Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“[E]verything takes refuge in the flesh, everything is thrown into fleshly debauchery, and, to supply the lack of higher spiritual impressions, the nerves and the body are goaded with everything capable of arousing the sensibility. The most monstrous perversions, the most abnormal acts, little by little become customary.”

Thus Joseph Frank recounts Feodor Dostoevsky’s foresight of what life will become if the radical socialists’ materialist worldview were to be adopted across Russia and Europe. Beginning at Dostoevsky’s return to St. Petersburg after a ten-year exile in Siberia and Semipalatinsk and running until his brother Mikhael’s death and the failure of their second journal, Epoch, The Stir of Liberation focuses less on the events of the Russian author’s life than the previous two volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography on the author. Instead, it follows the journalistic and ideological bouts that formed the core of what would guide Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces.

After recounting the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s return, Frank explores the brothers Dostoevskys’ first literary journal, Time, as well as the values underlying it. While his time in prison had shown Dostoevsky the incompleteness and foolhardiness of utopian socialism, the author still sympathized with the stated goals of the radicals of mid-century Russia. The journal’s alternative method for helping the Russian peasantry raise their standard of living — pochvennichestvo, a broad plan to educate the lower classes by an educated upper class through authentically Russian art and literature — is a major theme in the book, as is Dostoevsky’s initial impulse to conciliate between the other, alternatively more radical and conservative, journals of the time. Subsequently, in this volume readers will find a more theoretical explanation and exposition of Dostoevsky’s view of art, as well as the view of the radical socialists, foremost among whom was Chernyshevsky, introduced in the biography’s second volume. The ideological back-and-forths between the journals — both Time and, after its bungling censorship, Epoch — constitute much of this volume (this may or may not appeal to readers; I found it engaging and, under Frank’s pen, understandable).

Along with recounting the adventures of the Dostoevskys’ journals, Frank follows the key events in Dostoevsky’s life that accompanied and gave him fodder for his pieces, such as his first trip to Europe (which does not line up with his/Russia’s expectations), his affair and travels with the student Apollinaria Suslova, the long-expected death of his wife, and the sudden and completely unexpected (to him) death of his brother. Out of these events Frank explains such works as Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, The Gambler, and, in an explicatory chapter that, alone, makes the volume worth reading, Notes from Underground.

Frank’s long focus on this last work is outstanding — unsurprising, considering its being Dostoevsky’s first GREAT work in his later apocalyptic themes. Giving background sources and influential interpretations since the work’s publication, Frank couches Dostoevsky’s satirizing the socialist-materialist of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (the polemic that inspired many in Russia to become radicals, and V. I. Lenin’s favorite book) in the underground man’s inability to live out his grandiose creed. Covering each section of the work, Frank presents a unified reading that elucidates Dostoevsky’s most obscure book, placing it squarely within the arguments of its day while showing how it relates to the author’s later timeless novels.

While others might not enjoy this volume as much as the more event-based volumes of the biography. I found it to be the most engaging yet. The Stir of Liberation shows the processes by which Dostoevsky hashed out his worldview and applied it to the Russia of his day, and it shows Dostoevsky in the years when he took the lessons and experiences he had in Siberia and articulated them into full literary understanding. Fans of literary theory and philosophy of art — not to mention political theory — will have much to enjoy in this volume.

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Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”

Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.

From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.

This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.

This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.

I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.