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.