Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank, Princeton University Press, Pp 959 (PB), $ 24.95
DOSTOEVSKY, the name in itself is an eloquent commentary. No other Russian writer reached the levels of popularity and acceptance that Dostoevsky did. He has been translated into more than 170 languages and his works have sold around 15 million copies. His biography was written by Joseph Frank, in five volumes running into 2,500 pages.
Now, Joseph Frank has compressed this monumental work into a relatively easier bulk of a thousand pages. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Times by Frank offers an undiluted insight into the iconic writer. Frank, described as one of those rare breed of intellectual biographer, “ran” into Dostoevsky in the early 1950s, around the time his English translations were coming out. Dostoevsky had died in 1881, at the age of 60. Frank learnt Russian and read the originals. The biography of Dostoevsky cannot be a chronological account, he realised. He also found the writings on him in several languages other than Russian inadequate. “Placing Dostoevsky’s writings in their social-political and ideological context, however, is only the first step toward an adequate comprehension of his works. For what is important about them is not that his characters engage in theoretical disputations. It is, that their ideas become part of their personalities, to such an extent, indeed, that neither exists independently of the other… He possessed what I call an “eschatological imagination.”
Dostoevsky was born in a multi-ethnic royal family. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a teenager. He was deeply affected by it and developed a throat problem, which left his voice hard and brittle for life. Two years later his father died. It is widely believed that he started getting epileptic seizures after this. Dostoevsky went to a military academy, which he disliked and joined the forces also for some time. He started writing early. During the course of his writings and literary indulgence, he became part of a socio-Christian group founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky.
This group advocated social reforms. Dostoevsky was arrested along with others and a mock execution was performed on them before being sent to Siberia for ten years. Labelled as a most dangerous convict, his hands and feet were chained throughout his jail term. He was not allowed to read anything other than the New Testament. He was released in 1854 (he was 33) but was still not allowed inside Russia. This was followed by compulsory military service, from which he was released in 1859 on account of health. He married in 1857. He was allowed into Russia, first to Tver and then to St. Petersburg in 1859.
Dostoyevsky travelled out of Russia for the first time in 1862. He went to several cities in Germany, Belgium, Paris, London, Switzerland, and several cities in northern Italy. The next year he toured Western Europe once again and met his second love Polinao Suslova in Paris. Polina was a Russian short story writer and it is believed that several female characters in Dostoevsky’s later works bore resemblance to her. His wife died in 1864. He married Anna Snitkina in 1867. She helped take down his dictations and handled the sale of his books. In all, Dostoevsky penned eleven novels, three novellas, seventeen short novels, and three essays.
Dostoevsky was addicted to gambling and ran into debt and out of money very often. He almost all his life lived in deep debt. He and his wife sold off their possessions and several houses, changed residence. Anna and Dostoevsky had three children, and two of them died in infancy. Dostoevsky was deeply religious and his last words, when he collapsed from hemorrhage were from the Bible.
“All that Dostoevsky published during the 1840s bore the hallmark of his acceptance of the Utopian Socialist ideas then in vogue among a considerable portion of the intelligentsia—ideas that can be considered to have been inspired by Christianity, though recasting its ethos in terms of modern social problems,” says Frank.
His imprisonment convinced him that the need for freedom, especially the right to exercise one’s free will was an ineradicable need of the human personality and “could express itself even in apparently self-destructive forms if no other outlet were possible.”
According to the biographer, “One of Dostoevsky’s dreams for his work had been to bring about the unity of Russian culture; and if he did not succeed during his lifetime, it may be said that he attained this goal with his death.” His works have been unanimously accepted not by the Russians but millions world over.
Frank’s contribution to understanding Dostoevsky is no less than Dostoevsky’s own gift to the world of literature. The thousand pages pass off like a beautifully composed piece, without a jarring note. It seems so complete that one wonders what more could he have written in the five volume work. This volume has been edited by Mary Petrusewicz, an independent scholar who lectures on Russian literature and history at Stanford University. Frank attributes a large part of the success of his work to his wife Marguerite Frank, a professional and published mathematician and a discriminating and avid reader of literature. At 91, Joseph Frank is professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford and Princeton.
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