Since the 1950s Joseph Frank has been laboring steadily at one of the great biographical projects of our times, a five-volume life of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The volumes can be read independently; each makes absorbing reading. The fourth, which has now appeared, is of particular interest, since it covers the period between 1865 and 1871, the years of Dostoevsky’s greatest sustained achievement, when he wrote Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Devils (1871–1874).
In 1864 both Dostoevsky’s first wife and his beloved elder brother Mikhail died. Dostoevsky was a dutiful family man. Without hesitation (but also without guessing what he was letting himself in for) he assumed responsibility for Mikhail’s wife and children and for the huge debts Mikhail had left behind, as well as for his dead wife’s son. These dependents exploited his dutifulness without mercy: the next seven years of his life would be dominated by efforts to earn by his pen enough to maintain them in the comfort to which they were accustomed.
Dostoevsky always wrote under pressure of deadlines. One such deadline led to his second marriage. Contracted to produce a complete novel at short notice, he hired a stenographer, a young woman named Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. He gave her a dictation test, then offered her a cigarette. She declined, thus unwittingly passing a second test: she had proved she was not a liberated woman and thus probably not a Nihilist. Within a month, with her stenographic help, Dostoevsky had dictated and revised The Gambler, and could return to the project he had interrupted, Crime and Punishment. Three months later they were married. He was forty-five, she was twenty-one.
Dostoevsky disliked living alone. Though Anna was not to know it, he had recently, in quest of the companionship and domesticity he longed for, paid court to several young women, without success. Nor was he cured of his infatuation with Apollinaria Suslova, the young radical intellectual with whom he had had a stormy affair in 1863.
He was not, in truth, an attractive proposition: a widower with few social graces and a string of hungry relatives in tow, a convicted subversive with a ten-year spell in Siberia behind him, a writer who, in the popular eye, had never really lived up to the promise of his first novel, Poor Folk, published over twenty years ago.
Anna, however, accepted his offer and proved herself an excellent helpmate, standing by him through ill health and poverty, and after his death guarding his memory jealously. The marriage does not seem to have been a passionate one, at least in the beginning. For one thing, Dostoevsky had a daily routine that ran entirely athwart that of a young wife and mother: he sat at his desk from 10 PM to 6 AM, slept all morning, and took a stroll in the afternoon, dropping by a coffee shop to read the newspapers. When literary friends came visiting, he would closet himself with them, leaving Anna to bear the burden of his family, who for their part resented her as an interloper.
Since Mikhail’s creditors were becoming more pressing, Dostoevsky proposed to Anna that they quit St. Petersburg and live abroad. She agreed, if only to get away from his family. For four years (1867–1871) the Dostoevskys lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and then Germany again, in hotels or rented apartments. It was a period of unrelieved gloom. They lived from hand to mouth, depending on advances from Dostoevsky’s ever-tolerant publisher, M.N. Katkov. Time and again Anna had to pawn her clothes and jewelry to pay their bills.
Living abroad only confirmed a strain of what Frank, in an unusually judgmental moment, calls Dostoevsky’s “rabid xenophobia.” Dostoevsky had a particular prejudice against Germans: “There is no limit at all to how much I hate them!” He objected to Florence because the Florentines sang in the streets when he wanted to sleep; in Geneva he grumbled because Swiss houses did not have windows with double glazing. Even Russian émigré society gave him no pleasure. He had nothing in common with reactionary aristocrats who had left Russia in disgust after the abolition of serfdom; toward the most famous of literary émigrés, Ivan Turgenev, he developed an undying grudge because Turgenev told him that, having settled in Germany, he “considered [himself] a German, not a Russian.”
At risk of exaggeration, Frank calls Dostoevsky “a literary proletarian forced to write for wages.” About the circumstances that kept him on the literary treadmill Dostoevsky felt considerable bitterness. Even with Crime and Punishment—an enormous popular success—and The Idiot behind him, he felt a painful sense of inferiority to Turgenev and Tolstoy, both held in higher critical esteem (and paid more per page) than himself. He envied these rivals their time and leisure and inherited fortunes, and looked forward to the day when he would be able to tackle a truly major theme and prove himself their equal. He sketched in considerable detail an ambitious work, called first Atheism, then The Life of a Great Sinner, intended to bring him recognition as a “serious” writer. But these sketches had to be cannibalized for The Devils, and the major book was again postponed.
Dostoevsky recognized the pivotal importance of Turgenev’s Fathers and Children when it appeared in 1861, but his judgments on Turgenev’s later writings were colored by personal and political antagonism (Turgenev is satirized in The Devils as the vain and affected littérateur Karmazinov). As for Tolstoy, he and Dostoevsky kept a respectful distance from each other all their lives, never meeting. Privately, Dostoevsky lumped Tolstoy’s writings with Turgenev’s as “gentry-landowner literature” belonging to an era now past.
Anna bore two children during the Dostoevsky’s years abroad. The first died at three months. The parents were shattered; out of their shared grief came greater closeness. Anna’s unflinching support also began to make an impression on Dostoevsky. His first wife had reacted to his epilepsy with shock and dismay; Anna, despite her youth, nursed him through his attacks and bore their aftermath—days of irritability and quarrelsomeness—with good cheer. Gradually he developed respect for her judgment and began to take her into his confidence about his writing.
The heaviest burden she had to bear was not his epilepsy, however, but his gambling. Dostoevsky was an obsessive gambler. His gambling brought down on Anna not only poverty but varieties of moral degradation: having to mistrust someone she loved, being lied to and deceived, and then having to listen afterward to remorseful breast-beating and self-recriminations that were, in an ultimate sense, not sincerely meant, or not sincerely enough.
Anna used to set aside a proportion of her housekeeping money for her husband’s gambling. When he had lost that, he would come back saying (she records in her diary) that “he was not worthy of me, he was a swine and I an angel,” but that he must have more. Usually she would give in, fearing that if she objected he would get excited and fall into one of his fits. Her mildness got her nowhere, Dostoevsky complaining that he would be better off with a scold for a wife: “It was positively painful to him the way I was so sweet.” (Frank notes that the inhuman sweetness of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, which Dostoevsky was writing at this time, produces the same exasperating effect on the people around him.)
Dostoevsky did not hesitate to condemn his gambling, but only on his own terms: as a manifestation of his tendency to go “everywhere and in everything…to the last limit.” In the man who had already created the drunkard Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment and would shortly create Stavrogin, one need barely point out that this is as much boasting as it is self-castigation.
Anna, however, refused to judge her husband. Just as she preferred to read his mistreatment of her as the voice of epilepsy speaking through him (“When he screams at me it is from illness, not from bad temper”), she seems to have succeeded—like Dostoevsky himself, as Frank observes—“in divorcing his gambling mania from his moral personality, and in regarding it as something extraneous to his true character.” Frank refrains from asking the properly Dostoevskian question: If the devil in Dostoevsky was not his own, if he was not responsible for it, then who was?
In his youth Dostoevsky had been attracted to utopian socialism of the Fourierist variety. But four years in a prison camp in siberia shook his faith in socialism. There is no reason to doubt the account of his change of mind that he himself gave: removed from the hothouse of the dissident urban intelligentsia and forced to live at close quarters with ordinary Russians, most of them peasants, he began to see that ideas imported from Europe simply did not apply to them. The people for whose sake he and his co-conspirators had striven regarded them with suspicion and even hostility: they would forever be “gentry,” and between gentry and peasantry there was a great gulf fixed. On the other hand, no matter how appalling the crimes might be that they had committed, these peasants were not doubters, rebels, nihilists: they might be sinners, but they were believing, “God-bearing” sinners. Thus Dostoevsky arrived, in Frank’s words, at “insight into the deeply rooted moral world of the peasantry, who lived inside their native Christianity as they did in their skins.” This insight made atheistic social creeds imported from the West seem irrelevant.
Hence Dostoevsky’s enthusiasm, when he returned from Siberia, for the doctrine of pochvennichestvo, return to the soil, to native roots. To this doctrine he added, during the late 1860s, a coloring of Russian messianism: “The Russian mission…consists in the revelation to the world of the Russian Christ.” Under the sway of a false gospel, the gospel of Rome, the West was falling into decay; the time was approaching for Russia to offer the world “a new message.” “Russian thought is preparing a grandiose renovation for the entire world…and this will occur in about a century—that’s my passionate belief.”
When to belief in a special world-historical destiny for Russia are added calls for Russian hegemony to be extended over other Slavic nationalities, commitment to Great-Russian imperialism, and even justification of war as a purifying fire, we have a picture of an extremist of the right—a picture of Dostoevsky to be confirmed in the widely read column “A Writer’s Diary,” which he contributed to the newspaper The Citizen in 1873 and 1874 and later continued independently. In this column (as Frank says in a preview of the next volume of his biography) Dostoevsky would emerge as “the most important public voice in his country, whose every word was eagerly anticipated, commented on, and argued about.”
But to picture Dostoevsky as a rabid extremist is less than fair. His chauvinism stopped short of glorification of Russia’s past, while on social issues, Frank argues, he emerges as “somewhere in the middle,” a supporter of the liberal reforms with which Alexander II initiated his reign, including—crucially—the abolition of serfdom. Dostoevsky’s letters voice dismay at the reversal of these policies, which followed the attempt on Alexander’s life in 1866. Though he had no doubt that the doctrines of the radical intelligentsia spelled disaster for Russia, he accepted that they were animated by genuine “enthusiasm for the good…and purity of heart.” Even the shrill xenophobia of his years abroad belongs more to his letters than to his novels. The Idiot, the major novel of the late 1860s, is concerned to portray a man acting in imitation of Christ—a specifically Russian vision of Christ—not to assert the superiority of Eastern over Western theology. Frank untangles with particular lucidity the political from the religious and moral strains in Dostoevsky’s fiction. In Frank’s terms, Dostoevsky’s novels advance the “ethical-universalistic” side of his messianism, but not to a notable extent its “egoistic-imperialistic” side.
Dostoevsky’s contribution to the debate on Russia’s future is nevertheless a huge one. In the major works written between 1864 and 1880—Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov—he conducts a searching interrogation of Reason—the Reason of the Enlightenment—as the basis for a good society, and in particular the good faith of Reason (does Reason not have its own covert agenda, as much to do with the itch for power as with a disinterested quest after truth and justice?). This interrogation is carried out at white heat not just because that is Dostoevsky’s manner but because the books are written by someone at the very center of an historical crisis, Russia’s crisis of modernization. This crisis would culminate in the Bolshevik takeover of 1917, which promised to liberate the country into true modernity but in fact only petrified it. But its symbolic beginning can be set in 1861, with the publication of Fathers and Children, in which Turgenev put his finger on a new and ominous social actor, the Nihilist Bazarov.
“We act by virtue of what we recognize as useful,” observed Bazarov. “At the present time, negation is the most useful of all—and we deny—“
“What, not only art and poetry…but even…horrible to say…”
“Everything,” repeated Bazarov, with indescribable composure.1
There is something puerile in Nihilism, as both Turgenev and Dostoevsky recognized. Cobbled together out of scraps of scientism and utilitarianism, it barely deserves the name of a philosophy. Its adherents may have been animated by the same pity and anger as Dostoevsky and his conspiratorial confreres in their day. But in its intellectual complacency (the “indescribable composure” of Bazarov), its mindless destructiveness, its hubris, and, after the failure of the peasantry to rise in revolt in 1863, its ill-disguised contempt for those in whose name it claimed to speak, it seemed to Dostoevsky not just a heretical divergence from the utopian communitarianism of the 1840s but a malignant mutation—or, to use the master-metaphor of The Devils, an evil spirit—taking over the minds of a rising generation of half-educated Russian youth.
Dostoevsky admired Fathers and Children, which he read as (in Frank’s words) a “poignantly lyrical indictment” of nascent Nihilism. There is every reason to believe that Turgenev shared Dostoevsky’s reading of Bazarov. The left, however, preferred not to recognize the critical aspect of the portrait; and Turgenev furthered this misreading by declaring mysteriously that Bazarov was himself. Dostoevsky was outraged by this move on Turgenev’s part, which he saw as sycophancy toward the left. But he was being unfair: Bazarov is one of those rare literary creations who almost at once escape the control of their authors and become common cultural property.
In his ongoing critique of Nihilism, we can imagine Dostoevsky as projecting the career of Turgenev’s hero into the 1860s. Frank traces the metamorphoses of Bazarov at Dostoevsky’s hands, from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment to the younger Verkhovensky in The Devils (“Bazarov…stiffened into a ruthless fanatic”). This critique is not simply addressed to politics. In Dostoevsky’s eschatological imagination, Nihilism, with its amoral egoism and proto-Nietzschean self-deification, represented a growing spiritual illness: Russia in the hands of Nihilists would be no more and no less than Russia under the rule of the Antichrist.
Dostoevsky was a great devourer of newspapers. Several of his novels had their genesis in reports of crimes, which he regarded as telltale symptoms of the maladies of the age. He was elated when life imitated art and the newspapers reported Raskolnikov-type murders, for this proved to him that what he called the “idealism” or “fantastic realism” of his novels brought him closer to the deep currents of Russian life than did the verisimilitude of programmatic realists.
His method of composition, to the extent that his modus operandi can be called a method, was to assemble and develop a swarm of plots and narratives while waiting for the transformative flash of inspiration that would tell him which of them would be worth following up and which could be combined with others. He called the moment when a usable character emerged from the welter of possibilities, crystallizing an action around himself, an “incarnation.” Once the major character and story outline were there, he would swiftly and confidently create details of scene, character, and action as he went along.
Frank elucidates this process well, building upon the labors not only of the Russian editors of Dostoevsky’s notebooks but of such American scholars as Edward Wasiolek and Robin Feuer Miller.2 The early drafts of The Idiot and The Devils were unfortunately destroyed by Dostoevsky himself, over his wife’s protests, before their return to Russia. (As a onetime subversive he had felt he was bound to be searched at the border and was reluctant to carry suitcases full of papers, fearing they would be held up for days while the frontier police read through them. In fact, the Dostoevskys’ baby cried so loudly at the train station that the police hustled them through.) In his chapters on the major novels, Frank’s analysis of the surviving notebooks and drafts is particularly illuminating, enabling him to explain the disjointedness of The Idiot (Part One of the novel connects rather weakly with Part Two) and to show how Dostoevsky’s narrative procedures in Crime and Punishment become more and more daring as the composition of the book proceeded. His account of the complex genesis of The Devils is a model of clarity.
The Devils presents particularly intransigent problems for the reader, as Frank shows. From the time of Nicholas I until recently, censorship has been a constant factor in Russian intellectual life. Like most entrenched censorship systems, the Russian system succeeded in inducing writers, editors, and publishers to do its work by policing themselves. In the manuscript presented by Dostoevsky to the monthly journal The Russian Messenger, in which The Devils was being serialized, there is a chapter in which Stavrogin tells a priest how he seduced a child and then refrained from intervening while she killed herself. This chapter was rejected by Katkov, editor of the journal, on moral grounds. Despite numerous rewrites, in which Dostoevsky toned down the chapter as far as he conscientiously could, Katkov refused to relent.
Dostoevsky was in an impossible position. Unless Stavrogin’s crime could be recounted, his character would remain too enigmatic, his spiritual despair excessive, and his suicide at the end of the book unmotivated. In the absence of the censored chapter, Dostoevsky did his hurried best to minimize the damage by reworking the rest of The Devils; later he revised the text a second time for book publication. Frank traces these revisions as closely as the fragmentary sources allow, showing that the book we have—great though it may be—is not the one Dostoevsky wanted to write; furthermore, although we possess the text of the suppressed chapter, it cannot simply be reinserted into the book because of the amount of secondary revision Dostoevsky had to perform on its context. Katkov, incidentally, was by no means a bad man. He was tolerant of Dostoevsky’s habit of promising more than he could deliver, and responded promptly and sympathetically to pleas for advances, in spite of not seeing eye to eye with Dostoevsky politically.
The most influential voice in Dostoevsky studies today is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, author of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (published 1929, and in revised form in 1963). From Bakhtin the concept of “dialogism” has entered critical currency. A fully dialogical novel is one in which there is no dominating, central authorial consciousness, and therefore no claim to truth or authority, only competing voices and discourses. In Bakhtin’s account, Dostoevsky was the inventor (or re-inventor) and greatest practitioner of the dialogical novel, which he synthesized from other mixed and for the most part low-status genres—for instance, the detective story, the picaresque tale, the saint’s life, the eve-of-execution confession.
In the orthodoxy of academic criticism today, “dialogical” has become a term of approval, “monological” a term of censure of the same order as “phallocentric.” Bakhtin cannot be blamed for vulgarizations of his thought, and in particular for the treatment of monologism and dialogism (or its Bakhtinian near-synonym “polyphony”) as alternatives (alternatives with telling ideological implications) between which a writer is free to choose. Frank refers to Bakhtin only a few times, mainly to correct him on points of detail. (There is fuller discussion of Bakhtin’s thought, both judicious and generous, in Frank’s book Through the Russian Prism. 3 ) In the process Frank loses an opportunity to supply what is missing in Bakhtin, namely, a clear statement that dialogism as exemplified in the novels of Dostoevsky is a matter not of ideological position, still less of novelistic technique, but of the most radical intellectual and even spiritual courage. Here is Frank on The Idiot:
With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised, Dostoevsky fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for those of the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent… With exemplary honesty, he portrays the moral extremism of his own eschatological ideal, incarnated by [Prince Myshkin], as being equally incompatible with the normal demands of ordinary social life, and constituting just as much of a disruptive scandal as the appearance of Christ himself among the complacently respectable Pharisees.
What Frank describes here is the same phenomenon that Bakhtin calls dialogism; but implicit in Frank’s account is what Bakhtin leaves out: that to the degree that Dostoevskean dialogism grows out of Dostoevsky’s own moral character, out of his ideals, and out of his being as a writer, it is only distantly imitable.
Although Frank is a biographer, it is literary biography that he writes, as he warned his readers as early as the preface to the first volume:
Anyone who seeks a conventional biography in the following pages will be sorely disappointed… I do not go from the life to the work, but rather the other way round. My purpose is to interpret Dostoevsky’s art.
These rather austere aims are modified in the second volume, in which Frank concedes that what he is actually trying to do is to fuse biography and social-cultural history with literary criticism. Nevertheless, in each of the volumes there is a considerable amount of literary-critical commentary, with Dostoevsky’s more substantial books getting chapters to themselves.
The criticism Frank practices is not that of the academy today. Of its kind it is of the highest quality—Frank is, after all, a literary theorist in his own right, author of the influential essay “Spatial Form in Modern Literature” (1945), in which he applies the modernist theory of montage to the study of the novel, showing that many modern novels are better understood as juxtaposing their narrative elements in space than as unrolling them in time. His affiliations are to American new criticism, Russian formalism, and, to an extent, to the literary structuralism of Gérard Genette. Though the seams inevitably show, he is, on the whole, singularly successful at working his rather ahistorical formal analyses of texts into the larger historical and cultural project.
In the first volume of the biography, Frank demolishes Freud’s account of the origins of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy by showing that Freud got many of the facts of the case wrong. But Frank’s skepticism about psychoanalysis and other grand theories of the inner life has its drawbacks. We do not get from him, for instance, any truly searching exploration of the intertwining of pity and cruelty characteristic of Dostoevsky’s darker characters. At one point he remarks that the subconscious in Dostoevsky is “usually moral”—that is to say, the messages that come to Dostoevsky’s characters in their dreams or in sudden wellingsup of feeling are usually to be trusted. But he does not follow up the implications of this assertion, which seems to me to make Dostoevsky less disturbing than he truly is. (It is hard to know how many exceptions Frank allows himself with “usually”: Is Svidrigailov, for instance, one of the exceptions?)
In the biographical sections of the book the reader perhaps misses a sense of the growth and development of Dostoevsky the man. But then, as Sidney Monas has pointed out, the notion of steady growth is as foreign to Dostoevsky’s imagination as it is fundamental to Tolstoy’s: Dostoevsky’s novels are essentially scenic in construction, moving from one crisis to the next.
For his biographical chapters Frank is able to call on portions of Anna Dostoevsky’s diary, deciphered only in 1973, which in some respects clash with her Reminiscences, first published in 1925 and translated into English in 1975. Here he tends to accept Anna’s account of relations with her husband at face value, and not to explore the temptations and ambivalences of a cramped domestic situation where it is more than likely that a “private” diary is being secretly read by a spouse and is therefore being written with half an eye to that spouse. (We know that this is exactly what happened in the Tolstoy household, while Anna Dostoevsky did not scruple to peek into letters to her husband from Apollinaria Suslova.)
There are other weaknesses. To support his claim that Dostoevsky was not only an innovator in the novel but a great technician too, Frank feels obliged to demonstrate at length how quite minor scenes contribute to the whole. The effect can be tedious. He assumes, without explaining why, that Dostoevsky’s characters have real-life models, and spends pages speculating on who these models might be. While he is adept at keeping several strands of narrative going at the same time (the masters of the nineteenth-century novel stand him in good stead here), his use of the device of ending a chapter by hinting at what is to follow tends to be mechanical. The index is comprehensive, but the addition of a chronological table would have made the volume more friendly as a reference source (the index to volume three, by the way, managed to get most of the page numbers wrong).
At another level, while Frank is able to show with exemplary clarity why Dostoevsky chose to shape Stavrogin in the mold of “the doomed and glamorous Russian Byronic dandy” of Pushkin, he does not, to my mind, question critically enough Dostoevsky’s claim that avatars of the dandy in the 1870s continue to attest to subterranean movements in the national psyche. Dostoevsky’s historical intuitions were usually right, but in this case history does not seem to me to bear him out.
But how quibbling these points are when set against Frank’s achievement. 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.
March 2, 1995
Fathers and Sons, translated by Constance Garnett, translation revised by Ralph E. Matlaw (Norton, 1966), p. 39. ↩
See Edward Wasiolek, editor, The Notebooks for ‘The Idiot‘ (University of Chicago Press, 1967); Robin Feuer Miller, Dostoevsky and ‘The Idiot‘ (Harvard University Press, 1981). ↩
Princeton University Press, 1990. ↩