Joseph Frank has completed his five-volume biography of the Russian geniusby Derek Brower / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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, m…