Joseph Frank has completed his five-volume biography of the Russian geniusby Derek Brower / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
A year before he died of emphysema in 1881, Fyodor Dostoevsky was invited to speak at a festival in Moscow, held to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Alexander Pushkin-then, as now, considered by Russians to be their first great writer. Uniquely among authors, Dostoevsky said, Pushkin had a prophet’s ability to “infuse his spirit into the spirit of other nations.” Russia herself also had this ability, he said, to usher in a “universal brotherhood of peoples.” Dostoevsky continued: “Our land may be impoverished, but Christ himself in slavish garb traversed this impoverished land and gave his blessing.”
Dostoevsky’s audience was overwhelmed. A voice from the back shrieked that he had “solved it;” people rushed forward to embrace him; women wept; the applause shook the building. “Prophet! Prophet!” people in the crowd shouted. Not Pushkin, but Dostoevsky himself.
More than 120 years have passed, but Dostoevsky’s voice continues to be described as “prophetic.” Behind his attacks on rationalism and his defence of human free will-expressed most clearly in Notes from Underground and in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov-lay the ideological battles of 19th-century Russia. But 21st-century readers continue to feel that Dostoevsky and the arguments of his characters “speak to modernity.” His works continue to be re-translated, reissued and adapted for television. Hollywood has its Dostoevsky references-from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver (a loose interpretation of Notes from Underground) to the Dostoevsky-lite of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). A 20th-century literary theory-Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony-was invented to describe Dostoevsky’s novels alone; and his themes of the “underground” and the “double” have rarely been out of vogue. A recent poll of writers conducted by the Nobel committee found that four Dostoevsky novels-Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov-were among the 100 most influential, more than any other writer on the list.
In Russia, the fall of communism triggered a revival of interest in Dostoevsky. His novels were always read during the Soviet period, but they were officially considered suspect. Lenin hated the caricature of early revolutionaries in Devils. No doubt, officials particularly objected to passages in which the long-eared Shigalyov proposes a totalitarian system: “One tenth is granted freedom of person and unlimited rights over the remaining nine tenths. These must lose their person and turn into something like a herd… though, by the way, they will have to work.”
Since the collapse of…