoevsky…from other novelists working in the same [realist] tradition.
Frank speaks of the necessity “to carry on…’the great dialogue’ ” with Bakhtin, and with Jakobson also. Through the Russian Prism is entirely conceived in the spirit of dialogue—with Dostoevsky himself; between Dostoevsky and his contemporaries at a time when Russia seemed on the verge of vast changes; between Dostoevsky and the novelist Ralph Ellison …