How should one narrate the life of a great writer? Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, now supplemented by his Lectures on Dostoevsky, revivified the form by situating the novelist within the ideological struggles of his day. The many fascinating primary sources about Dostoevsky’s life inspired Thomas Marullo to experiment with a new kind of biography in his brilliant Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Life in Letters, Memoirs, and Criticism. (A third volume is still to come.) The novelist Alex Christofi was similarly inspired, and while his innovative biography, Dostoevsky in Love, occasionally intrigues, it ultimately offers little that’s new. All three recognize the difficulty of distinguishing Dostoevsky’s actual life from the legends about him.
The special importance Russians have traditionally assigned to literature has conferred on writers a mythic aura. Not surprisingly, the real and imagined lives of Pushkin, Griboedov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mandelstam, and others have prompted novelistic treatment by significant writers, from Yuri Tynyanov to J.M. Coetzee. As the Russian Formalist theoretician Boris Tomashevsky observed, widely shared legends shape readers’ experience and so become “literary facts” in themselves. Tomashevsky argued that scholars should therefore examine “how the poet’s biography operates in the reader’s consciousness.” Authors, eager to excite interest, “create for themselves an artificial legendary biography composed of intentionally selected real and imaginary events,” a process especially important during the Romantic period.
The romantic poet was his own hero. His life was poetry…. The readers cried: “Author! Author!”—but they were actually calling for the slender youth in a cloak, with a lyre in his hands and an enigmatic expression on his face.
In Russia this approach to writers’ lives continued long after Romanticism and, indeed, has never ceased. As poets and novelists became the national conscience, or what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government,” tradition required them not only to create great works but also to live appropriately high-minded lives. When the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov joined in the condemnation of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, and regretted that they had only been imprisoned rather than summarily executed, the editor and author Alexander Tvardovsky wrote in his diary that “Sholokhov is now a former writer.”
Few writers’ biographies have excited more interest than Dostoevsky’s, as the volumes under review suggest. Several incidents in his life seem like excerpts from his most fantastic tales. Most famous is the story of how, after being imprisoned from April to December 1849 for illegal political activity, Dostoevsky was condemned to death, led out with other prisoners to be shot, and offered last rites. The entire scene had been staged in advance—coffins had been strewn about to make everything look more terrifying—as part of the punishment. At the last possible moment, with the guns trained on the first group of condemned radicals, and Dostoevsky in the next group, the execution was called off. One of the prisoners went mad and never recovered his sanity; another wrote Crime and Punishment.
Dostoevsky, whose sentence was reduced to time in a Siberian prison camp followed by army service, made the most of this near escape. Prince Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, three times imagines the thoughts of a man being led to execution. Time accelerates exponentially as the mind tries to cram decades into a few final minutes; looking at the crowd, the prisoner feels an infinite loneliness realizing that “not one of them is being executed, but I am to be executed”; his attempts to distract himself fail as everything becomes a symbol of what he wants to forget. “Perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death, exposed to this torture, and has then been told ‘you can go!, you are pardoned,’” Myshkin wonders. “Perhaps such a man could tell us” what the experience is like. As every reader knew, and as Dostoevsky counted on their knowing, there was such a man, and he was telling us.
The Idiot also dramatizes another well-known fact: Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. In one thrilling passage, Myshkin, just before an epileptic seizure, remembers in detail what the experience is like. Remarkably enough, it resembles the moments before execution: time accelerates to infinity until he understands “the extraordinary saying [in the Book of Revelation] that ‘there shall be time no longer.’” Epilepsy differs from execution because it replaces the unfathomable horror of the condemned prisoner with an equally unimaginable bliss, which affords a mystical understanding of the very essence of existence. Just before he loses consciousness, Myshkin has time to say to himself, “Yes, for this one moment one might give one’s whole life!” Readers might presume that such experiences enabled insights no other writer could attain.
Almost as famous was Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling. Picture the scene: in 1867 he has hurried abroad with his bride to escape debtor’s prison. They pawn their clothing but do not raise enough to pay their hotel bill or buy food. At last Dostoevsky receives an advance from his publisher but cannot resist the roulette table, where he loses it all. His novella The Gambler describes this addiction, which, like execution and epilepsy, offers the vertiginous thrill of a maximally intense moment—in this case, because the next instant can make one either a millionaire or a beggar. When the novella’s hero wins, he wastes the money, because what matters to him is the thrill.
After Dostoevsky’s death, more legends accumulated. Best known is the one included in Freud’s “Dostoevsky and Parricide” and elaborated by later biographers and critics. Relying on a document mentioning an unspecified tragic incident in Dostoevsky’s life, Freud presumed that it must have been punishment by a tyrannical father for masturbation and the consequent onset of a nervous disease. When serfs murdered Dostoevsky’s father—as Dostoevsky’s daughter Lyubov reported—Dostoevsky, who in Freud’s view must have desired his father’s death, experienced intense guilt. The quasi death of epilepsy ensued as a self-inflicted punishment, and so the disease was not organic but “hysterical” in origin. Freud speculated that when Dostoevsky was actually punished in Siberia, the substitute punishment of epilepsy must have temporarily ceased.
As Frank and Marullo demonstrate, everything about this widely accepted story is wrong. To begin with, the comment on which Freud based his analysis referred not to an event in early childhood, as he supposed, but to the death of Dostoevsky’s father when Dostoevsky was seventeen. Since the author’s own son Aleksey died of an epileptic seizure at the age of three, it seems likely that the father’s epilepsy was inherited, and so organic rather than hysterical. Of course, as Frank observes, this argument would not have impressed Freud, who, as an unreconstructed Lamarckian, believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.
Did Dostoevsky’s epilepsy begin when he learned of his father’s murder? Did it cease in Siberia? As Marullo notes, when his father died in 1839, Dostoevsky was studying at the academy of military engineering, and
a seizure would not have passed unnoticed by the hundred or so schoolmates with whom Dostoevsky lived on close terms…. If Dostoevsky had had such an attack, he would have been dismissed immediately by the administrators of the institution.
Far from ceasing in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s epilepsy began there. By then, he was worrying about the cause of his various nervous ailments, including attacks that weakened his memory and produced the sensation that he was dying, and he wanted to return to Russia “to see qualified doctors so as to know what my illness is.” He wondered whether it might be the forerunner of epilepsy. If he still did not know he had epilepsy at this time, he could hardly have experienced his first seizure years before, as Freud had argued.
Believe it or not, Dostoevsky’s first seizure occurred on his honeymoon in 1857, while he was still confined to Siberia. His first wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, who knew nothing of his previous ailments, suddenly heard his unearthly shriek and witnessed his convulsive movements, fainting, foaming at the mouth, and uncontrolled urination. Christofi skillfully evokes this scene, from which the marriage never recovered. He aptly quotes Dostoevsky’s letter to his brother Mikhail about the event: “It scared my wife to death and filled me with sadness and depression. I begged [the doctor] to tell me the whole truth, on his honor. He advised me to beware of the new moon.”
“Dostoevsky now learned, for the first time, the true nature of his malady,” Frank explains in his biography. Dostoevsky explained to Mikhail that
the doctor (well-informed and serious) told me, contrary to everything said previously by doctors, that I had genuine epilepsy, and that I could expect, in one of these seizures, to suffocate because of throat spasms.
He still hoped that the diagnosis was mistaken:
In marrying I completely trusted the doctors who told me that [my symptoms] were only nervous seizures which would pass with a change in the circumstances of my life. If I had known as a fact that I had genuine epilepsy, I would not have married.
The first unmistakable attack, then, occurred precisely where, according to Freud, no attack should have happened. What’s more, it has become abundantly clear that Dostoevsky’s father, Dr. Mikhail Dostoevsky, was not murdered. Frank’s biography conveys the drama of discovering this fact. The text of his first volume accepts the murder as established, but a footnote reverses this judgment: “As the present volume goes to press,” Frank reports, “some important new material has come to light that casts considerable doubt on whether the death of Dr. Dostoevsky was a murder at all.” In asserting that the death was murder, Dostoevsky’s daughter Lyubov had relied on thirdhand information. What’s more, her biography of her father is notoriously unreliable and makes readily identifiable errors.
The murder story took on a life of its own. Not only did it fit Freud’s theory perfectly, it also included all sorts of lurid details. (In one version, the peasants crushed the doctor’s genitals.) But the truth is almost as interesting. Two doctors independently ascertained that Dr. Dostoevsky, who had recently suffered a stroke, died suddenly from another one. Proponents of the murder theory assert that the peasants must have bribed the doctors, but where they could have secured sufficient funds for a bribe has never been explained.
For obvious reasons, the tsarist regime took the charge of serfs’ killing their owners quite seriously, and when the rumor of murder reached them, authorities sent an investigating commission, which eventually exonerated the peasants. The rumor, the commission established, had been deliberately spread by one of Dr. Dostoevsky’s neighbors for financial reasons. If the charge were accepted, the peasants would have been exiled to Siberia, which would have meant that Dr. Dostoevsky’s land could be purchased for considerably less. Today, little doubt remains that this account is correct.
Marullo’s two new volumes supplement and question Frank’s conclusions on this and other matters. Perfecting a technique he first used in his three-volume study of the novelist Ivan Bunin, Marullo weaves a narrative by bringing together diverse illuminating documents—by Dostoevsky, his relatives, his friends, his first biographer, critics commenting on his work, other writers who knew him, Nicholas I, and the commission investigating Dr. Dostoevsky’s death. Letters written while events were unfolding appear side by side with memoirs, some thoughtful and others mendacious, written decades later. Marullo includes “anything and everything they have said about Dostoevsky—the truths and lies; the good, bad, and ugly; even the laughable and ludicrous.” Assembling the thrilling facts and legends about Dostoevsky, Marullo has invented a new genre of biography, “a portrait of the writer in a new and seminal way.” Readers can not only form their own opinions about disputed events, but also trace the origins of various legends. The documents reflect a haze of rumors, plausible mistakes, shrewd guesses, and vindictive falsities that shaped Dostoevsky’s reputation while he lived and the conclusions drawn by biographers and critics ever since.
In his introductions and extensive notes, Marullo corrects misstatements and argues with other scholars, including Frank. While Frank correctly contested most of the Freudian myth, Marullo argues, he still presumed that Dr. Dostoevsky was a tyrant and sadist guilty of “mistreating the peasants abominably.” As a result, Frank concluded that even if Dr. Dostoevsky had not been murdered, and even if his children never believed he had been, Dostoevsky may still have experienced intense guilt for his father’s cruelty to serfs. Such a reaction would explain why Dostoevsky became obsessed with the evils of serfdom and joined a revolutionary organization, a decision that led to his imprisonment.
Against this view, Marullo marshals evidence—impressive, if not conclusive—that Dr. Dostoevsky was an “exemplary” father, that he treated the peasants well, and that there is no reason to suppose Dostoevsky felt any guilt for his father’s death. Future biographers will need to weigh Frank’s and Marullo’s competing arguments in light of whatever evidence is available to them.
Marullo also adds to Frank’s account of events leading to the moment Dostoevsky described as his happiest. After graduating from the school of military engineering—where, according to a friend, “there was no student less capable of military bearing than F.M. Dostoevsky”—he briefly worked for the drafting department of the St. Petersburg Engineering Corps. Dreaming of becoming a writer who would solve the mysteries of the soul, Dostoevsky worked inattentively and once submitted a design for a fortress that had no gates. When Tsar Nicholas I happened to see the drawing, he asked, “What idiot drew this?” The future author of The Idiot was allowed to resign.
Dostoevsky roomed with a friend from the engineering academy, the writer Dmitri Grigorovich, who had developed good connections with literary Petersburg. One night when Dostoevsky was out, Grigorovich borrowed the manuscript of Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, to show to the poet Nikolay Nekrasov. “We’ll be able to tell from the first ten pages” whether it is any good, they agreed, and before they knew it, they had finished the whole work. “They both decided to see me at once,” Dostoevsky recalled. “‘Who cares if he’s asleep,’ they said, ‘this is more important than sleep!’” Having just returned home when they arrived at 4 AM, Dostoevsky was overwhelmed as the two friends, “speaking hastily and with exclamations,” told him of their decision to share the manuscript with the most influential critic of the day, Vissarion Belinsky. “A new Gogol has appeared!” Nekrasov told Belinsky, who replied, “You find Gogols springing up like mushrooms.”
When Nekrasov dropped in on Belinsky the following evening, he had already read Poor Folk and demanded to meet Dostoevsky, who was sure the severe critic would tear his novel apart. But Belinsky could not have been more enthusiastic. “Do you, your very self, realize what it is you have written?” he kept repeating. “Have you yourself comprehended all the terrible truth you have shown to us?” To explain his lack of enthusiasm over some of Dostoevsky’s subsequent works, critics have wrongly argued that Belinsky, whom the Soviets regarded as a forerunner of socialist-realist aesthetics, misread Poor Folk as social criticism rather than psychology. But what Belinsky grasped is that Dostoevsky revealed how economic deprivation is only the beginning of poverty’s ills. Still worse is the psychological harm of losing one’s self-respect. Belinsky especially praised the passages in which, he told Dostoevsky, “this wretched clerk of yours…from humility…does not even dare to acknowledge his own wretchedness…or claim even the right to his own unhappiness.”
“Cherish your gift, remain faithful to it, and be a great writer!” Belinsky advised. This was the moment Dostoevsky deemed his happiest. But it did not last. The extraordinary success of Poor Folk, Marullo explains, “so inflated the writer’s being that he lost contact…with reality,” a judgment with which Dostoevsky, when recalling this period of his life, largely concurred. “For two years…I was sick with a strange disease, a moral one,” he explained. “I fell into hypochondria. There was even a time when I lost my reason. I was extremely irritable, impressionable…and capable of distorting the most ordinary facts.”
Other writers and critics responded to Dostoevsky’s newfound self-importance with shocking cruelty. Turgenev, who became Dostoevsky’s lifelong enemy, deliberately provoked the irritable young man into saying absurdities and then circulated them. “Well, you are one to talk!” Belinsky rebuked Turgenev. “You pick on a sick individual, you egg him on as if you yourself do not see that he is irritated and does not understand what he is saying.” Turgenev, Nekrasov, and the critic Ivan Panaev concocted the story that Dostoevsky demanded that a literary anthology place Poor Folk at the end, the most striking position, and surround it with a border indicating its superior status. Their satiric poem “A Greeting from Belinsky to Dostoevsky” called the young author “a new pimple on literature’s nose” and ended with “Belinsky” enthusing, “I will surround you with a border/And put you at the end.” Marullo includes a translation of the poem and commentaries on Poor Folk. He also provides generous extracts from Nekrasov’s satire The Stone Heart (also called How Great I Am!), which makes fun of both Belinsky and Dostoevsky.
In his classic biography of Alexander Pope, Maynard Mack assumed the task of presenting the irascible poet in the best possible light. “If the results of the effort in my case are dismissed as special pleading, so be it,” he wrote. “There are few poets who cannot use an advocate.” Scholars, however, are not defense attorneys; they owe their primary allegiance not to the poet but to the truth. Remarkably, neither Frank nor Marullo whitewashes Dostoevsky’s unattractive sides. For those dealing with the last years of Dostoevsky’s life, a crucial test of a biographer’s intellectual honesty is the terrible anti-Semitism that then possessed him.*
On this issue, Christofi, like many others, falls short. He minimizes Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitic outbursts as “of their time. Like his beloved Dickens, he was…too ready to found his edifices on stereotypes…. We must remember that, for many years, anti-Semitism was official policy in Russia.” These comments paint a wholly false picture. Dostoevsky’s diatribes against the Jews were extreme even for his day, and even by Russian standards, which is saying a lot. “What if it weren’t the Jews who numbered three million in Russia but the Russians; and what if there were eighty million Jews?” Dostoevsky asked.
Would they [the Jews] not turn them [the Russians] directly into slaves? Even worse…would they not massacre them altogether, exterminate them completely, as they did more than once with alien peoples in times of old?
No wonder Nazis and genocidal Russian nationalists made use of these comments.
Dostoevsky had once argued for Jewish rights, and always called for compassion for sufferers, so these comments have startled his admirers. Most studies ignore them and the work in which they occur, his one-person periodical, A Writer’s Diary, which he published monthly in 1876 and 1877. As if he were ideologically possessed, like the fanatics in his novel The Demons, he came to believe for about eighteen months that he had discovered the key to history, which enabled him to predict, with no hesitation, that the apocalypse would occur within months. Apocalyptic mythology often presents the Antichrist as a Jew who will lead his adherents in a final battle with true Christians, and these ideas seem to have fueled Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism. When history failed to end, Dostoevsky suspended A Writer’s Diary. His last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, represents an attempt to rethink the ideas leading to such colossal errors.
Christofi, a novelist, presents his unconventional narrative of Dostoevsky’s life as accurate. Yet he takes extraordinary liberties. The book consists of three types of statements. Direct quotations from the sources are footnoted and presented accurately. Narrative exposition relies on “trusted scholars” but does not indicate the sources for particular facts. It is the third type of material, presented in italics, that involves “artistic license.” Christofi includes passages from Dostoevsky’s writings as if they were direct comments on incidents in his own life. The tortured ruminations of his characters become the author’s thoughts about himself.
“When authors conceive fiction,” Christofi explains, “they often shear memories off from their context to use them as the building blocks of their new world. It is a kind of willful source amnesia.” Christofi reverses this process so that he can “re-attribute many of the memories and sense impressions that litter his fiction” and apply them once again to Dostoevsky. But not all processes are reversible. An egg breaks, but the shards and liquid cannot be reassembled into an egg. And even if passages from novels reflect some real experience, why must they pertain to the author rather than to other people he knew? For that matter, why could they not, as Frank suggests in his lectures, magnify a barely discernible fact in order to examine its implications?
However dubious the method, the result is what counts. Does Christofi’s narrative help us “to understand how people thought…and to represent that thought faithfully so that others might know themselves better,” as he suggests? The reader will look in vain for anything beyond superficial, even mistaken, observations. For example, Christofi claims that Dostoevsky wrote “so much” of The Idiot with the powerful final scene “in mind,” but we know from Dostoevsky’s letters and notebooks that, desperate for money, he began publishing the first serialized parts of this novel without a clue as to its overall plot. The last scene did not occur to him until he was already halfway through the third of four parts, and even after that he continued to consider alternative endings.
In her foreword to the present collection of the lectures Frank delivered at Stanford after his retirement from Princeton, Robin Feuer Miller—long one of Dostoevsky’s subtlest interpreters—observes that Frank “made the genre of biography new again, helping to ignite our general fascination with cultural history.” In chapters on Poor Folk, The Double, The House of the Dead, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov, Frank distills his multivolume biography’s provocative and superbly argued readings. In one of his lectures, he addresses the criticism that “in focusing as much as I do on the social-cultural context, I reduce [Dostoevsky’s] novels to being a reflection of the limited issues and questions of his own day.” “There is something to be said for this point of view,” Frank observes, but there is also a danger in reading our own social and political concerns into them. When we do, the novels can no longer teach us anything we don’t already know.
It is also a mistake to read Dostoevsky’s works using “the most general psychological and philosophical categories,” such as “the eternal conflict in Western culture between love and justice,” because the novels’ greatness arises from the specifics of time and place that shed light on those questions as no generalities ever could. The best approach, in Frank’s view, is first to locate Dostoevsky’s fiction and ideas within his immediate concerns, and only then proceed, from the ground up rather than from generalities down, to consider their broader implications.
These lectures do that especially well. Particularly impressive is Frank’s thesis that the experience of the mock execution left Dostoevsky with a completely different view of time and ethics, which Frank calls “eschatological [apocalyptic] apprehension.” Dostoevsky concluded, he says, that “every instant takes on a supreme value,” and “each moment of the present is when a decisive choice has to be made.” That is why Dostoevsky offers so many brilliant descriptions of the agonies of choice at critical moments. What matters most, in his view, is what we can do for another person right in front of us right now. Most essential, as Frank puts it, “is action at every moment, at this very instant, as if time were about to stop and the world would come to an end.” This way of looking at things, which Albert Schweitzer called “interim ethics,” creates an especially urgent sense of compassion, but it also, I think, entails dangers, as Dostoevsky’s susceptibility to literal apocalypticism demonstrates.
Reviewing Dostoevsky’s second work, The Double, Belinsky observed that the young writer had demonstrated “the ability, so to speak, of migrating into the skin of another, a being completely different from himself.” One cannot expect a literary biographer to migrate into the skin of an author the way great novelists do with their characters, but one can hope to understand, if not to actually experience, how the writer viewed the world. Frank accomplishes that, and Marullo gives us the material to do so for ourselves.
Susan McReynolds has explored Dostoevsky’s hatred of Jews in Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky’s Economy of Salvation and Antisemitism (Northwestern University Press, 2008). ↩