Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


RIP Joseph Frank

Joseph Frank, author of the five volume biography on Dostoevsky died last Wednesday.

He created the condensed version of the five volume biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time, when he was over 90 years old.

From the New York Times article:

“It’s now regarded as the best biography of Dostoevsky in any language, including Russian, which is really saying something,” Gary Saul Morson, a Dostoevsky scholar and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview, referring to the five-volume work. “That’s more or less universal. And this is my opinion, I don’t know if others will agree, but it’s the best biography of any writer I’ve ever read.”

I was always fascinated by the details of Dostoevsky’s life: the time in prison, the fake firing squad, running from debtors, the transition to fervent religiosity.

I have read less than a hundred pages of the book, but I was amazed at Frank’s ability to mine Dostoevsky’s psyche, and to write with such empathy. The young student who acts “courageously” for his ideals; the conflicting shame and desire he feels towards writing; his anger and admiration of his father. None of this feels melodramatic or distant, his worries and fears become our own. I am very eager to read more.

I suppose because of the stoic image of Dostoevsky on the cover, I imagined Frank in a similar pose; a monastic wise old man whose life revolved around the halls of the university. But that was not the case at all:

Remarkably, Mr. Frank never earned a bachelor’s degree, and his path to the heights of literary scholarship was singular. He attended classes at New York University, but when his mother and stepfather died within a year of each other, without money, he moved to Madison, Wis., where, he had learned, a dean at the University of Wisconsin was sympathetic to Jewish scholars seeking admission, and where he could earn state residency in a year.

It was in Madison that he began to control his stammer, his family said, and though he later made a career as a lecturer, he never conquered it entirely. He studied briefly at the university but left in 1942 for an editorial job in Washington at the Bureau of National Affairs, a publisher of informational journals on legislation, policy and like subjects.

Throughout the 1940s, he published essays and criticism in literary journals, and one, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature” — a discussion of experimental treatments of space and time by Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Pound and others — published in The Sewanee Review in 1945, propelled him to prominence as a theoretician.

He was a writer, not an academic, and not even a native Russian speaker. He was a self educated man, and his tremendous contribution  is an important reminder of the possibilities of studying literature and history in a time when these subjects are framed as foolish intellectual pursuits.


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This entry was posted on March 5, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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