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

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.”

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

  1. Kate Marie Says:

    I’ve always liked that essay of Wallace’s. Am I remembering correctly that Wallace says Smerdyakov is the character with whom he most identifies? I find that so sad and rather chilling, given the circumstances of Wallace’s death.

  2. The Dostoevsky Difference | The Penn Ave Post Says:

    […] at 8:45 on April 9, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan Cynthia Haven dug up a 1996 David Foster Wallace review of the first four volumes of Joseph Frank’s behemoth […]

  3. Shmuli Cohen Says:

    I love this essay on Dos. It is fun, flamboyant and nonchalant. I think DFW had a thing for Dos. The brothers Incandenza are clearly the Karazamov’s incarnate. DFW interminable theme of “what its like to be a fucken human being”, constantly plays out in all his writing and which Dos. sketched and was in all his suffering and misery.

  4. Sanna Says:

    Very informative blog.Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Sally Jean (née Foster) and James Donald Wallace. In his early childhood, Wallace lived in Champaign, Illinois. In fourth grade, he moved to Urbana and attended Yankee Ridge school and Urbana High School. Keep posting such amazing posts.

  5. JON DUBOIS Says:

    It’s a tough row to hoe, to be the constant challenger to ironic detachment. Harder still to be risk being uncool arguing that true purpose of fiction is to make us feel a little bit less alone. The line separating sentiment from sincerity is a tricky one. Karen Green, in her amazing memoir relates regular conversations where Wallace express his concerns about being “squishy”.

    But he did it anyway. Took that high ground and wasn’t scared to shout it out.

    If you haven’t read any other DFW I envy you, you’ve got so much to look forward to! I promise that any and all efforts to read the great man’s work will be rewarded many times over. Thanks for this, I hadn’t known about this particular DFW piece, though I’m sure if DFW’s indefatigable agent Bonnie Nadel hasn’t republished it yet she’ll get to it, god bless her.


  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Jon!