Dostoevsky: light on the dark side

Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865, by Joseph Frank. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 416 pp. $29.50, cloth. IN one of Dostoevsky's lesser-known novels, ``The Insulted and the Injured,'' an aristocrat advises a struggling young writer to fraternize with the elite, the better to stock his novels with plenty of ``counts, princes, and boudoirs'' and so become, one supposes, the Judith Krantz of his day. Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky came from the bottom rung of Russia's newly minted service nobility. Although he was an ingenious recycler of popular genre -- social parody, gothic thriller, detective story, boulevard farce -- the ruling classes were not his major interest. What he most liked was to take a melodramatic setting, such as a monk's cell, say, or a poor but honest family's parlor, and pack it full of the veriest assortment of drunkards, maidens, buffoons, and fools. Then he would set everyone talking at once, preferably at the top of his or her voice, about the meaning of life. As his literary colleague Nikolay Strakhov observed, Dostoevsky ``felt thought.'' Although he was at the forefront of contemporary social-intellectual debate, he spun his unforgettable characters mainly out of sheer emotion.

This is not to say that he wasn't an ideologist, too.

``We [Russians] possess the genius of all nations in addition to our own,'' the elderly Dostoevsky once said, brushing off a French vicomte. ``That is why we can understand you, but you cannot understand us.''

In this pivotal third volume of a thus-far five-volume Dostoevsky study, Joseph Frank of Princeton University examines the years immediately following Dostoevsky's decade-long exile in Siberia for plotting to overthrow serfdom. The fiction covered here includes ``The Insulted and the Injured,'' ``The House of the Dead'' (his thinly disguised prison memoir), and ``Notes from the Underground,'' as well as various pieces written for the two St. Petersburg magazines the Dostoevsky brothers ran between 1861 and 1864. Richly informative, engagingly written, Frank's work gives the fullest account to date of the social setting in which Dostoevsky wrote these transitional books that brought him to the threshold of his greatest novels: ``Crime and Punishment,'' ``The Idiot,'' ``The Devils,'' ``The Brothers Karamazov.''

Debunked is the popular myth that the Western-styled liberal Dostoevsky emerged from prison a reactionary xenophobe and a born-again pan-Slavist. Through painstaking detail, Frank demonstrates -- both here and in the earlier volumes -- that the change was much slower and that the anti-Western seeds had been sown long before Dostoevsky went to jail. What Dostoevsky learned from his peasant fellow convicts, who scorned him as a ``gentleman,'' was that the Russian intelligentsia could no more ride herd on a people's revolution than human reason could control the human subconscious.

As it happened, Czar Alexander II freed the serfs about a year after Dostoevsky returned to western Russia, declaring that it was better to decree a revolution from above than to have one forced up from below. During this administrative ``thaw,'' state censorship relaxed somewhat. The press could now take on formerly taboo subjects. The subsequent debate was not so much Russian traditionalists vs. pro Westerners as it was the defenders of ancestral order and peaceful reform vs. those who championed the peasants and violent revolution. This latter group, the radical intelligentsia, became known as the nihilists.

Although Dostoevsky later caricatured leftists like Nikolay Chernyshevsky, for the time being he advocated a nebulous ``cultural fusion'' in his magazine Vremya (Time), handling the nihilists with sympathy and tact. Russians, he claimed, had a gift for harsh self-criticism (a nod to restive radicals): That's why history had destined Russia to lead all mankind (a nod to conservative pan-Slavists). This strategy ultimately failed. The radicals smeared Vremya in their own journals, and the czar shut it down in 1863 for insufficient patriotism during the Polish suppression.

A second magazine, Epokha (Epoch), also failed, but Dostoevsky's short-lived editorial career gave him a chance-of-a-lifetime to observe radical Russian youth, who were usually major players in his fiction. Also, the numerous crime articles he wrote for Vremya saturated him in what he called ``the dark side of the human soul that art does not like to approach,'' a side that he was to make his own artistic preserve.

Frank throws new light on other possible links between Dostoevsky's experience and his fiction. It has often been recorded that Dostoevsky was the victim of epileptic seizures; Frank suggests a similarity in the helplessness that grips the typical Dostoevsky hero when faced with the chaotic passions of other characters. As for Dostoevsky's bouts of compulsive gambling, Frank does not see them as a search for self-punishment, as other biographers have contended, but as a superstitious author's effort to ``force the gods'' to make a decision about him.

In Frank's ``Dostoevsky,'' no matter how deeply the discussion goes into history, psychology, philosophy, or politics, it never strays far from the heart of the matter, the fiction itself. All facts and theories lead inexorably back to the works. Even as Dostoevsky is drawn to the attractions of Russian imperalist-expansionist ideology, he remains primarily -- as Frank so vividly demonstrates -- a chronicler of the psyche.

From faith in a humanistic politics, concludes Frank, Dostoevsky moved to ``a faith in the power of the human personality to struggle successfully against the self-destructive consequences of its own resentments and frustrations.'' And this faith infused the major works, the study of which lies ahead in volumes four and five.

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