This book neither opens and closes in a courtroom, nor leads to
the analyst's couch. Frank is not the one who 'gloats and
notes/each new and nerve-twitched pose, /fingering a watch whose
little ticks/are like horrible hammer-blows'. His is the work of
a long-standing judicious admirer and critic.
Frank's method is
not simply to pile up mere facts of Dostoevsky's life but to
home in on his effervescent ideological milieu in order to place
the novels and stories within it. This leads him to discover
significance even in ordinary incidents in the novelist's life,
such as the refusal of a cigarette by the novelist's
stenographer-turned wife-a largely ignored detail. He notices
the close relationship between the epileptic hero of The Idiot
and the author's own epilepsy.
Frank manages to
see links between Dostoevsky's compulsive gambling habits and
the way the hero of his novel, The Gambler, transforms his own
condition at the roulette wheel. He succeeds in handling what he
calls 'the condensed intellectual history' of the period and
then reading the works in its light, without, however, allowing
the works to be appropriated by that history. Considering that
Dostoevesky's Russia was home to many turbulent social,
political and philosophical movements, Frank accomplishes the
difficult task of placing his author squarely within them.
In all the earlier
volumes (noticed in these pages), Frank placed a major novel
within the intellectual ambit of Dostoevsky's life at that
stage. In the present book it is The Brothers Karamazov round
which the last 10 years of the novelist's life are organised and
explicated. This way we are enabled to grasp the author's
triumph as a creator and to invest it with historical value.
We know that after
being saved from the gallows, Dostoevsky returned to European
Russia and spent the last years of his life fighting the
Anti-Christ, and completing his opus, The Brothers Karamazov. We
also learn about the activities of the Nechev group and its
influence on the anarchist strain of the Slavic soul. But the
crowning work of this phase remains the story of the Grand
Inquisitor and his contests with the Devil.
Karamazov, that takes about 200 pages of the present book, is
both a novel in the high Russian tradition and a precursor of
the modern novel of inner life. R.P. Blackmur describes it as
the 'greatest novel of the unmotivated'. But it can also be read
as the greatest novel of the tension between our faith in
immortality and the demands of human love. In the characters of
Aloshya, Ivan and Dimitri, we find not only the heart of the
19th century intellectual and religious ferment (Turgenev's
Fathers & Sons is a close parallel)), but also a deep
concern about the relations of these characters to themselves
and to the rest of the world.
earlier work, especially Notes from the Underground, was
concerned with explaining the struggle between reason and
Christian faith, particularly in its peculiarly messianic
Russophile variety. In The Brothers Karamazov, as Frank rightly
believes, he achieves 'a classic expression' of this struggle,
linking it with Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's epic.
Possessing the amplitude of Tolstoy's great novel, The Brothers
Karamazov casts suspicions on demands for resolutions of our
As in Milton, hell
in Dostoevsky's novel is more provocative than heavenly
morality. Ivan Karamazov and Satan make themselves more
impressive by moralising to others. This accounts for the appeal
of these characters to us, the readers. It is only here that the
author expresses the sublime in the pedestrian. Frank
impressively puts before us the wrenching saga of a great
author's tussle with the abstractions of his day.