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Dostoevsky’s Journalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1987
Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860—1865. By Joseph Frank. Princeton. $29.50.

It is hard to believe that more than ten years have already passed since the appearance of Joseph Frank’s The Seeds of Revolt, 1821—1849, the first volume of his monumental biography of Dostoevsky; and already over three years have elapsed since the second installment, The Years of Ordeal, 1850—1859. The price of this third volume, The Stir of Liberation, 1860—1865, which begins with Dostoevsky’s return from his exile, is almost twice that of the first; hopefully this worrisome state of university press book publishing will somehow get figured into the way economists go about computing their statistics on the general rate of inflation.

My own intense fascination with The Seeds of Revolt and The Years of Ordeal stemmed partly from a longstanding absorption with Dostoevsky. Frank’s two books, at least for someone like myself who had read everything by Dostoevsky I had ever been able to lay my hands on, came as a revelation. Partly it was a question of Frank having so thoroughly absorbed the historical and social background to Dostoevsky’s writings; Russian culture and its history remain relatively alien, and Frank succeeded in making it accessible. But he had proceeded with such originality and artistry that there was little left about Dostoevsky’s life that one once thought one knew that withstood his sensitive biographical inquiries.

Frank established, for example, that Dostoevsky’s childhood background was wholly at odds with the thesis in the essay by Sigmund Freud that sought to reconstruct the facts. Dostoevsky’s epilepsy, which would not appear to have been “affective” as Freud had thought, since Dostoevsky passed it on to one of his children, first started only in his Siberian captivity. There was not any relationship, as Freud and others had believed, between the onset of the epilepsy and the murder of Dostoevsky’s father. And it further turned out that perhaps his father had died of natural causes after all. Most remarkable of all Frank’s findings was the idea that Dostoevsky’s youthful politics had hardly been innocuous, and that the Tsar’s police had in fact imprisoned Dostoevsky, and then sentenced him to death, for serious revolutionary activities; Frank refers in The Stir of Liberation to this conspiratorial work as “the secret” Dostoevsky “had so carefully guarded . . .and would continue to guard for the remainder of his life. . . .”

Frank’s volumes in some sense gave us a new Dostoevsky, in that previous biographical knowledge was no longer trustworthy. Frank’s obvious mastery of the Russian primary and secondary source material made it the most authoritative study available and at the same time an intensely readable experience. Frank is so thoroughly sophisticated a literary critic that he succeeded not in trying to foist off on us an alledgedly new Dostoevsky, but he has used fresh evidence to deepen our understanding of the great writer we were already familiar with. Frank’s book revived memories of Dostoevsky’s most characteristic works, and reminded us of key aspects of the writings of a man whose novels are so unforgettably a part of our heritage.

Yet after a lively beginning to the opening of The Stir of Liberation, there is such a difference between a chunk of two hundred pages and my memory of Frank’s earlier two books that I began to wonder whether my high expectations had led to some inevitable disappointment, or even to a suspicion that I had assessed the other work incorrectly. That large early portion of this book lacked the narrative pace of both The Seeds of Revolt and The Years of Ordeal. Frank had accomplished once again admirable explorations in Russian intellectual history; but his concentrated analysis of Dostoevsky’s journalism, within the context of its social and political background, lacked movement. And then suddenly, in the last hundred-and-twenty-five pages of The Stir of Liberation, Frank’s biography returns to the absolutely superb level of the earlier volumes.

What had happened is that Frank’s original intention to produce a four-volume work dealing with Dostoevsky’s life and writings had changed to expand into five; Frank tells us in the Preface to The Stir of Liberation that he was forced to extend the size of his project “when the present book emerged rather unexpectedly.” To be more precise, Frank felt he had to deal with the neglected archival material and scholarly studies connected with Dostoevsky’s years as a polemicizing journalist. Frank obviously knows best how much attention has to be paid to each phase of Dostoevsky’s life, and what needs to be done to prepare us for understanding the background to the immortal novels; but this alteration in Frank’s original plan does, I think, show up in the flawed execution of The Stir of Liberation.

Overall, however, we have once again a thoroughly fresh version of Dostoevsky. One commonplace has always emphasized Dostoevsky’s reactionary politics after his imprisonment. It is true that he became a fervent supporter of the tsar as a liberator of the serfs; Dostoevsky did also later utter anti-Semitic ideas; and he was repeatedly to write about the moral ambiguities in radicalism. But Frank argues that in the context of his times Dostoevsky was steering a middle course within the ideological squabbles of the Russian intelligentsia. He was living in a time of revolutionary ferment, and although he distanced himself from radical thinkers he himself had to take into account the threat of the tsarist censorship. Ironically, one censor thought that Dostoevsky’s depiction of Siberian imprisonment in House of the Dead was so rosy as to pose the threat of incitement to crime; and on a later occasion a journal that Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail edited was closed down at the order of the political authorities. Frank says that Dostoevsky was unique among the greatest Russian artists in depicting the people of Russia revolting against their enslavement. He abhorred serfdom, and all that went with it humanly. “Whatever else Dostoevsky may have been,” Frank writes, “he was certainly not an uncritical defender of existing institutions. . . .” Dostoevsky was never on the side of suppressing ideas, even though he might be opposed to them, and, according to Frank, Dostoevsky always thought it was a mistake to interfere with the free expression of thought.

The years 1860—65 brought Dostoevsky into direct contact with some of the greatest writers in Western thought. Frank carefully depicts Dostoevsky’s personal and intellectual relationships to Alexander Herzen as well as Ivan Turgenev. It seems touchingly chatty to find Herzen writing to a mutual acquaintance: “Dostoevsky was here yesterday—he is a naïve, not entirely lucid, but very nice person. . . . He believes with enthusiasm in the Russian people.” After Dostoevsky’s death Turgenev surprisingly referred to him as the Russian Marquis de Sade. Frank presents interesting material about lesser figures like Nikolay Strakhov, Apollon Grigoryev, and N.A. Dobrolyubov. N.G. Chernyshevsky is particularly significant in The Stir of Liberation since it is his What Is To Be Done? (1863) against which Dostoevsky will be reacting with his conception of the underground man. Although by 1865 Dostoevsky’s greatest writings still lie in the future, the chronology of his work was such that The Stir of Liberation can culminate with an impressively persuasive examination of the text of Notes from the Underground.

Dostoevsky’s religious convictions are sufficiently different and difficult that they deserve the extended discussion that Frank affords them. Naïve students of Dostoevsky, who may know little more about him than the unforgettable legend of the Grand Inquisitor, are apt to ignore Dostoevsky’s hostility to Roman Catholicism; Dostoevsky succeeds so convincingly because he understood both possible sides of the argument, and he is illustrious in Western history if only because he regularly dramatized the inevitability of the tragic clash between competing moral values. When he rejected European ideas, he had in mind those that emphasized the selfishly self-regarding aspects of the human mind. For Dostoevsky, Russia was a country which could stand for the principle of community as it existed in the traditional Russian peasant commune. Dostoevsky’s nationalism was part of his taking the side of the Christian ethic of love and self-sacrifice in contrast to the Benthamite utilitarian doctrine of individualism and self-interest. Yet suffering was no end in itself for Dostoevsky, but could serve as a goad to keep alive what Frank calls the “sense of moral autonomy in a world deprived of human significance by determinism.”

This third volume of Frank’s biography covers the death of Dostoevsky’s first wife, who was tubercular, as well as the fatal collapse of his brother Mikhail; it recounts a brief adulterous and unhappy romance of Dostoevsky’s; and the book also includes Dostoevsky’s first episodes of addictive gambling at roulette, which always took place while he was abroad, where in part he went for the sake of medical treatment. In The Stir of Liberation Frank has let up on his criticism of Freud, and of psychoanalytic thinking; when it comes to Dostoevsky’s gambling, Frank wisely steps quietly past Freud’s own view of it, but then relies heavily and probably correctly on the theorizing of an orthodox psychoanalyst, Otto Fenichel.

Frank’s work now faces its greatest challenge, since he above all aims to use an understanding of Dostoevsky’s life to illuminate his writing, and the story has come to the period of Dostoevsky’s greatest creativity. Frank points out that Dostoevsky’s failure, financially, as an editor and a journalist would in the end prove his salvation as an artist. It is with great anticipation that we await Volumes IV and V; and that eagerness is not just due to Dostoevsky’s novels but constitutes a tribute to the high quality of this biography.


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