Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:
Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.
The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.
Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.
Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.
I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”
He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”
Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.
We’ve had some tremendous defenses of literature in the Book Haven pages over the years: Susan Sontag, in an interview with James Marcus, said (here): “Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. … It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”
Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”
Lots of selling. Buying? Not so much. I haven’t read that much about why kids don’t read, why lit classes are dwindling. By gum, this is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. Gary Saul Morson writing in Commentary calls the problem the “Great Kvetch” among university professors. Slavist Morson is something of an expert on the topic: he teaches the largest class at Northwestern University – on Russian lit, of all things – for 500 kids. Nor does he teach the easy stuff: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are on the syllabus, and he devotes another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300.
Here are three reasons he gives. Reason #1 is the Wikipedia Delusion. Excerpt:
“I once delivered a paper in Norway on Anna Karenina, and a prominent scholar replied: ‘All my career I have been telling students not to do what you have done, that is, treat characters as real people with real problems and real human psychology. Characters in a novel are nothing more than words on a page. It is primitive to treat fictional people as real, as primitive as the spectator who rushed on stage to save Jesus from crucifixion.’ Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.”
Reason #2, or … why I hated Downton Abbey. Or, “Why don’t the women in Sense and Sensibility just go out and get jobs?” Excerpt:
“In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”
Reason #3, and here’s Exhibit One: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, in which the editors “paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called ‘cultural studies,’ which has set the critical agenda”:
“Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.”
I don’t know about you, but they deserve jail time for making “artwork” plural. Morson politely overlooks that, and summarizes the argument this way: “If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of ‘production, circulation, and consumption’ is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.”
In short, “When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place. … Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins. … It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.” Sounds like a recommendation for Tolstoy‘s Resurrection to me.
Why is all it important? If you aren’t sold so far, try this:
“The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.
Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.”
Read the whole thing here. He’s currently working on a study of The Brothers Karamazov. Can’t wait.
Marcia DeSanctis and I met the modern way – in cyberspace, over her previously unpublished interview with Joseph Brodsky. Now I’ll meet her face-to-face – and you’ll have a chance to meet her, too, at the same time.
She’ll be speaking at the Stanford Bookstore at 6 p.m. tomorrow – that’s Wednesday, June 10, 2015. The subject is one dear to her heart: France. Her 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go is for the serious Francophile – well, we wrote about the book here, in a post titled “We’ll always have Paris: 100 reasons to go back, right away.” The award-winning author draws on years of travels and living in France to lead you through vineyards, architectural treasures, fabled gardens and contemplative hikes from Biarritz to Deauville, Antibes to the French Alps.
Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and has written for the New York Times, Vogue, and others: her book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. As I wrote a few months ago:
After a quick glance through, I began scribbling notes, picking quarrels, marking passages with stars, brackets, exclamation points, or question marks in the margins. The book is addictive, like crack, and I could see I wasn’t going to get much done unless I hid it somewhere in the midst of my piles of books and papers. And so it waited.
Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and an accomplished journalist (we’ve also written about her here), and she hardly needed a boost from me: the book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. Not bad, considering it was published by a small, off-the-beaten-track house. Coincidentally, the publisher is in Palo Alto – Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House.
The book abounds with solid advice on where to shop, where to go for a long afternoon walk, where to find the best wines, and where to eat, eat, eat. Typical of her advice on the latter: “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in France have been haphazard affairs, slapped together with a quick trip to the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille – ripe Rocamadour cheese and saucisson aux noix, bread, and a salad of mâche trucked in that morning from the Loire Valley. It’s important to dine like this in France … while uncorking a decent Beaujolais from the corner store…
As for her own story, she writes on her website here: “I graduated from Princeton, where I studied creative writing with Russell Banks but majored in Russian language and literature. I still love those writers and wish I had the attention span to read Dostoevsky’s collected works again. … Moscow is still one of my favorite places on earth.”
I’m with you on Moscow, Marcia. As for the attention span, that’s what the internet will do to you.
Postscript on 6/11: Marcia DeSanctis is on the road again … but what is she reading? “When I travel, once I’ve rounded up my documents and stuffed the carry-on to bursting, the last thing I pack is a book. I slip whatever I have chosen between my change of clothes and my blanket, and close the zipper. I appreciate that e-books have, for some people, erased the need to make an absolute decision on what single piece of literature will accompany them on a journey. But on the road, I prefer a tactile, 3D, lick-my-finger-and-turn-the-page hard copy, the kind I’ve toted around for decades, stealing sentences in cafes, train stations and hotel beds all across the planet. For me, a book is a well-considered traveling companion…” Read her discussion of her travel reading in today’s Tin House. It’s here.
James Baldwin was an eminent essayist, novelist, and playwright – but he was also a master of the Q&A interview. Perhaps his 1984 Paris Review interview was his best, with interviewers Jordan Elgrably and George Plimpton (read the whole thing here). We include some excerpts below.
May this post serve as a reminder that this Thursday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m., the Another Look book club will feature a discussion of Baldwin’s incendiary The Fire Next Time (1963) at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall at 616 Serra Street on the Stanford campus. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating. The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.
Now here are the excerpts from The Paris Review. In the first passage, the interview asks Baldwin about his flight to France, where he eventually died at his home in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1987:
INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose France?
BALDWIN: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.
INTERVIEWER: You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.
BALDWIN: Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Has writing been a type of salvation?
BALDWIN: I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.
INTERVIEWER: Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?
BALDWIN: Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. … My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. … He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.
INTERVIEWER: Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?
BALDWIN: I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?
BALDWIN: No, you can’t have that.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s quite unlike preaching?
BALDWIN: Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. …
INTERVIEWER: Was there anyone to guide you?
BALDWIN: I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think painters would help a fledgling writer more than another writer might? Did you read a great deal?
BALDWIN: I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoevsky, from Balzac.
INTERVIEWER: “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience,” you’ve said.
BALDWIN: Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.
INTERVIEWER: You were in utter despair after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Did you find it difficult to write then, or do you work better out of anguish?
BALDWIN: No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit. I didn’t think I could write at all. I didn’t see any point to it. I was hurt . . . I can’t even talk about it. I didn’t know how to continue, didn’t see my way clear.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a big shifting of gears between writing fiction and writing nonfiction?
BALDWIN: Shifting gears, you ask. Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy. …
INTERVIEWER: But the essay is a little bit simpler, isn’t it, because you’re angry about something which you can put your finger on . . .
BALDWIN: An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.
INTERVIEWER: What are your first drafts like?
BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.
INTERVIEWER: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?
BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
BALDWIN: Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind. … I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.
W.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.
“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs, editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.
Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”
A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.
His father, a learned and cultivated physician, was confused by the mixture of the past and present in the poem, the modern New York characters and the references to juke-boxes and clocks on the mantlepiece with ancient Judaea. Auden tried to explain in a long letter:
Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental – the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity – that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity – and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …
I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been ‘humanized,’ and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.
If a return to the older method seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization – there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.
Kind of makes one chuckle, doesn’t it? As one taps on a keyboard to produce a message that, as soon as I press the “publish” button, will be instantly available around the world…
“Auden’s recognition that those last few centuries of the Roman Empire might serve as a mirror for the twentieth-century self-immolation of the West is the initiating insight of the project that would become ‘For the Time Being,'” Jacobs writes. Well, we made it to the twenty-first. The poem was rooted in his reading of Inkling Charles Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.
Stephen Spender said that the poem “has the power in some of the choruses, of bringing to mind the mighty chorales of Bach.” The poem was set to be set to music composed by Benjamin Britten. It never was. The poem was far too long for that. Only two bits were set to music, and one, “Shepherd’s Song,” was dropped from the poem before it was published. The poem, published at the height of the war in 1944, was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden.
Among the quieter events in a busy week at Stanford: about a hundred friends, colleagues, students, and family members gathered at the Stanford Humanities Center to commemorate the life and work of one of Stanford’s most eminent figures, Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank … well, “Dostoevsky scholar” … he was so much more than that.
As author Jeffrey Meyers of Princeton noted during his talk that afternoon (his remarks are published in his retrospective here):
Learned, widely read, and well informed about a wide range of subjects, Joe could talk intelligently about almost anything. The depth of his knowledge was astonishing and delightful. We talked about our current work, classic and recent books, Russian writers from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn, major biographers, struggles with editors, conferences attended, favorite films (if not, for Joe, “too depressing”), mutual friends in Stanford and Berkeley, wide-ranging travels, current politics, children and grandchildren, jokes and literary gossip. It was especially interesting to compare our reviews of the same book, Olivier Todd’s excellent life of André Malraux. I urged him to read the novels of Olivia Manning, J.F. Powers, and James Salter; he retaliated, unfairly I thought, by suggesting the German philosopher Max Scheler, “the founder of the sociology of knowledge.”
I liked to hear Joe reminisce about distinguished writers who’d been his friends—Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, and Carlos Fuentes — and urged him (unsuccessfully) to write a memoir about them. He remembered Elizabeth Bishop telling him of her visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. and getting books for him from the Library of Congress. He recalled seeing Mary McCarthy in a hospital in New York, just before she died, and her pressing his hand at the time. He’d met the reclusive South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, and found him “quite laconic and reserved, but with a kind of genuine inner warmth with people he likes.”
Bill Chace, president of Emory, opened the memorial event with the remark, “If Joe were with us today …,” or words to that effect. Nobody seemed to notice at the moment the lights flickered for a moment, and then came on again. Well, it is easy to make too much of small things, but still, for this observer it was a poignant moment, as if Joe were saying, “Don’t write me off just yet!” One comment from Bill Chace’s remarks that I scribbled in my program: “He had no enemies.” From what I knew of Joe, it was true … but how? How does one get through a life like this one without accumulating any enemies? Given Joe’s unconventional path through academia, there must have been dozens of jealous or resentful knives sharpened for him.
Perhaps part of the secret was related by Marilyn Yalom in her remarks. She recalled how Joe used to light up when she came into the room. It was only later that she realized that his face lit up when anyone entered the room. We all thought he only had eyes for us – but that was only a fragment of his genial charm.
Granddaughter Sophie Lilla, a freshman at New York University, recalled the story of Joe leaping off the bus in postwar Paris, a stop before his intended one. He had seen an attractive woman on the bus and didn’t want to let the opportunity slip. And shortly afterward, he went so far as to marry her. Sophie said she wished she had the nerve – but I suspect she does (she’s could pass for the woman who inspired the incident so many years ago, her grandmama Marguerite Frank). The tributes were interspersed with Benny Goodman tunes, and Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin, a favorite of his.
Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings, it seems the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice—a great choice for the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.
How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic, bore a title more fitting for the epilogue of a career: “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism?” The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter, came entry into the big leagues: The Idea of Spatial Form. His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture, was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In-between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.
Frank’s stutter, which he struggled with all his life (but I remember with fondness), looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction came along with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. The stutter forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromising yet forgiving, it was so deeply resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, only an Orson Welles with the strut of John Wayne could have filled the bill. Its force is already present in his “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,” one of his last pieces in The New Republic, and it reverberates throughout the entirety of his Dostoevsky Pentateuch, the first five books of every Slavicist Bible.
His writer’s voice was Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence—and a sense of empathy, too. For Frank, the world picture—like a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank noted wryly—had to “preserve some ‘impurity’ if it was to be humanly meaningful.”
I haven’t blogged the talk I gave on this occasion – and I don’t expect to – but you can read the earlier retrospective I wrote for Stanford Magazine here.
With all these articles and comments, and the memories of the man himself, which keep returning to me at odd moments, I’m coming to understand the scale of our loss. My appreciation for him grows, and in retrospect, I am humbled even more that he, who had so much to offer, appreciated me. But he appreciated everyone, I suspect. Maybe that’s why he had no enemies.
It’s always pleasant when Andrew Sullivan visits the Book Haven and takes a souvenir of his visit back to his “Dish” column – this time it’s a mention of our recent post about David Foster Wallace‘s review of Joseph Frank‘s massive, multi-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Hat tip to Martha Girard for alerting me to the article.)
Contrary to what one of his readers posted on “The Dish,” however, while it’s true I didn’t “dig up” the review, I didn’t read it in the collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, either – in fact, Joe’s widow Marguerite Frank handed me the ancient xerox copy, and it’s still on my dresser, waiting to be returned.
Coincidentally, while truly digging around today for some papers I never found, I rediscovered René Girard‘s 2002 review of Joe’s biography, in an article called “Dostoevsky’s Demons.” Apparently, he thinks Fyodor may have been a rather sexy fellow. He writes: “The most stubborn myth about Dostoevsky is his ‘sexual abnormality,’ a thesis countersigned by Sigmund Freud himself. In the course of his five-volume biography, however, Joseph Frank quietly demolishes it.” Freud was certain that “bad political ideas mean a bad sex life.” Hence, poor Anna Grigoryevna is usually portrayed as an unfulfilled woman hooked up to a weirdo husband.
No one, it seems, bothered with the original sources before Joseph Frank – who has come up with a letter to Anna mailed from Germany, where his physician had sent the novelist “to take the waters.” Dostoevsky does more than politely insist he misses his wife; he mentions an erotic dream he had about her and refers to a prior letter from Anna in which she mentioned “some indecent thoughts” that she had about her husband.
Sexy letters between the Dostoevskys, seven years after their marriage! Who could have imagined it? Frank quotes this precious correspondence without even alluding to the myths crashing to the ground all around him. But it is a massive joke on the postmodern sex police and their hostile profiling of the novelist whose understanding of human motivation in such books as Notes from Underground, The Gambler, Demons, and The Eternal Husband – to say nothing of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov – is almost incomprehensibly far beyond their simple and easy explanations.
René’s interest in Dostoevsky is longstanding, of course. Dostoevsky is one of the handful of writers studied in the landmark Deceit, Desire and the Novel. However, René thinks the Russian author’s “most profound book” is not The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, but rather the comparatively little-known The Eternal Husband.
According to René:
The two main idols of that modern, godless universe are money and sex. After Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky dealt with money in The Gambler (1866) and sex in The Eternal Husband (1870), … the story of a man driven underground by the infidelity of his wife. The rather ordinary fellow who has cuckolded him turns into an object of hatred and worship combined. Freud was correct in noticing the attraction the wife’s lover exerts on the eternal husband, but Freud went on to decide that the author’s own unconscious desire was expressing itself in the story – and hence Dostoevsky was a latent homosexual.
The simpler reading is that what the eternal husband wants to learn from his wife’s seducer is the secret of seduction. What he desires is not his rival’s body – a ridiculous idea, really – but that rival’s expertise as a lover. He would like to become an eternal lover himself, rather than an eternal husband and an eternal cuckold. Like all underground people, the eternal husband is modern and liberated, especially in regard to sex. Far from solving his problem, however, this makes it worse. The idolatry of sex is destructive not merely of the old structure of the family but of sex itself. The eternal husband is a victim not of superstition but of obsessive rationality. He sees the seducer of his wife as a sexual expert whose services he tries to enlist.
The Dostoevsky marriage was an improbable one: a 22-year-old stenographer marries a 42-year-old convict who was also an epileptic and a pathological gambler. René thinks it was a match made in heaven: “She was the greatest blessing in his life … Joseph Frank is too conscientious a biographer to lapse into hagiography. He does not hide, for example, Anna’s tendency to make both her husband and herself look better than they were. But Frank’s uncompromising honesty ends up making Anna seem almost heroic. There was great suffering in her marriage, no doubt, especially the death of children, but there was more happiness.”
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.”
The New York Times obituary for Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank is up today. I don’t know why they chose to compare his work with three other books in the first paragraph, but other than that, it’s a good read.
It traces the story of Joe’s beginnings in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his debilitating childhood stammer, the death of his father while a boy, and the acquisition of a stepfather who bestowed the name “Frank” (he was born “Glassman”). He was rejected by the military (that stammer again), lost both mother and stepfather within the same year, and did poorly in high school. He bypassed a bachelor’s degree, and went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship in 1950. (He got a PhD from the University of Chicago a decade later.)
According to the New York Times, “Mr. Frank was an emerging critic in the early 1950s and preparing a lecture on existentialist themes in modern literature when, to provide historical background, he began studying and analyzing Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky’s anguished cri de coeur in the voice of an embittered ex-civil servant, a novel that had influenced Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The close encounter with the text changed his life, pivoting his interest to the intellectual culture of 19th-century Russia and consuming him to the degree that he undertook to learn Russian.”
His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume One:
“Not only a great book about the early life of a great writer,” Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “but probably the best book any American writer has yet given us on the literary culture of 19th-century Russia.”
His Dostoevsky biography, after Volume Two:
“Everything about this ambitious enterprise is splendid — its intellectual seriousness, its command of the Russian setting and sources, its modesty of tone, its warm feeling,” Irving Howe wrote in The Times Book Review. “Mr. Frank is clearly on the way toward composing one of the great literary biographies of the age.”
His Dostoevsky biography, in toto:
“It’s now regarded as the best biography of Dostoevsky in any language, including Russian, which is really saying something,” Gary Saul Morson, a Dostoevsky scholar and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview, referring to the five-volume work. “That’s more or less universal. And this is my opinion, I don’t know if others will agree, but it’s the best biography of any writer I’ve ever read.”
“But he would always follow the evidence where it took him,” Robin Feuer Miller, a 19th-century Russian literature specialist at Brandeis, said in a telephone interview Friday. She added that his influence was immense. “Every time he would write something,” she said, “what a change in the reading of a novel it would engender!”
Read the rest here. A terrific man, a terrific scholar.
Postscript on 3/6: Washington Post obituary here. “I cannot remember a time when I was not writing,” he once said.