Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

A new, compressed edition of Frank's definitive biography
Abridged Joseph Frank biography, 'Dostoyevsky: A Writer in His Time'
Michael Dirda reviews a new abridged edition of Joseph Frank's 'magisterial' five volume biography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
In the mid-1950s, the young critic Joseph Frank, having been invited to give the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton, settled on the then fashionable topic "Existential Themes in Modern Literature." Since Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre both regarded Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground (1864) as a central text of existentialism, Mr. Frank naturally plunged into an intensive study of that novella. His fascination with its anguished protagonist—who on the first page brazenly proclaims "I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man"—eventually led the critic to learn Russian and to plan a short book on the sociological and ideological roots of the Underground Man's self-hatred. But as Mr. Frank's fascination with 19th-century Russian culture and social thought grew, so did his project. In 1976 there appeared Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, followed by four further volumes of critical biography, culminating in 2002 with Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881.

All five installments of this work—invariably and rightly described as magisterial—have now been reduced to a single massive volume. Editor Mary Petrusewicz cut the full text by roughly two-thirds, and the result was then read and approved by Mr. Frank, now 91 and a distinguished professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at both Stanford and Princeton. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time thus immediately becomes the essential one-volume commentary on the intellectual dynamics and artistry of this great novelist's impassioned, idea-driven fiction.

Naturally, some details have been sacrificed in the abridgment. For instance, in the third volume, The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865, Mr. Frank spends several pages discussing the possible influence on Dostoevsky of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton and Edgar Allan Poe's short stories (especially "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat"). In this condensation all the Gaskell material has been dropped even though the plot of her novel about industrial suffering, murder and conscience almost certainly influenced Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1881). Happily, Princeton University Press promises to keep all five volumes of the full biography in print. [Read More]