Dostoevsky, the biography

I’m currently reading Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton University Press, 2010), the abridged version of his five-volume biography. So far so good; it preserves a lot of the best features of the original work, in particular the focus on Dostoevsky’s intellectual development and role of the intelligentsia in nineteenth-century Russian life. At times it feels like a bit of a whistle-stop tour, which may seem like a surprise given the size of the book (over 950 pp.), but this is a reflection of the remarkably full life Dostoevsky led. Probably the best thing I can say about the book is that it makes me want to go back and re-read the original series (or at least the first four — I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of the final volume).

It isn’t, however, without faults, and the main concern I have is that this is very much an abridgement without any real attempt to update the text, and the early volumes are really rather old. I’m slightly uncomfortable with a book which looks new (and will be taken as such by many readers) but which, in part 1, aside from one reference to Frank’s own first volume, contains no references to material published after 1974. In relation to the biography, it’s maybe not such a big deal — I’m certainly not suggesting Frank’s meticulous research has been superseded — but one can’t help feeling certain works published in the last 35 years merited a response. Most recently, I’m thinking of Linda Ivanits, Dostoevsky and the Russian People (Cambridge University Press, 2008) which contains some interesting stuff, but also recycles the old rumours about the death of Dostoevsky’s father that I thought had been laid to rest a long time ago, and justifies it with some rather elderly (and Soviet — therefore, in relation to Dostoevsky, not entirely reliable) sources. Frank’s comments on Dostoevsky’s conversion in the labour camp and role of his story ‘The Peasant Marey’ from Diary of a Writer would have benefited from reference to both Robin Feuer Miller’s Dostoevsky’s Unifinished Journey (Yale University Press, 2007) and Nancy Ruttenburg’s Dostoevsky’s Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2008).

In relation to Frank’s interpretations of Dostoevsky’s works, the absence of reference to recent critical developments is more problematic. Frank has fine analytic skills, and the chapters he devotes to the novels and short stories are always solid and worth reading — they’re frequently the first place I tell my students to look. But they are dated, and in some cases would have benefited from a bit more attention. I have to admit to feeling slightly miffed about the updating he has done in the chapter on The Idiot. I haven’t got that far yet, but in the Acknowledgements, he states that his wife was unhappy with his original treatment of Nastasya Filippovna, and that she is responsible for the new material on that character. But there’s no reference to any critical works more recent than Robin Feuer Miller’s Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Harvard University Press, 1981), and given that nearly a third of my book Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative (Anthem Press, 2004) is devoted to Nastasya Filippovna, is it wrong of me to think it should have been discussed?

Anyway, these gripes aside, it’s a good read. It’s also a very good reminder of how important Dostoevsky’s life was for his literary work. I’m not a fan of biographical criticism, but you can’t deny the transformative significance of his death sentence, imprisonment in a labour camp, his epilepsy, his gambling…  And when you start thinking about these factors and the role they played in his fiction — not as fixed features but as constantly evolving elements which inform all sorts of different aspects of Dostoevsky’s world and his texts — you can’t help wondering about the mark other events must also have left. Going back to The Idiot, one of the questions that has preoccupied me for years is why the tone of the novel changes so dramatically. It starts on a very optimistic note, and Dostoevsky’s comments about the ‘perfectly beautiful man’, and comparisons of Prince Myshkin with Christ, Don Quixote, Jean Valjean, and Mr Pickwick, suggest that he was attempting to create an image of absolute goodness. However, as the novel progresses (in my book, I argue that this process begins at the beginning of part 2) this conception falls apart, and by the end there is nothing left of that, there’s no hope, and no redemption. It’s a remarkable turn-around, and one which I explained in narrative terms in my book. But I suspect in fact that the change happened at least in part because of the death of his new-born daughter in May 1868, and the rapid disintegration of what must have been one of the most hopeful periods of his personal life.

Can you say anything more about it than that, though? Because if you can’t, then it’s just a factoid, not a means of advancing an argument, in which case it’s hardly worth mentioning. It only becomes useful if it’s transformed in some way so as to occur in different contexts, in the way that, say, epilepsy is related to the idea of the death sentence, so that the two interact and develop different layers of meaning. (I like the idea of transformations in Robin Feuer Miller’s Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey, and can see lots of ways the idea can be taken beyond the questions that book addresses.)  We certainly see plenty of suffering children in Dostoevsky, but are they related specifically to questions of hope and redemption, or their absence? Do they play a role in changing the tone of his narratives elsewhere? Do we see something different happening in The Brothers Karamazov, also written when Dostoevsky was grieving for one of his children? It seems to me that in Dostoevsky’s final novel, from the moment the Elder Zosima talks to the peasant woman about her child’s death, there is a note of optimism and redemption which is specifically associated with the suffering of children and which survives even the horrific tales of cruelty Ivan tells. This is one way in which The Brothers Karamazov is very different from The Idiot — the more consistent and successful presentation of positive characters is another, and the two may well be related. What has changed, then? To what extent is that a product of Dostoevsky’s faith, and what precisely is the role of that faith in creating the narrative form? The latter question, despite the ink that has been spilt on the subject of Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy, especially in Russia in recent years, still needs further exploration.

But for now, back to my reading…

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