On the Verge

Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–-1865

by Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press, 395 pp., $29.50

We now have the third volume of Joseph Frank’s exhaustive and responsive examination of Dostoevsky and his works. We see Dostoevsky returning to St. Petersburg after his infamous imprisonment with common criminals in Siberia, which had been prolonged by enforced military service there, and lasted a total of ten years. He arrives with a crowd of released political prisoners who have been freed by the reforms of Alexander II at the end of 1859. In 1861 the curse of serfdom will be done with. Dostoevsky brings with him the wife he has married in Siberia, a widow, and her son by her previous husband, and they are met by Fyodor’s brother Mikhail who sees at once that Dostoevsky is not a broken man. He looks strong and self-confident; he is no longer the timid nervous figure who was so mocked in the malicious literary society of the capital. Military service has improved his physical health and his commission has given him confidence. The haunting weakness is his inescapable epilepsy. The fits—it is now agreed—started in prison, after the notorious and sadistic mock execution after his trial. (In the earlier volume we remember Dr. Frank’s account of the euphoria or “aura” which precedes the onset of attacks.) Dostoevsky’s wife is the victim of advancing tuberculosis. The private omens clearly threaten a marriage that has all the marks of an attempt by both parties to live with the ineluctable.

In the foreground is the novelist’s eagerness to get back to literature, and to earn his living. He has outgrown the short period of fame of Poor Folk which was praised by the great radical critic Vissarion Belinsky. On the face of it the prospects are good. Serfdom is about to go and censorship is to some extent relaxed. Mikhail Dostoevsky (who had made a little money out of a cigarette factory) had started a serious literary and political journal called Vremya (“Time”) and Fyodor now became editor. His talents as a writer of feuilleton and for controversy made him a spirited journalist, and here was the opportunity for Dostoevsky to fulfill the demand which all Russian imaginative writers had to make clear: they had to make plain where they stood ideologically on the state of Russia, and to which camp of controversy they belonged—in short their political “convictions.”

As Dr. Frank says, the five-year period of Dostoevsky’s active journalism has been skimped by later critics because they were eager to get to the great novels. Dr. Frank himself was eager too; but, as he says, new material is available and there are certain important misunderstandings to correct. It is true that after his experience in Siberia Dostoevsky rejected the ideals of early nineteenth-century socialism and what he called its utilitarian and revolutionary ideas in which he had once believed, but Dr. Frank thinks it is necessary to correct the widespread notion that he emerged from prison camp “blindly prepared to support a tyrannical regime of the most vilely revolutionary stripe” and…

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