Posts Tagged ‘“Joseph Frank”’

Happy birthday to the Book Haven! We’re ten years old!

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

We began on November 19, 2009. And we’ve been going ever since. For years we’ve anticipated this special tenth anniversary (alright, alright, we’re eleven days late; we’ve been busy).

What did we imagine? We had envisioned champers and brie and little pink cakes! We had hoped for international acclaim and cybercards and cyberroses … oh well, why bother? Instead: one solitary woman at a computer, cranking out books and articles (and even the occasional blogpost) faster than any reasonable person should.

However, the occasion of our tenth anniversary was not entirely unmarked. The Book Haven has made it’s debut appearance in The Smithsonian Magazinewith this paragraph in the current issue, on a subject we know startlingly little about. It generated a scholarly query last week in my inbox, so it’s good to know our July 11, 2018, post is getting some attention

The end result, according to a blog post by Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven, was a masterful collection of 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent text overlays and a total of 32,000 words. One painting finds the artist cuddling in bed with her mother; another shows a seemingly endless parade of Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor while swastikas swirl above their heads.

Maybe next year?

Read more here.

What else has happened, since we last wrote about ourselves, five years ago, here? Some time ago, we hit a record high of 45,000 hits in a month. However, gone are the days when we used to wake up in the morning, pull the laptop out from under the bed, and compulsively check our numbers on Google Analytics. We have our following, and we get our bouquets and our punches … and our letters. Like this one a few days ago, from the U.K.: “I am just writing a very quick thank you for introducing Edna St Vincent Millay to me. I had been searching for Sara Teasdale and found a wonderful article written by you at The Book Haven. If it wasn’t for your article I wouldn’t  have found and fallen in love with Edna.” We’re glad you did, sir!

This year alone: We’ve posted on the controversy surrounding the Stanford University Press here and here. After the death of the notable Johns Hopkins polymath and bibliophile Richard Macksey, we were quoted in The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun and wrote about his passing here and here and here. We’ve forged a partnership with The Los Angeles Review of Books to create an Entitled Opinions channel, as well as a series of articles.

Books, books, books. We’ve written about many books. We wrote about our debut in Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Nation, plus reviews of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. (Too many to list – put it in the Book Haven search engine). Plus… we were named a 2018-19 National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, the inaugural Milton Cottage resident, and oohhh, so much more.

Sorry, maybe for 2020.

The Book Haven broke the national news of President Trump‘s plans to scuttle the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – but other media outlets were close on our heels. We memorialized fallen greats at Stanford, many of them friends: Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and theater director and Brecht protégée Carl Weber, French intellectual Michel Serres and Milton Scholar Martin Evans, and of course, the French theorist René Girard. And, this month, another cherished friend, the French scholar Marilyn Yalom.

The Book Haven has taken you to Bergen, Sigtuna and Stockholm, Kraków and London, Warsaw, Paris, and Avignon, among other locales.

We’ve described how we brought about the acquisition of Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky Papers at Stanford, and our debut on Russian TV … and later the acquisition of Russian poet Regina Derieva‘s papers.

We’re still here. So many excellent blogs and online journals have folded – Elegant Variation, House of Mirth, Bookslut – and journals, too, such as Quarterly Conversation and Smart Set. We’re still here, and looking forward, in six weeks time, in joining you for the brand new decade for all of us.

C’mon, December, we’re ready to take you on – to the end of the year and beyond. Our vision going forward is 2020.

Happy birthday to us! Long may we live!

Are ideological novels a thing of the past? And is today’s autofiction “an aesthetic edition of careerism”?

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

Joe is right, as always. The late great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and his wife, the French mathematician Marguerite Frank. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Useful Idiots,” an essay by  over at The Point starts with Elif Batuman‘s novel The Idiot and then goes everywhere, but the nearly 4,000-word journey makes some interesting roadside stops in its discussion of “autofiction,” fictionalized autobiography of the kind Batuman writes, and “ideological novels,” the kind the author refers to in the title of her own recent novel. Here’s a sort of sampler from the essay.

On Stendhal, Dostoevsky and “novels powered by direct engagement with ideology”:

More than pawnshops and samovars.

Through their idiot protagonists these novelists and their readers became more intimately acquainted with ideology x than any believer: the plot generated by their protagonists’ pursuit of x’s tenets exposed the implications of x to an extent that the political discourse surrounding x, constrained by polemic opposition and assertion, never could. The quantum facts of daily life, the pawnshops, manors, samovars, Thursday evenings and horse-driven cabs, were to this novel what the skin is to the body: a surface of mostly dead matter whose purpose was informing, concealing and protecting all the other vital systems. They were necessary, and they were most of what could be seen, but to reduce the novel to them would be false, incomplete—literally superficial. The “reality” of this ideological realism was not inert material to be quarried and crafted, but animate: a triple collision between the individual conscience, the society in which the idiot operates, and the ideology (conquistador chivalry, Promethean science, Gnostic materialism, Napoleonic romanticism, revolutionary communism, Gatsbian romanticism, revolutionary communism, white supremacy) that would shape conscience and society according to its own dictates.

Where we are today:


To be fair, the horizons of collective belief were particularly unpromising for Batuman and her generation, who came of age and made careers during a period where it was easy to conclude that there was nothing bigger than the self left to believe in. The Cold War’s end coincided with a prolonged devaluation of ideological content. Libertarian logic colonized the cultural sphere. Torrents of on-demand data eroded any vision of the longue durée. As far as government went, expert-guided liberal democracy was the order for the foreseeable future; having taken care of communism, it seemed more than capable of taking care of itself. In literature as in much else, the tenor of the Nineties was set by the New Republic, where James Woods reviews of classic novels consistently dampened their ideological charge even as his reviews of contemporary fiction condemned deviation from a pinched conception of realism.

Wood’s influence was hardly decisive, but given that a similar hostility to ideology in narrative had dominated program fiction since its CIA-funded genesis in the postwar years, there seemed as little alternative to literary fiction sealed purely within the personal and empirical as there was to the flat world dictated by the empire of free markets. In such a self-defined environment, it was no surprise that the era’s modes of entertainment should correspond to its novelistic subgenres: the tourism of historical and overseas fiction, the animated films of magical realism. (The marijuana of standard-issue MFA realism—all forgettable inaction and enhanced tactile sensation.) Autofiction, a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism, was the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience: once all other recreations expose their artifice and exhaust their charm, what is left except to chart one’s own advancement through a world as fixed as it is real?

In conclusion:

Don’t forget the Frenchman!

These are unsettling times. Tensions and pressures formerly pacified by the prospect of endless growth now draw force from a state of permanent stagnation. Established institutions tremble with the resentful energies of dishonored promises; each crisis barely averted sows the seeds for more inevitable confrontation. Yet if literary history is any indication, an era of collapsing order offers fertile ground for novelists. Shaken by events out of inertia and conformity, they waken to a world teeming with open inquiries and untested solutions; whether facing the window, the mirror or the other, certainties dissolve. The pressing question is no longer how to fit in with the given, but how much must be changed. The temptation to wager one’s existence on an unrealized social ideal grows ever more alluring. So, too, grows the inclination to review one’s ideals and imagine their implications writ large. The unique quality of the novel catalyzed by ideology is its range, its capacity to simultaneously circumscribe the horizons of belief, exercise the full freedom to maneuver in society, and gauge its potential to foster individual maturity. It’s the best, if not the only, instrument left to us to understand what we are becoming.

“With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised,” Dostoevsky biographer and intellectual historian Joseph Frank concludes his chapter on The Idiot, “Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct.” It bears mentioning that the age of Dostoevsky was not an age of brilliant thinkers. The intellectual situation of Petersburg in the 1860s was jammed with third- and fourth-rate seminary dropouts butchering their recitations of second-rate Europeans. Given that the ideological matrix now is no more dismal than in the past; given that the universities, then as now, are turning out a new caste of intellectuals who, indebted and underemployed, have ample cause to rally around visions of a better world; and especially given that literate people today have access to 150 extra years of literary history beginning with Dostoevsky’s novels—given all this, is it really so inconceivable that some millennial author might arrive, like Dostoevsky, at a novel equal in magnitude to the disaster that helped give it form? And in the meantime, why shouldn’t the highly privileged writers of Batuman’s generation be able to afford the most basic, most essential luxury the novel can offer, that of critiquing their own articles of faith? Look closely and you’ll see: the only thing holding them back is their selves.

We miss you, Joe. As always. Read more about him here and here and here. Read the whole Frank Guan discussion here.

Remembering Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank: “He had no enemies.”

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Joe in his Princeton days (Photo: Robert Matthews)

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.

JoeFrank2Perhaps 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.

Stanford Slavic scholar Gregory Freidin was in Paris, but colleague Gabriella Safran read his remarks – you can, too.  Grisha posted his talk on his blog The Noise of Time here.  An excerpt:

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.

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joe and the lady he saw on a Paris bus, in Linda Cicero’s now-iconic photo.

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.

“Sexy letters between the Dostoevskys … Who could have imagined it?”

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Hubba, hubba.

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.

lettersSexy 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:


Not underground.

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.”


David Foster Wallace: “Dostoevsky wasn’t just a genius – he was, finally, brave.”

Monday, April 1st, 2013
Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joseph and Marguerite Frank

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. …


Are we “under a nihilistic spell”?

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.

frank_book_newsPart 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.”

Au revoir, Joe Frank: NYT remembers a terrific man, terrific scholar

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Prof. Joseph Frank and his wife Marguerite (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

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 hereA 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.

The measure of the man: Remembering Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky scholar extraordinaire

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

Joseph and Marguerite Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The appearance of a crow is said to announce a death – a superstition passed down as a truism from the Hungarian side of my family.  In California, however, there are so many of them  that it’s hard to take these pitch-black prognostications seriously.  I suspect the crows outnumber us.

However one, almost as big as a raven, didn’t want to be overlooked on my trek to campus on Thursday morning.  It barked at me repeatedly, insistently, as I biked past, a few feet away from it on Stanford Avenue.  The memory lingered for hours into the blossoming spring day.

Later, I learned that we had lost one of the most wonderful people at Stanford – a place not short of wonderful people – the night before. Joseph Frank, one of the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar in the world, who has mentored generations of students, died “painlessly and peacefully,” according to his wife Marguerite Straus Frank.   He would have been 95 this year.

I’ve written about him at the Book Haven here and here and here and here.  Our acquaintance began way back in 2009, when I wrote about him after the publication of the capstone volume in his series of six thick volumes on Dostoevsky. An excerpt:

‘Joseph Frank’s own rendezvous with the convict from Omsk began around 1950 in France, when he was one of the very early Fulbright Scholars. His influential essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” had already put him on the map as one of the most influential critics in the postwar era. Frank, who began his career as a Washington, D.C., newspaperman in the 1940s, was writing “Paris Letters” for the Partisan Review. Then he discovered Dostoevsky, who was beginning to find his way into English translation.

Frank was so impressed he began to learn Russian – Marguerite recalls him walking around in the mid-1950s with a Russian grammar and lexicon. (They were married “a century ago” in 1953, she said.)

What intrigued Frank about the Russian author? “The problems he writes about are really eternal in Western civilization,” he said. “He makes the fundamental issues of belief and the religious problems exciting – and contemporary. He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them. That’s why I was so much taken with him. He writes exciting novels, with detective techniques – and raises it to such a level! The mystery of it is the mystery of the meaning of life.”‘

After my interview with him,  I attended several of his classes, for he was still actively teaching into his 90s, and I tried to take advantage of any opportunity to hear the master-teacher at work.

My occasional visits to the Franks’ Stanford home, crowded with books and photos and posters, usually included a long conversation and an afternoon glass of wine, a nice transition into the evening.  More recently Joe had been ill, and I shared a glass with Marguerite alone.

I hadn’t seen him since November 3, a week or so before I left for Europe for a month, and regret my last visit was so long ago (I wrote about it here).  We walked over to a café outside Munger – he was frail and wheelchair-bound, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front. He was still very involved in the spirited conversation I was having with Marguerite, who was mostly advising me on places to visit during my first excursion to the south of France – a place as familiar to these Paris-dwellers as California or Joe’s native New York City (he always retained a bit of the accent).

That afternoon is how I remember him now – happy for the crackling fine autumn day, happy to be in the California sunlight, happy for the wash of glorious gold, the buckets of red and yellow and orange leaves, happy for the general brilliance of the day.

This morning I noticed I had his most recent book next to me, by my bed, in a stack of books.  I opened Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture, and saw that I had missed the inscription he had written for me last year:

“For Cynthia Haven, with thanks for including my work in her wide range of interests.  Stanford, May 26, ’12.  Joseph Frank.”

That was a measure of the modesty of the man.

The mockingbirds are singing wildly outside my window.  It’s springtime.  Godspeed, Joe.


Postscript on 3/2:  The word is getting around.  Poet Gwyneth Lewis wrote a few minutes ago from Wales.  She met the Franks during her recent Stanford residency, and shared the campus pool with the couple. “I just got an e-mail from Marguerite Frank, telling me that Joseph died on the 27th of Feb. What a lovely man he was. I’m so sad that my swimming partner isn’t swimming laps still.”  Me, too, Gwyneth.


A novelist? “He knows no obligations of honor.”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

Joseph and Marguerite Frank, chuckling in their apartment. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Another sunny autumn day in Palo Alto.  And yes, California’s reputation for non-seasons notwithstanding, there were buckets of crisp red and orange and yellow leaves everywhere.

I spent the late afternoon chatting at a Stanford cafe with Marguerite and Joe Frank, the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our era, and the author of a big, thick, multi-volume biography.

Joe was in a wheelchair, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front – a souvenir from a film crew. The longtime Paris denizen told me the cap was a good way to ferret out the Americans in France; they react to the title. Meanwhile, Marguerite advised me where to find Romanesque architecture in southern France next month.

Conversation inevitably turned Slavic.  Joe recalled Czesław Miłosz‘s visit to campus, some years ago.  The Polish poet thought highly of the Dostoevsky scholar – and said so in his address.  Miłosz taught Dostoevsky at Berkeley for years, but why is a little of a mystery.  Robert Hass told me a decade ago:  “Some of us asked him if he’d read Flannery O’Connor, and he said no. Had he read so-and-so? ‘No.’ And finally he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with the novel.’ That’s a different way of thinking.”

It wasn’t the only different way of thinking on the subject of Dostoevsky.  I was reminded me of something I found this morning, while doing some reading for my upcoming talk on Miłosz at the British Academy.  From the Paris Review interview with the poet and Robert Faggen:


Without honor?


Since then you have been uninterested in writing novels. You seem to have a quarrel with the genre. Why?


It’s an impure form. I taught Dostoyevsky at Berkeley for twenty years. A born novelist, he would sacrifice everything; he knows no obligations of honor. He would put anything in a novel. Dostoyevsky created a character in The Idiot, General Ivolgin, who is a liar and tells stories—how he lost his leg in a war, how he buried his leg, and then what he inscribed on the tombstone. The inscription is taken from the tomb of Dostoyevsky’s mother. There you have a true novelist. I couldn’t do that.

Who collaborated, who resisted in wartime Paris?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Teamwork: Joseph and Marguerite Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I ran into Marguerite and Joseph Frank a week or so ago in the Coupa Café. He was in a wheelchair, recuperating from a fall, and both were enjoying the sunshine.

They were also reveling the recent publication of Joe’s new collection of essays, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham). They promised to send me a copy of the book – and so they did.

Here’s what Frederick Brown, author of Zola, had to say about the book: “Joseph Frank, noted for his monumental biography of Dostoevsky, is a critic of great cultural breadth, securely grounded in philosophy and in the literatures of America, Europe, and Russia.  Responses to Modernity shows him at his best. What it does especially well is survey the intellectual life of France and Germany before and after World War II in the brilliant works that emerged from Europe’s dark night, in the patter of ideological barkers inviting young minds to part the curtain and enter their tents, in the story of those who fought shy of radical creeds and of those who couldn’t resist the lure of primitivism.”

I spent about an hour rambling through its pages the other night, enjoying Joe’s amiable, wide-ranging, and intellectually graceful style (he turns 94 sometime this year, by the way). He tackles the Bucharest triumvirate of Eugène Ionesco, E.M. Cioran, and Mircea Eliade in one essay, such figures as Jacques Maritain and Yves Bonnefoy in others.

Coupa in springtime.

I paused on this paragraph on the German occupation of France, in an essay on Herbert Lottman‘s The Left Bank:

“Lottman’s chapters on the German years of the Left Bank are the best of the book because they synthesize so much little-known material and succeed in clarifying a stretch of history that has remained relatively obscure.

“One learns, for example, that the entire French publishing industry collaborated with the Germans in one way or another, and all accepted the restrictions imposed by occupation authorities – such as the banning of all anti-German works, and of course books by Jewish authors.

“Collaboration was made easier by the sympathetic Gerhard Heller, the German officer then placed in charge of French publishing, who admired French culture, deplored Nazi excesses, and often helped his French literary friends out of tight spots. Is it Heller who records in his diary – published in France several years ago, and which enjoyed a succès d’estime – that he wept when the brilliant, gifted, and viciously anti-Semitic Robert Brasillach, the editor of the clamorously collaborationist Je Suis Partout, advocated sending French Jewish children to concentration camps along with their parents.

“Just who collaborated and who was in the resistance is often difficult to determine; Lottman states that a case could be made out, with equal plausibility, for the thesis that everybody collaborated as well as for the one that everybody resisted.  For most of the Left Bank notables, “resistance” consisted of little more than writing occasional articles for the clandestine press that gradually sprang into being or, what was slightly more dangerous, helping in its production and distribution.”


Czeslaw Milosz, of course, defected in France, and during those war years, had translated Maritain’s On the Roads of Defeat, an important attack on collaborationism.  He had been thoroughly immersed in French culture since his youth – I wondered what he thought about what he saw in postwar Paris.

I remember Robert Hass telling me, about the war years, “Oh, no, but the French didn’t experience what Czeslaw experienced. It was a society that essentially collaborated. The Poles thought existentialism was an improbable bad faith doctrine coming out of a collaborationist culture. They just never bought it.”

Then, the defection – I describe his fear and loneliness and total isolation when he took refuge in to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.

Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween!

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

In their book-crammed flat (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Still thinking about evil after my post a few days ago, in keeping with Halloween.  Where better to turn than a Dostoevsky scholar?

Joseph Frank sent me his book Between Religion and Rationality some time ago.  Morgan Meis over at The Owls would have found the cover sexy.  My tastes, alas, are a little more flashy and vulgar.  I found it too sedate.  Perhaps that’s why the book remained in a pile of books I meant to read.  But I picked it up at last for his chapter on “Dostoevsky and Evil.”

I was pleased to see Joe’s essay style is lucid and unaffected — and as digressive and roundabout as he can be in conversation.  So the effect is halfway between formal essay and a conversation in Joe and Marguerite’s book-crammed campus flat.

He opens with J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello, discussing the title character’s revulsion at Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which describes degrading,  obscene details of the execution of Hitler’s would-be assassins.  But the details recounted are fictional.  No one was there to say what had actually happened.

Not sexy

“What troubles her above all is that, while appalled and repelled by the book, she had not been able to push it away entirely. It had resisted her feelings of revulsion and disgust, and she feared that some of the ‘absolute evil’ it depicted had, as it were, also infected her; ‘she felt, she could have sworn, the brush of Satan’s hot, leathery wing.”

(The protagonist also shares Coetzee’s passionate vegetarianism: “If Satan is not rampant in the abattoir, casting the shadow of its wings over the beast … where is he?”)

Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The Feast of the Goat, another book that portrays evil in graphic detail, has a different take.  (And here’s where Dostoevsky comes into play.)  Joe quotes the Peruvian author:

“Perhaps we would be able to read what Mr. West wrote and learn from it, and therefore come out stronger rather than weaker. … The manner in which a poem, a novel, a play works on the sensibility or on a character varies to infinity, and much more as a result of the reader than rather than of the work.  To read Dostoevsky may, in some cases, lead to traumatic and criminal consequences, while on the other hand it is not impossible that the spermatic iniquities of the Marquis de Sade have increased the percentage of virtuous readers, vaccinating them against carnal vice.”

Sorry.  I’m with fellow vegetarians Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello on this one. I know what it is like to feel polluted even by a brilliantly written book (perhaps more so then).  But the good Prof. Frank has a different p.o.v. altogether:  “The details chosen to evoke the scene are his [West’s] own creation, and her [Costello’s] horrified response cannot simply be fobbed off as a private reader reaction.”  Recalling Dostoevsky’s murders in Crime and Punishment, he writes:

Pity, terror, and dinner soon

“One would be hard put to match such grisly details in either the European or the Russian novel of the same period, but their effect is ultimately offset by the intensity of Raskolnikov’s inner suffering and his final inability to endure his total estrangement from the rest of humanity.  …  One can find example after example in Dostoevsky’s works of the same boldness in depicting evil at work and the same effort to overcome its effects.”

He returns to Costello, Coetzee, and Paul West:

“… as author he [West] is responsible for the manner in which he depicts this episode; and there is no evidence here of pity, only terror and even horror.  It is such horror that leads Costello to level against him the charge of ‘obscenity,’ and to arrive at her extreme conclusion. ‘To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must for ever remain off-stage.  Paul West … has shown what ought not to be shown.'”

Costello longs to argue with West, “some confrontation leading to some final word” — however, concludes Frank, “one cannot help thinking that the person Costello really wishes to meet, rather than Paul West, is an incarnation of Dostoevsky.”

And perhaps Charles Dickens, as well.  And Victor Hugo.  Maybe Lev Tolstoy, too. May I come to that dinner?  Soon?