RADIO PRODUCER AND WRITER
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.
“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.