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.”