Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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The fourth of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years covers the time from just after the failure of the writer’s second literary journal, Epoch, (and the financial burdens that failure would incur), through his meeting and marrying his second wife Anna, their exile abroad to avoid debt creditors, and the author’s return to Russia four years later. The works covered, with both context and analysis by Frank, include Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and The Devils; Dostoevsky’s writing so prolifically, and under such stress as is elaborated in the book, makes the choice of title obvious.

Because the biography’s later volumes deal with Dostoevsky’s heavier masterpieces, and because the book almost immediately approaches Crime and Punishment with the depth of analysis for which, in previous volumes, readers had to wait until the end, The Miraculous Years is, from a literary criticism standpoint, the densest volume so far. With his usual ability to present great literature in generally manageable terms, Frank provides many details of the circumstances and behind the major novels covered (which, often due to writing deadlines and sometimes censorship, Dostoevsky was not always able to lift up to his own standards of expression). While the intervening details of Dostoevsky’s life are, as always, essential (his courting of the heroic Anna is a delight to read, and the context for his famous feud with Turgenev, the Dostoevskys’ travels in Europe, and the explanation of sources behind The Devils are all excellent), the readings of the novels and novellas are in-depth and comprehensive.

While at times Frank’s historicist interpretation tries, in my opinion, to link the books too exclusively to events and literature (essays, letters, etc) contemporaneous to the times, the readings give a solid basis for reading the books in context, and Frank’s explanation of the overall structures (and Dostoevsky’s stated but rarely fulfilled intents therefore) of the books provide an enlightening foundation from which to understand the works. It would have taken several rereads of the works for me to recognize the schema Frank points out in approachable prose. For those most interested in better understanding Dostoevsky’s great works, this volume is worth waiting for (or skipping to).


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

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“[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.

Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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The second in Joseph Frank’s biography on Dostoevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 picks up where The Seeds of Revolt leaves off. After being arrested for his participation in a printing scheme whose socialist literature was judged seditious by Tsarist censors, Dostoevsky waits in prison for his summary execution. However, in a staged act of magnanimity, the Tsar pardons Dostoevsky et al. at the last moment, sending them instead to different Siberian prison camps.

Dostoevsky’s experiences and revelations in his four-year term in Siberia and his subsequent service in the military following it are the focus of The Years of Ordeal. In prison the still young (late twenties) Dostoevsky meets many peasant convicts, who he learns are nothing like what he and other upper-class intelligentsia assumed, neither needing nor wanting liberation by the Western liberal elite. In his process of discovering the psychology of those around him, Dostoevsky discovers that such things as private property, clear social hierarchy, and the moral metaphysics established by Russian Orthodox Christianity are serious needs that make the peasant convicts stronger, more resilient, and more at peace than those in his own class. Throughout the book, and pointing forward to works like Crime and Punishment and The Devils, Frank tracks Dostoevsky’s growing realization of the revolutionary socialist perspective as both naive and self-destructive.

Following Dostoevsky’s time in prison, Frank depicts the man’s attempts to reestablish himself on the literary scene while fulfilling his obligations as a soldier in the provincial town of Semipalatinsk. Bringing in writing from the time and more recent diagnoses, Frank also examines Dostoevsky’s nascent epilepsy, which runs parallel to the writer’s relationship with his first wife, Marya Dimitrievna. Married to a drunk when Dostoevsky first meets her, Dimitrievna consumes the man and establishes many identifiable themes for in his later female characters.

As in The Seeds of Revolt, Frank follows the biographical chapters with an examination of Dostoevsky’s literature during the respective years. Articulating how the literary scene (often the only place to avoid censors and discuss politics in Tsarist Russia) had developed since Dostevsky’s arrest, Frank describes the ascent of men such as Alexander Herzen, who now occupied the place in Russian culture previously held by Vissarion Belinsky, and seminarian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky. Dostoevsky finds that the upper class values and self-doubt he previously depicted and lampooned in The Double and other works now under full attack, with a growing divide between “weak” upper class deference to tradition and “strong” willfulness to disregard it. Into this divide (which places the previously gauche Dostoevsky among such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoy, who welcome him) Dostoevsky brings his recent prison realizations about human psychology and ideology, and one can see the development of such ideas as would inform his later works.

Frank ends the book with an examination of Dostoevsky’s writing during the time, namely Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. (Because Dostoevsky would not write The House of the Dead until later years, Frank defers examining it, though he has quoted passages throughout to inform the reading of Dostevsky’s prison years.) Summarizing the books, Frank articulates how Dostoevsky’s ideas and themes have grown since Poor Folk and The Double, and he shows how time in prison has tested and nuanced Dostoevsky’s relationship with Romanticism and Naturalism (a major theme in The Seeds of Revolt), consistently hinting forward to Dostoevsky’s larger works.

Covering what Frank argues is the most formative decade of Dostoevsky’s life, The Years of Ordeal provides a fascinating look at not only how Dostoevsky became the writer he did, but also how Russia changed during these years. The work, thus, provides invaluable insight on the cultural, ideological, and political changes that would foreground Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces, as well as the later revolutions in later 19th and early 20th century Russia.

Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

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Not for the faint of heart, Joseph Frank’s series on Dostoevsky reverses the “examine the work to understand the man” approach to biography and instead examines themes in Dostoevsky’s life that might inform our understanding of his work.

The first of Frank’s five-volume biography, The Seeds of Revolt examines elements of Dostoevsky’s childhood, family, early religious life, and initial presence in the literary scene of 19th-century St. Petersburg to inform his earliest works, such as Poor Folk, The Double, The Landlady, White Nights, and others. Leading up to Dostoevsky’s 1849 arrest, Frank identifies the cultural and political conflicts in Russian society at the time—among which are the move in Russian interests from German Romanticism to French Naturalism and the question of whether reform (specifically, the end of serfdom) should come from the Tsar or from the people.

Amidst these conflicts, a young Fyodor Dostoevsky developed his own ideas of Naturalistic social consciousness while maintaining (often to his social detriment) a conviction that Romanticism was not completely meritless. Recounting Dostoevsky’s moves between different social and literary circles, Frank deftly shows how he eventually embroiled himself in a plot to print subversive materials advocating that the liberation of the serfs should come from below. While presenting Dostoevsky honestly as a revolutionary, Frank never removes his eye from the implicit, abstract themes in the man’s work that show his psychological and literary progression as more than those of a simple social radical.

Despite the work’s length and weight of subject, Frank’s prose is eminently readable and his organization compelling. Prefacing Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg life (the bulk of the book) with chapters about his childhood and then ending the book with a focused look at the early works he has mentioned throughout, Joseph Frank offers a biography that does not read as a simply chronological biography, and he provides a context and jumping-off point that can easily prompt one to read not only Dostoevsky’s early work but also the next volume of the biography.

From dawn to Dostoevsky

In early October 2020 I finished an audiobook version of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It was my second time going through the book, the first time being by traditional reading in 2018 – not counting the three unsuccessful attempts over the preceding six years. Upon finishing the book, I took to Twitter to lay out why, in my view, Bros K is the greatest novel, qua novel, ever written. My Tweet threat – which unexpectedly, yet unsurprisingly, took 25 tweets – is copied below this brief context.

For a while I’ve meant to revive my book blog (it really doesn’t deserve the name, considering how few posts I managed), if only to record what I find noteworthy of the several books I teach my middle and high school students. Because the majority of my personal reading over the past few years was written by Dostoevsky or about him, he will, no doubt, fill my blog (as he does my Twitter handle). One could do worse.

What in my younger years I shallowly considered a dour corner of 19th century literature, to be read as a necessary chore (you can see why Bros K took me so long – thank God for the hiding of mysteries until we are ready for them!), has grown closer to my younger obsession with Shakespeare in which I cut my literary teeth than anything I’ve experienced in a while. The more I read of Dostoevsky, the more I want to read of him, and that includes biographical materials.

I’ll save my encomium for later posts (indeed, much of it is below), but broadly I find the more I read of Dostoevsky the more I understand not only the 19th century but also the 20th. Generally an inverted historicist when it comes to literature (I tend to understand history/time periods through the works written at the time, rather than the other way around), I have found this a real boon as a reader, teacher, and writer: reading Dostoevsky has helped me understand not only the novelistic artform, but also 19th century literature as a whole, to say nothing of the frightening accuracy of what he predicted for the 20th century.

In Camus’s words, “The real nineteenth-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.” It’s to understand this – and the things he tried to articulate – that I decided a few years ago to read through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on him, reading and rereading his works in order of writing alongside. I’m gaining much from the obscure and lesser known works, with my eye always on the masterpieces Dostoevsky would later write, but I’ll devote a later post to them.

So, to my original Tweet, which more or less lays out the basics of why I’ve devoted much of the previous couple of years and, God willing, will devote much of the next couple, to understanding the Russian Prophet and his work:

Finished Bros K for the 2nd time last night, this time via audiobook; will prolly take 1-2 more reads–after/while finishing J. Frank’s biog of Dostsky–b4 i can confidently speak on it with understanding (since assuming we understand books often keeps us from understanding em); 

I nonetheless contend it’s the GOAT novel, qua novel, ever written. This is bc it does what a novel is supposed to do (or what they were supposed to do in the 19th c, when the novelistic form peaked): it distills & concretizes all of the major questions/issues in the culture into characters (whom Dost presents via succinct & consistent details which describe both their physical and their psychological & moral states) who, acting out their inner value conflicts, inevitably produce concrete external conflicts–vis a plot.

Dostoevsky’s the master bc, while his narr (notably a local Orth monk – a man who has implicitly chosen a life of humble observation & moral contemplation) offers commentary on the events of the plot, he does not arbitrarily impose the plot; rather, it rises organically from the choices of the chars, who, again, are behaving according to the psychology & values produced by both their circumstances & their choices in response to them. Dost’s narration is not one of intrusion but of selection–ie of the details, background, & events relevant to the climactic trial of F. K’s murder. 

Meanwhile, tho the plot is driven by concrete action, there are, nonetheless, identifiable abstract themes–again originating from the chars. These involve the questions in the Euro-Russian culture of the time, the various ans to which we are still dealing w/ after 1.5 centuries: 

Whether belief in God is justified after seeing atrocity (*Dost’s accurate prediction of the Bolsh Rev in his book Devils is worth noting here; that his answer to this primary question has, imo, withstood the 20th c only speaks to his depth & rigor of perception); 

Whether a person or culture can consistently claim the benefits of a moral system (both metaphysical & social) built on an understanding of God w/o believing in God–in the book’s verbiage, “If there is no God all things are lawful,” a question Dost had already examined in C&P; 

Whether holiness, morality, or theosis are to be found in rejection of the world for the monastery/church, or whether they can only be found by being lived out thru a life of love in & for even the most unlovable parts/members of the world (the hero, Alyosha’s, central conflict); 

Whether being born into terrible circumstances (Smerdyakov’s illegitimacy and epilepsy–notably shared w/ the author) justifies resentment for those in better states, and the role pity and (un)gratefulness play in such resentment (one’s reminded of Kierkegaard’s identification in Fear and Trembling of the weight of pity as the impetus for Richard III’s viciousness); 

Whether children, as close to natural man as possible in society, are naturally good, evil, or only potentially either; whether there are hard moral differences between children and adults–a question that both reveals kids as possibly vicious and grown-ups innocent; 

Whether class[ically] lib[eral] ideas like equal rights, comprehensive edu, sep of church & state, freedom of speech, equitable dist of wealth, & Qs of how reason & force should shape soc[iety] (all being imported by the upperclasses to Rus from Fr) bring freedom & virtue or impose burdens & vice; Etc.

To reiterate, Dostoevsky’s narr only rarely directly engages in these questions & themes; his focus is the characters. It is they, through discussion, choices, and, most often, the misalignment of their stated values/desires/motives & their actions, who produce the themes. 

One often can only point out the book’s themes after-the-fact, and even then it can be difficult bc the narrator is not focused on the philosophy/questions of the time; he is, once again, focused on the concrete details of FPK’s murder. THIS IS THE KEY THAT MAKES BROS K THE GREATEST NOVEL, QUA NOVEL: the distillation & presentation of all the philosophical & social issues of the times (and their implicit psychological underpinnings, motives, & ironies) into/via a single, concrete, character-driven plot. 

It’s worth saying that in the 19th c (again, when the novelistic form peaked), novels were not seen as mere entertainment: rather, they were seen as the primary crucibles of finding/discerning truth in an ever-developing cultural milieu (that they are no longer seen thus is, imo, one of the most debilitating effects of the very scientism Dostoevsky warned about–which, btw, he identifies as a primarily religious movement, secular tho it presents itself); this view of the novel was explicit in Russian literary culture, the participants in which saw the novel as the best means of bringing other countries’ ideas to the Russian ppl (most of whom were recently serfs/peasants) w/o losing the good aspects of Russian culture. 

Dostoevsky took this view of the novel and transcended it, broadening & deepening it to deal not just with the questions of his own culture but of European/Western (and, i dare say, all) culture at large. The Bros K contains & responds to ALL PRECEDING CENTURIES since the cross, And his central answer is precisely that: the cross, personally, authentically, consistently. Dealing w/ the same 19th c questions, Nietzsche responded to the changes begun by Luther with the pronouncement “God is dead…and we have killed him…who will wipe the blood from us?” Dostoevsky had already raised the same conclusion & question – & given an answer: Alyosha.

It is in Alyosha’s theosis–in his personally learning to embody the virtues of Christ, w/ neither apology nor apologetics. By living out Christ’s virtues–primary of which is humble love, Alyosha implicitly resurrects–and reinterprets into a 19th c milieu–the Christian truths/virtues that had, in Dost’s opinion, had been alternately sacrificed by the later medieval Cath Church and made impossible/emptied by the modern subjectivity birthed by Luther. 

Whether one reaches the same conclusions as he, it is not the question of where should Russia look for truth but “What IS truth?”, that Dostoevsky asks, & thus he makes his novel a universally relevant work. 🙏 This concludes–but by no means exhausts–my Ted Talk; ty for reading