The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

Saga of Dostoevsky's tussle with the ideas of his day
M. L. Raina

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881
by Joseph Frank. Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford. Pages: X+784. $35

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881BORGES declared in 1922 that 'the self does not exist'. Derrida, Barthes and Foucault - to say nothing of their current academic legatees - go cock-a-hoop over the 'death of the author'. Still, ironically enough, lives of writers, painters and musicians continue to be written about and published by up-market publishers. We never tire of playing the Peeping Tom into the personal and public images of artists, never seem to get enough of the abyss separating their art from their daily mundane grinds.

Is it simply sick curiosity for gossip about the petty actions of the great, or the primal urge to rival them that drives us to their biographies? Or just the desire to bring down the artist a peg or two by suggesting a la Freud that the Emperor has no clothes?

As a keen reader of artists' lives, I have often wondered about these motivations.

There is yet another impulse at work here: to study the life of a great artist in order to get to the depths of his achievement. Joseph Frank's biography of Dostoevsky must surely rank in this category. Now complete in five volumes (the present volume being the fifth), this study is different from the heavy tomes in which bare-bones information of a file-cabinet variety as well as fatuous conjecture allow the author to stir only fitfully.


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.

The Brothers 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.

Dostoevesky's 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 ethical/spiritual quandaries.

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.