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Dostoevsky In Exile

ISSUE:  Summer 1985
Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850—59. By Joseph Frank. Princeton. $25.00

In the July 18, 1975 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Joseph Frank published an astonishing critique of Sigmund Freud’s 1928 essay on Dostoevsky. One had had suspicions about the autobiographical component in all Freud’s work, but Frank adopted a different tack: he blew Freud’s paper out of the water entirely by means of a masterful knowledge of Dostoevsky’s life. Then in 1976 Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821—49 appeared. Frank told how he had conceived his project 20 years earlier, as he boldly announced that this would be the first of a projected four-volume biography. His fascination with Dostoevsky and Russian culture meant that our understanding of the great Russian writer would be shifted to an entirely new level of sophistication.

Frank proposed to interpret Dostoevsky’s art, going from the life to the work rather than the other way round. He saw Dostoevsky’s achievement as a synthesis of the social and cultural life of his period. He approvingly quoted Jose Ortega y Gasset: “I see in criticism a fervent effort to bring out the full power of the chosen work. It is just the opposite, then, to what Sainte-Beuve does when he takes us from the work to the author and then sprays him with a shower of anecdote. . . the critic is expected to provide in his work all the sentimental and ideological aids which will enable the ordinary reader to receive the most intense and clearest possible impression of the book.” Frank quoted this passage because he himself wanted to understand Dostoevsky as a writer; at the same time Frank ambitiously sought to expand the limits of the genre of biography.

As impressive as The Seeds of Revolt remains, The Years of Ordeal is even more remarkable; probably this is because the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky’s most direct re-creation of his years of imprisonment, is superior to anything he had written before. It is perhaps enough to say that Frank has continued his scholarly endeavor on the same high level as he started out. It is impossible to be too extravagant in praise of this book.

Frank begins with “the Petrashevsky affair.” Earlier, Frank established that Dostoevsky had not, as received wisdom understood, been engaging in harmless political dabbling. The Tsar’s police accurately spotted a conspiracy of radicals in which Dostoevsky was one of the most devout. Although everyone knew of Dostoevsky’s 1849 arrest and the Tsar’s last-minute commutation of a death sentence into imprisonment at hard labor in Siberia, nothing prepared one for the vividly detailed description that Frank has provided.

One early footnote can illustrate the joy in reading this book. A certain general I.A.Nabokov, the great-great-uncle of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, was commandant of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in which Dostoevsky underwent solitary confinement after his arrest. The author of Lolita, in his Speak Memory!, claimed that his illustrious relative had lent books to “the writer Dostoevsky, author of The Double, etc.” Frank puts a subtle question mark after the “etc.” According to Frank no evidence exists for Nabokov’s fancy that his ancestor had loaned Dostoevsky books. “Perhaps all it means is that Dostoevsky borrowed books from the prison library.”

According to Dostoevsky’s second wife, he told her that his arrest “broke his life in two,” and that without the imprisonment he would have gone “mad.” When he was deprived of his freedom, he learned something not only about his own resiliency but also discovered the power of the human spirit when forced to rely on its own resources. Dostoevsky continually struggled to get what scraps of writings he could obtain from the outside world. Increasingly, he came to see Europe as the source of doctrines of egoism and selfishness, and here Dostoevsky was being self-critically censorious.

According to Frank, after the mock-execution Dostoevsky gained a new grasp of existence from his confrontation with death. The individual, Dostoevsky held, is obliged to uphold his integrity no matter what the outward circumstances might be like. Frank insists that Dostoevsky’s social sense, and in particular his outrage over serfdom in Russia, was allied with religious questionings and probings about the ultimate meaning of life. Dostoevsky’s understanding of the tragic dimension to human experience, the way ultimate values inevitably conflict with one another, makes him one of the immortals of Western thought.

Although Frank follows Dostoevsky’s life in sequence, the biographer has more to work with now than earlier. The House of the Dead becomes far more interesting a text than one had ever realized. He was living among some of the basest of criminals, yet he retained the conviction that “men, however, are everywhere men.” As far as Frank can detect, relatively early in Siberia (1850) Dostoevsky had his first genuine epileptic attack. When he was finally released from prison in February 1854, he had to serve in a lowly position in the Russian army. Not until 1859 was he allowed to return to Russia, and only then did he succeed in getting permission to once again publish his writings.

Frank contends that these “years of ordeal” brought about a transformation in Dostoevsky’s beliefs and convictions. Direct contact with the people taught him the lesson of the significance of the brotherhood of man. In the absence of normal standards of morality, Dostoevsky found that the Russian peasantry was capable of expressing an outlook all its own. The idea of reformers that peasants would ever accept upper-class leadership in a struggle for freedom was clearly a delusion of a Westernized intelligentsia. After his conversion experience, Dostoevsky had faith in the ordinary Russian as a human embodiment of Christ. True social progress would only be the result of a change in the moral approach of the upper class toward the people.

Although Frank is at pains to separate his approach from that of Freud and orthodox psychoanalysis, and Frank rightly insists that an artist like Dostoevsky cannot be held to have a theory of human nature, nevertheless he points out all the features of unconscious mental life and the irrational that Dostoevsky understood. In the midst of the worst humiliations of prison life, Dostoevsky found illustrations of the need people have to affirm their dignity. He identified his prison experience with the life in an ideal Socialist Utopia, and he emphasized the general need of human beings to express a will of their own in defending themselves against psychological encroachment. “The prison camp,” Frank writes, “convinced Dostoevsky that private work, which guarantees the individual a sense of self-possession and moral autonomy, was fundamental for maintaining the human psyche on an even keel. . . .” Frank has amply prepared us for the creation of the underground man.

The Years of Ordeal also covers Dostoevsky’s army life, as well as his first marriage. After his wedding, the diagnosis of epilepsy became settled; and evidently his first wife never forgave him for what she thought of as a concealment. During this formative period, Dostoevsky’s belief system became established. Tsar Alexander II, who abolished the serfdom that The Seeds of Revolt established was an essential constituent of Dostoevsky’s revolutionary activities, seemed a worthy object of Dostoevsky’s devotion. The Crimean War solidified the notion that Russia had a mission to redeem Western culture.

Dostoevsky’s politics were such, Freud had archly commented, that “lesser minds have reached with smaller effort,” Although Frank is unremittingly hard on the founder of psychoanalysis, one should admit that Freud’s choice of The Brother’s Karamazov as his favorite novel represented an overcoming of Freud’s own values. As an Austrian Jew, Freud could not share Dostoevsky’s kind of patriotism, nor could he appreciate Dostoevsky as a believing Christian. Freud might have seen in Dostoevsky an admirable kind of radical skepticism, but he could never have shared the Russian’s Christian convictions. Dostoevsky’s remark that he would “prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth” was antithetical to Freud’s whole orientation.

Dostoevsky’s beliefs were not as eccentric as they might seem. Frank performs a notable service in showing how he was part of the dominant trend in Russian intellectual life at the time. Literature and criticism were then, as they still are now in the Soviet Union, a political enterprise.

In Dostoevsky’s life, as in the characters in his works, egoism is a dreaded fear. He especially assailed selfishness when it was garbed in noble ideals. Human beings were all too capable of self-intoxication, and ideology could allow the nastiest of actions. These volumes of Frank’s are so captivating partly because of Dostoevsky’s moral and psychological genius. “A base soul escaping from oppression becomes an oppressor.” Those who are humiliated have an instinctive impulse to hit back, illustrating, in Frank’s words, how egoism can be “so self-absorbed as to be incapable of forgiveness or even of mercy.” Dostoevsky’s work illustrates repeatedly how resentments can explode from the deepest parts of the human psyche.The Seeds of Revolt and The Years of Ordeal have laid the groundwork for Dostoevsky’s later and greatest books. Vol. II ends with Dostoevsky’s return to Russia, ten years after he had left as a prisoner in shackles.

Seven years have elapsed since the publication of The Seeds of Revolt; one can only hope that we will not have to wait so long for Vol. III of Frank’s great biography.


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