JOSEPH FRANK's masterful study seems destined to replace all earlier biographies of Dostoevsky, because it treats him first as a novelist, not as a member of the Russian intelligentsia who happened to write novels, and because it is both thorough in its research and objective in its findings. Moreover, it provides the American reader with a thorough, helpful introduction to the complex, often stormy, cultural and social history of the time.
How Frank came to undertake this mammoth project - the present volume is the first of a projected four - reveals much about the nature of his study. Twenty years ago he was invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton on "Existential Themes in Modern Literature." As background material he decided to use Dostoevsky's Notes from Undreground because it seemed a precursor to the themes and mood found in French Existentialism. But realizing his own inadequacy in matters relating to Russian social and cultural history, Frank began to investigate the subject.
Soon he found his interest in Dostoevsky increasing and his interest in Existentialism diminishing. And in the two decades since, Frank has combined his many talents as literary critic, cultural historian, and gifted linguist to gather material for his study, the rest of which now exists in draft form.
It is the third major biography of Dostoevsky to appear in English in the last decade. Konstantin Mochulsky's Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, published in 1967, is by a Russian emigre who taught literature at the Sorbonne. While it contains some of the most perceptive analyses of Dostoevsky's five "novel-tragedies" in print, it says very little about either Dostoevsky's ultra-conservative politics or his later polemical writings, some of which are pro-militaristic and blatantly anti-Semltic. In 1974 we were given Leonid Grossman's Dostoevsky, the first major Soviet biography of the writer, whose reputation was only recently resurrected. It contains much valuable new information, but sometimes distorts the picture of the novelist in order to make him better conform to the official socialist image of the writer.
Frank's Dostoevsky contains none of the extreme ideological biases to be found in the two earlier works. The opening chapter discusses the Decembrist Insurrection which "marked the opening skirmish in the long and deadly duel between the Russian intelligentsia and the supreme autocratic power that shaped Russian history and Russian culture in Dostoevsky's lifetime." In each subsequent chapter he carefully analyzes the literary, ideological and political forces that helped shape the mind of the novelist and form the matrix of his fictional world. Dostoevsky's upbringing in Moscow, his acquaintances in the Academy of Engineers in Petersburg, his relationships with such writers as Belinsky, Turgenev and Nekrasov, as well as his work for the St. Petersburg Gazette are all discussed at length.
Frank writes in detail of Dostoevsky's role in the Petrashevsky Circle, the liberal Utopian group that met to discuss socialism in Russia. While Dostoevsky never abandoned his Orthodox religious beliefs in favor of the atheism espoused by other members of the circle, he was far more radical and outspoken than most, especially in his opposition to serfdom. Later Dostoevsky even helped form a smaller, more radical wing of the Circle. While the charges brought against him after his arrest in April 1849, may not have been wholly appropriate ("The attempt, along with others, to write works against the government and circulate them by means of a home lithograph"), Frank marshals evidence to indicate that Dostoevsky was more involved in antigovernment activities than most of his earlier biographers would have us believe.
There has been a persistent myth that Dostoevsky suffered his first epileptic attacks after his father was killed by serfs. Frank's research shows that there is simply too little accurate evidence to support such a conclusion, much less Freud's oft-debated theory that guilt over his father's death was the cause of the sickness.
Yet, of all the material discussed by Frank, none is more important than his analysis of Dostoevsky's literary work during the latter part of the 1840s. Not only does he trace the important sources of such works as Poor Folk and The Double and discuss in detail their character types and themes, he also indicates their part in the evolution of the writer and their connection to the later novels for which Dostoevsky is best known. He keeps them in proper perspective, and cautions against reading his "earlier work as if it already contained all the complexity and profundity of the major masterpieces."
This volume covers only the period up to his arrest and conviction for conspiracy, before he had produced any of his major novels. If subsequent volumes are as extensive in research, as elaborate in scope, and as careful in comment, there is little doubt that Joseph Frank's study will be the one indispensable biography for students and readers of Dostoevsky.