I drove over to visit Marguerite Frank at her Stanford apartment one night last week. She was sorting through mountains of photos and papers of her husband, the late and wonderful Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank.
Among the pile, she handed me this, from the Village Voice Literary Supplement: a 1996 review of the first four volumes of Joe’s mammoth Dostoevsky biography. Here’s the kicker: they were reviewed by David Foster Wallace, the late great writer who killed himself in 2008.
I hadn’t had the chance to read the edgy author before. I have to say it was, initially, a bit of a slog. Wallace intersperses his review with italicized, existential questions between asterisks (sample: “What does ‘faith’ mean?” “Is it possible really to love somebody?”), and the determinedly rambling and offhand style began to grate early on. Wallace’s long, digressive footnotes are a precursor to Junot Diaz’s running, footnoted commentary on the history of the Dominican Republic in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but Diaz is compelling; Wallace just goes on a bit.
It gets better: Wallace picks up considerable steam – both on Fyodor Dostoevsky (a.k.a. FMD) and Joe Frank. It’s well worth the wait. Here’s a long excerpt:
“The thing about Dostoevsky’s characters is that they live. And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and ’round.’ The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them. …
FMD’s concern was always what it is to be a human being – i.e., how a person, in the particular social and philosophical circumstances of 19th-century Russia, could be a real human being, a person whose life was informed by love and values and principles, instead of being just a very shrewd species of self-preserving animal. …
So, for me anyway, what makes Dostoevsky invaluable is that he possessed a passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we, here, today, cannot or do not allow ourselves. And on finishing Frank’s books, I think any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes so many of the novelists of our own time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so impoverished in comparison to Gogol, Dostoevsky, even lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev. To inquire of ourselves why we – under our own nihilistic spell – seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of profound issues or else try somehow to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or juxtaposition, sticking them inside asterisks as part of some surreal, defamiliarization-of-the-reading-experience flourish.
Part of the answer to questions about our own art’s thematic poverty obviously involves our own era’s postindustrial condition and postmodern culture. The Modernists, among other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of metaphysics, and ‘Great Novels’ since Joyce tend to be judged largely on their formal ingenuity; we presume as a matter of course that serious literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism, and it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free from certain cultural expectations that constrain our own novelists’ freedom to be ‘serious.’
But it’s just as fair to observe that Dostoevsky operated under some serious cultural constraints of his own: a repressive government, state censorship, and above all the popularity of post-Enlightenment European thought, much of which went directly against beliefs he held dear and wanted to write about. The thing is that Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave. … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t – could not – laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that – how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulae or guarantees. But there are models. Frank’s books present a hologram of one of them.”