Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time ...
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Complete review at following URL:
DECEMBER 19, 2009
Mystic Terror Revisited
Now in a single volume, an epic literary biography of the author of 'Crime and Punishment'
By MICHAEL DIRDA
In the mid-1950s, the young critic Joseph Frank, having been invited to give the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton, settled on the then fashionable topic "Existential Themes in Modern Literature." Since Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre both regarded Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground" (1864) as a central text of existentialism, Mr. Frank naturally plunged into an intensive study of that novella. His fascination with its anguished protagonist—who on the first page brazenly proclaims "I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man"—eventually led the critic to learn Russian and to plan a short book on the sociological and ideological roots of the Underground Man's self-hatred. But as Mr. Frank's fascination with 19th-century Russian culture and social thought grew, so did his project. In 1976 there appeared "Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849," followed by four further volumes of critical biography, culminating in 2002 with "Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881."
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After all, when you read Dostoevsky, you know that he isn't writing for the sake of social advancement, intellectual vanity or even material gain (though he always needed money, often desperately). He is writing because the Lord has touched his tongue with a blazing coal, and he must go forth and bear witness. His detractors, like Vladimir Nabokov, maintain that Dostoevsky is vulgar, sentimental and melodramatic. In fact, he makes most other writers seem precious, fussy and minor. Here, says Dostoevsky, is the human heart, racked by suffering and pain, lost in the wilderness of this fallen world, hungry for God. Until we rest in Him, our lives are simply ordeals, feverish nightmares, torment.
“No other Russian writer of Dostoevsky's stature could equal the range of his familiarity with both the depths and heights of Russian society” Read an excerpt from "Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time"
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That said, this great psychological novelist didn't create ex nihilo. His work, which transcends his time, is also deeply grounded in it. To understand Dostoevsky's often savage satire or nightmarish visions or just the conversations among the Karamazov brothers, one needs to grasp not only the text but also the ideological context. To both of these there is no better guide than Joseph Frank.
—Mr. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author, most recently, of "Classics for Pleasure."
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