NABOKV-L post 0018954, Sun, 13 Dec 2009 22:29:34 -0500

Dostoevsky: the essential Russian ...

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Dostoevsky: the essential Russian

Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time <Br>By Joseph Frank <Br>Princeton University Press, 959pp, $65 <Br>THOUGH it may stretch credulity to say so, the 959 pages of text in Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky represent a remarkable act of concision.

This is partly because the biography of the great, and greatly misunderstood, 19th-century Russian writer was originally published in five volumes, an undertaking that began in 1976 and concluded in 2002. Any condensation of this project would look svelte by comparison.

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Just as Vladimir Nabokov once read all of Don Quixote to tally just how many battles the man from La Mancha had won or lost, Frank takes great pains to attend to Dostoevsky's oeuvre as a close reader rather than a theoretician: a decidedly old-fashioned take that allows him to show readers what it was that Dostoevsky hoped to communicate with his novels.

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And here is the nub of things. Dostoevsky's greatest artistic achievements are also philosophical critiques. They are inextricably bound up with arguments between ideological forces that shaped life for millions of people during the century that followed. Frank's great insight is that, just as no one aspect of Dostoevsky's complex personality can be separated from the others, no part of his writing - whether aesthetic, moral, religious or political - can be quarantined from the others. Frank's biography honours the polyphony of Dostoevsky's novelistic imagination: even in truncated form, it is a rare triumph.

Geordie Williamson is chief literary critic of The Australian.

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