Bryn Hammond's Reviews > Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849

Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank
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Mar 29, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: novelists-or-shorts

The adventures of D. up to the age of 28 – that is, up to his arrest.

The family weren’t well off. For a start in life his father sent him to a military academy, hideous for our young artist. There, at least, he got to exercise his independent mind, his courage and his empathy for the unfortunate. The last, such a facet of his work, is very evident, very young, as simply a trait of his. And he has the guts – while an outsider himself – to get in the way, however he can, of violence at the school, physical maltreatment of junior students - of janitors - and of German teachers. Independence: not only does he take stands, but he’s unafraid to go against fashions, from the earliest age and even where his heart is, in the written arts. He’s persistently loyal to a father who has the fevered temperament poor D. must have gotten from him. Both were hard to live with. D. knows this about himself and apologises often to his brother for his behaviour: ‘I have a terrible defect… Otherwise I am disgusting… ’

Frank accounts for why the issue of serfdom set him frothing at the mouth; he couldn’t discuss serfdom without getting over-excited. It began simply with incidents – he was a casual witness of cruelty – a sight daily seen on the streets touched him where he lived. Then his father was murdered by his serfs… or maybe he wasn’t, but they believed so. D. managed to blame himself, for his cash demands on his dad in spite of the financial ruin of the estate. He knew the serfs weren’t murderers, unless pushed by the intolerable. He knew his dad was a bit of a loop and as a widower had gone to drink. D. ended up with a free-the-serfs agenda that took over his life – quite truly, when he stepped from liberal circles into revolutionary conspiracy.

He signed up to overthrow the government. It wasn’t a mere case of leaflets. Later he told us the investigation missed an inner cell, of which he was a member (if not, I assume, he wouldn’t have escaped that firing squad). It’s exactly like his novel Demons – and as exciting to read.

But before his deep political involvement he made a literary splash: and this is a cautionary tale. The splash was of the noisiest, and shortly after he sinks like a stone, savagely mauled by the literary lions he thought he had eating out of his hand. Frank takes him to task for his vainglory while the instant fame lasted; but this is too stern a test at 24 – or at any age for any writer.

Frank explains the originality of Poor Folk. D. uses the novel of letters, territory of high sentiment and exclusively, beforehand, aristocratic characters; but his affairs of the heart concern a shabby clerk – target of satire in Russian fiction – who isn’t even young and handsome, and a girl in the slums. No-one had done this. No-one had taken lowly inhabitants of St Petersburg and given them the fine and subtle sentiments of a Clarissa (without a cultural knowledge beyond them: the clerk has awful judgement in fiction – but his own life and heart are far above that fiction). D. drives the point home with stray mentions from the epistolary novel - a Lovelace here and a Teresa there. No-one in Russia had even written of such people from the inside – Gogol couldn’t shake the sarcasm and the view from an upper level - although George Sand was going great guns in France with poor and noble heroes. She wasn’t as clever, though.

The writers most important for him were Balzac and Victor Hugo; Schiller of course, who looms so in his last novel; and he was always devoted to Pushkin. George Sand was between your toes in Russia, at the forefront of the novelistic arm of French Utopian Socialism. Here we get to the great tug of war between two socialisms. The major critic of these years, Belinsky, couldn’t make up his mind and hopped from one to the other. But D. by his whole temperament was in the French Utopian camp, and I don’t believe he ever left. The Left left him – the tug of war was being won, even in these years, by the other style of socialism, rational, material and divorced from religion.

D. was religious as a child and they teased him for a monk in school. But we need to understand his religion against Utopian Socialism, which thought of itself as the True Christianity, at last, and of Christ as the original revolutionary. Florid sentiments, compassion as the Christ-like trait - quite the loveliest lefties on earth. Not that this contented D. He began to add that element of the human psyche, here, there and everywhere: the knowledge of human irrationality, which Frank attributes to his own unsettling mental experiences; human refusal to be reduced to one’s circumstances; self-exacerbation of those circumstances – so that society isn’t alone to be blamed. He quickly went beyond protest literature.

In a famous scene in Poor Folk, a handshake matters more to the clerk than a hand-out – the sense of equality, treatment with human dignity, are worth no end of dinners to him. A socialism about material circumstances – feed them and they’re happy – he’d find terribly insulting, however hungry he may be. Belinsky, converted to the other socialism, says, “It has been proved that a man feels and thinks and acts invariably according to the law of egoistical urges, and indeed, he cannot have any others.” Scientific, material determinism, a strictly physiological concept of the mind, rational solutions to our ills – and to boot, a utilitarian function for art. This was terrible to Dostoyevsky and is the start of his great falling-out with the Left.

Much of his biography book one explores these two socialisms – the old he was in sympathy with, the new with which he’ll be at loggerheads. I cannot but be struck by the fact that we too are in the grip of a scientific determinism, where free will is a fiction of the user of our software brains, to let us go about our lives without despair. Dostoyevsky spent his life in just such a fight. If you feel embattled, you can visit him.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder This certainly relates his life to his art.

Bryn Hammond Gary wrote: "This certainly relates his life to his art."

That was Joseph Frank's idea. He says: "I see D.'s work as a brilliant artistic synthesis of the major issues of his time, a personal utterance, to be sure, but one, more than most, oriented by concerns outside himself."

And then, "My work is thus not a [conventional] biography... for I do not go from the life to the work, but rather the other way around. My purpose is to interpret D.'s art..." which focus he says is more accurate "to the actual heirarchy of values in the life of any creative personality."

I don't know whether he stuck to this, altogether - doesn't seem to be a lack of D. the private person.

message 3: by Ron (new)

Ron Fritsch Bryn, please accept my belated appreciation for your review of Joseph Frank's book of the first 28 years of the life of Dostoevsky. I can't read about 19th century rebels without imagining I'd be one of them. Probably shot and killed at an early age, too. (I'm proof that in our times, you can rebel against stupid, needless wars, Jim Crow and related forms of apartheid, legally enforced homophobia, and horrifying sexism and not have to die for your rebellion. Not yet at least.) Thanks again for your review, Bryn. You've brought Dostoevsky back to me.

Bryn Hammond I wish I'd been there... Every hero I ever had revolted against injustices; that D. is one of the number is very plain in this his early life. For that I love him. His novelistic skills come second. The fights go on. What else matters?

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