Saving Russia

Joseph Frank (1918–2013) is the greatest co-creator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life in our time, and his path to the top was thrillingly irregular. He was not a professional Slavist. True, in the late 1930s he attended university classes, but in 1942 he began working as an editor and literary journalist. An innovative essay on European modernism won him his first fame and a Fulbright scholarship to Paris in 1950. After earning a PhD at the University of Chicago (like the critic Mikhail Bakhtin, without a BA), he taught at Princeton from 1966 to 1985, and then at Stanford.

That’s the outside institutional envelope. The inside story, which stretched over a quarter-century (1976–2002), was his vast biography of Dostoevsky: five volumes totalling 2,500 pages. It grew out of his interest in the French Existentialists. Frank was vexed that their analyses of Dostoevsky were either personal and psychological, or else philosophical and theological. His task would be to fill in the middle space with the author’s daily stimuli, concrete provocations and constraints. He would do this without any relishing of private vices or pathological drives. Underneath his project was the old-fashioned and yet novel assumption that profound creativity is always a sign of profound mental health. Reviewing the fourth volume in 1995, A. S. Byatt wrote: “Frank is that increasingly rare being, an intellectual biographer, and his real concern is with the workings of Dostoevsky’s mind”.

Lectures on Dostoevsky, organized chronologically around the author’s major works, is culled from an annual ten-week course, “Dostoevsky and His Times”, that Frank launched at Stanford in 1985. Teachers are not biographers and classrooms are not books. But Frank’s priorities were the same in both venues, a point appreciated by David Foster Wallace in his overview of the first four volumes in the Village Voice in 1996 (Frank’s favourite review, reprinted here): “their aim is to show as clearly as possible what Dostoevsky himself wanted the books to mean”. In his lecture on Notes from Underground, Frank fleshes out this idea. There is a difference, he told his students, between “using the work for our own purposes” – which we are always free to do – and “attempting to understand it in its own historical terms”. This course aimed at understanding. Dostoevsky was a public man; he left traces. So what did he want his works to mean?

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