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


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.

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