Archive for November 1st, 2020

Our “need to live in a meaningful world”: TLS praises Joseph Frank’s “Lectures on Dostoevsky”

Sunday, November 1st, 2020

Joseph Frank: a “co-creator” of Dostoevsky, with editor and wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Hoorah! A splendid Times Literary Supplement review for Joseph Frank‘s Lectures on Dostoevsky, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. He was Stanford’s legendary Dostoevsky scholar – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. The greatly loved scholar died in 2013. His lectures were edited by his widow, Marguerite Frank and Marina Brodskaya.  

Princeton’s Caryl Emerson praises Joe’s “gentle, wisdom-bearing lectures” and writes, “Frank does not co-opt Dostoevsky but cooperates with him, trusting his intentions, and in this sense Frank co-creates his biographical subject; he does not airbrush him out.”

“There is a patience and wholesomeness to Frank’s voice in these Lectures that has its analogue in his monumental biography, where obsession and perversity are contextualized so thoroughly that they can seem traits of Dostoevsky’s agitated era, not of his person.”

An excerpt or two:

Joseph Frank (1918–2013) is the greatest co-creator of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life in our time, and his path to the top was thrillingly irregular. He was not a professional Slavist. True, in the late 1930s he attended university classes, but in 1942 he began working as an editor and literary journalist. An innovative essay on European modernism won him his first fame and a Fulbright scholarship to Paris in 1950. After earning a PhD at the University of Chicago (like the critic Mikhail Bakhtin, without a BA), he taught at Princeton from 1966 to 1985, and then at Stanford.

That’s the outside institutional envelope. The inside story, which stretched over a quarter-century (1976–2002), was his vast biography of Dostoevsky: five volumes totalling 2,500 pages. It grew out of his interest in the French Existentialists. Frank was vexed that their analyses of Dostoevsky were either personal and psychological, or else philosophical and theological. His task would be to fill in the middle space with the author’s daily stimuli, concrete provocations and constraints. He would do this without any relishing of private vices or pathological drives. Underneath his project was the old-fashioned and yet novel assumption that profound creativity is always a sign of profound mental health. Reviewing the fourth volume in 1995, A. S. Byatt wrote: “Frank is that increasingly rare being, an intellectual biographer, and his real concern is with the workings of Dostoevsky’s mind”.


Frank’s lecture on The Idiot takes up the perennial problem of its central hero Prince Myshkin – a would-be Christ figure who worsens everything he touches. That Myshkin fails doesn’t matter because he “is neither actor nor victim but a presence, a kind of moral illumination”. His purpose is not to save or punish but to stir up conscience, to precipitate in those around him a “conflict with their usual selves”. A final chapter on The Brothers Karamazov (tellingly, there is no lecture devoted to Demons) identifies Dostoevsky’s prerequisite for surviving inner conflict: “a faith that needs no support from the empirical and tangible”. Each brother (and the two major heroines as well) must confront the challenge of this necessity for faith, which demands an irrational Kierkegaardian leap. The loving resilience of the youngest brother Alyosha is proof that such a leap can be sensible, pragmatic, even bursting with health. What Dostoevsky, his characters and his contemporary readers share is something more modest than the eternal questions of Good and Evil: it is the “need to live in a meaningful world that does not make a mockery of one’s self-consciousness and the dignity of one’s personality”.

Read the whole thing at the TLS here. It’s wonderful. My 2009 interview with him below: