Archive for March 2nd, 2013

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.