The Magazine

Dostoevsky's Demons

Joseph Frank finishes his biographical masterpiece.

May 20, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 35 • By RENE GIRARD
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Dostoevsky
The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881
by Joseph Frank
Princeton University Press, 812 pp., $35

FOR MORE THAN twenty-five years, Joseph Frank has been writing the biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1976, he published "Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849," followed by "The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859," "The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865," and "The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871."

Now, at last, we have the fifth and final volume--"The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881"--and it is the richest of Frank's monumental work, its 812 pages covering the last decade of Dostoevsky's life. All of Frank's volumes contain analyses of Dostoevsky's novels original enough to interest the knowledgeable, yet lucid enough to help those unable to distinguish, say, Alexander Ivanovich from Ivan Alexandrovich.

But it is, above all, the profound social and personal history that makes Frank's volumes stand above other studies of the great Russian novelist. Because of Dostoevsky's increase in fame before his death--indeed, because of his prestige with both the revolutionary youth and the imperial court--the story of the novelist's life in these years expands into a social, cultural, and even political history of Russia at a crucial point in the disintegration of the old tsarist order.

In "The Mantle of the Prophet," as in "The Miraculous Years," Dostoevsky's second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, plays a central role. She is our main source of knowledge for the last twenty years of the novelist's life and the most important person in that life. Her role has often been minimized by scholars. The problem is that she seems to have been sensible and efficient enough to make her husband happy in an almost bourgeois sense of the word--which is, naturally, horrifying to those committed to a vision of Dostoevsky as "the mad Russian mystic."

The story of Anna Grigoryevna is a remarkable one. Against her family's advice, she decided, at age twenty-two, to marry a forty-two-year-old convict who was also an epileptic, a pathological gambler, and the odd man of Russian literature. She entered his life as an efficient stenographer, and she continued in this role until his death, quickly becoming his financial manager and protector against his greedy relatives. She never reproached him about his gambling, it seems, but, within a few years, he suddenly ceased to gamble. She certainly brought about that change, but not even Joseph Frank seems to know how.

Above all, Anna was a mother and a wife. She was as solid and real as Dostoevsky's first wife was fragile and fake. She was the greatest blessing in his life, even when, at the beginning of their marriage, her husband lost their last, painfully borrowed ruble at the roulette table. (The lender of last resort was Anna's own mother, who was far from rich.) Joseph Frank is too conscientious a biographer to lapse into hagiography. He does not hide, for example, Anna's tendency to make both her husband and herself look better than they were. But Frank's uncompromising honesty ends up making Anna seem almost heroic. There was great suffering in her marriage, no doubt, especially the death of children, but there was more happiness.

THE MOST STUBBORN MYTH about Dostoevsky is his "sexual abnormality," a thesis countersigned by Sigmund Freud himself. In the course of his five-volume biography, however, Joseph Frank quietly demolishes it. This myth has two origins. The first is the famous Stavrogin confession about the rape of a little girl in "Demons" (the 1872 novel sometimes translated under the title "The Devils" or "The Possessed"), which readers who dislike Dostoevsky tend to regard as his vicarious confession. And the second is Freud's essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide," which is more against its subject than about him. What horrifies Freud is Dostoevsky's political ideas and, above all, his apparent anti-Semitism.

One can share Freud's sentiments without sharing Freud's certainty that bad political ideas mean a bad sex life. Building upon the dubious Freudian foundation of Dostoevsky's "latent homosexuality," many critics have assumed that he was not really interested in his wife. The sole reason he married Anna, so the story goes, was his need for the "sister of charity" that he shrewdly detected in her, and he cynically exploited the poor girl in his own selfish interest. She is thus, in most studies of Dostoevsky, mainly an object of rather distant commiseration: "the obviously sexually unfulfilled Anna Grigoryevna."