Dostoevsky: A Writer for Our Time and Any Time

Lectures on Dostoesvky | Joseph Frank | Princeton University Press

Even amongst serious readers, a common misperception persists that Russian literature is difficult and dull. Audiences that absorb Dickens and Brontë with ardor are often prone to eye Tolstoy and Chekov askance. There are myriad reasons for this —translation issues, cultural unfamiliarity, book-length. Whatever the cause, many new readers have turned to outside resources for interpretive guidance. One recent such offering is a posthumously published collection of essays, Lectures on Dostoevsky, by the renowned scholar, Joseph Frank.

Frank (1918-2013), who was professor emeritus of Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford and Princeton, remains one of the most celebrated Dostoevsky scholars in the world. His meticulously researched five-volume biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, is considered the authoritative contemporary record of the Russian novelist’s tumultuous life. It has won numerous scholarly and popular accolades and has been translated into multiple languages. For some readers, however, a five-volume biography may be as daunting as a Russian novel—even the recent one-volume abridgment is roughly the size of War and Peace. But Lectures on Dostoevsky offers an accessible pathway into Frank’s expertise for both novices and enthusiasts. Curated from transcripts of lectures given by Frank at Stanford University, the collection provides a readable, distilled introduction to Dostoevsky’s life and literature by one of the world’s foremost scholars and critics. 

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Dostoevsky’s work is often intimidating to unfamiliar readers, a fact that would probably mystify him. He was no dilettante. In fact, he was the only Russian literary author of his time who wrote not from a position of leisure, but for a living. “His income was dependent on his popularity,” Frank explains, which forced him to write less for the educated elite than for the common man. Maybe that is why his canon overflows with literary tropes often associated with run-of-the-mill genre fiction—specifically murder mysteries and adventure stories—making him perhaps the most accessible of the major Russian authors. His novels were originally published in weekly segments as newspaper serials, which explains the laborious length of the unified versions. Like Dickens, Dostoevsky was paid by the word, and like Dickens, his work was widely read in his own time. 

Aside from his popular appeal, however, Dostoevsky was a serious novelist. Influenced by Russian contemporaries like Gogol and Pushkin on the one hand and Western authors like Shakespeare and Balzac on the other. A deep reader himself, Dostoevsky synthesized his many influences into a voice wholly his own—one that spoke on behalf of his people and his native land with empathy and precision while at the same time extending beyond Russia to give voice to universal human experience. Frank’s lectures explore the intricacies of Dostoevsky’s unique interplay of mass attraction and literary quality.

But Frank goes far deeper than an analysis of craft. He offers an invaluable historical and philosophical perspective that sheds light on the depths of Dostoevsky’s work. Russia in the 1860s was a firestorm of explosive change and conflicting ideologies. Frank provides a holistic understanding of the fraught historical context without reducing the novels to mere points on a timeline of Russian history. “Another aim is to study Dostoevsky’s work in relation to their literary and ideological contexts, so as to bring out what he was trying to express or convey in relation to his own times.” Frank’s clear grasp of the sweeping social framework of Dostoevsky’s Russia furnishes readers’ minds for the deeper issues at stake in Dostoevky’s work, including his incisive but compassionate treatment of Russia’s fragmenting culture mirrored in the sufferings and triumphs of his vivid characters. 

Discerning readers are likely to read Frank’s descriptions of Russia’s cultural discord with a sense of dawning recognition. The cataclysmic changes of nineteenth-century Russia led to a violent conflict of ideas similar in many respects to those of modern day. “The world of Dostoevsky is thus inwardly much closer to our own,” Frank muses. “The problems raised in Dostoevsky’s novels, which earlier had seemed to be peculiarly Russian, became those of our Western culture as a whole.” Throughout the lectures, Frank continually traces the threads of ideological conflicts to identify how they have frayed not only in Russia, but in the larger world. 

Frank is a holistic critic who offers a broad context without ever losing sight of Dostoevsky himself. “My approach is primarily cultural and ideological,” he states, but he refuses to reduce Dostoevsky’s novels to mere studies in literary craftsmanship and historical context. “A great work of art always transcends the conditions of its creation and has meanings that go far beyond what its own period would have thought about it.” His stated goal is to traverse the heart of Dostoevsky’s work, which means that he offers remarks on these admittedly essential matters as pathways into the depths of Dostoevsky’s novels, but not as the thing itself. Reading these lectures feels less like absorbing scholarly insights and more like delighting in an exuberant teacher. He is a scholar, yes, but also, it seems, he remains a lover. 

Throughout the lectures, Frank maintains a posture of authoritative wonder, offering interpretive keys to the novels without reducing or deconstructing them. He acknowledges that Dostoevsky’s novels cannot be contained within literary theory, historical analysis, or ideological constructs; they throb with pathos, complexity, and nuance nearly unmatched in the Western literary canon, and they deserve to be read with informed humility. To this end, he points out the triumphs and the flaws of Dostoevky’s remarkable human vision. “The strength of his work is that he can show us so powerfully the tragedy of sacrificing the individual and the personal to the abstract or theoretical; its weakness is that he could not integrate the personal and the social in any convincing artistic way.” Whether you are neophyte or an aficionado, Lectures on Dostoevsky has something to offer to take you deeper into Dostoevsky’s remarkable canon. 

Heidi White is managing editor of the FORMA, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.