Jonathan Sumption

The last brick put in place

The publication of this volume marks the completion of Joseph Frank’s enormous biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a work which he has spent half a lifetime in writing. ‘Monumental’ is the standard clichZ for such an enterprise, and Frank’s is certainly that. The scale of the work is due mainly to the fact that it sets out to be not just a biography, but a work of literary criticism and a social and intellectual history of 19th-century Russia. This would be a marvellous achievement if it could be done. Dostoevsky’s world is not easily accessible even to those who have read widely in its literature, and his ideas are certainly not self-explanatory.

Dostoevsky was born in 1821 into a family that was legally classified as noble but would not have ranked as such by any other standard. His father was an army doctor and his grandfather a provincial clergyman. He himself set out to be a professional writer, still not a wholly respectable occupation in spite of the example of Pushkin. Unlike Tolstoy, a real nobleman, Dostoevsky had experienced much of what he criticised in Russia in his time. His earliest published works, which date from the 1840s, already show him using the techniques which he would employ in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov: the focus on uprooted outsiders; the intense moral introspection, reflected in the rambling thoughts and long monologues of his principal characters; the jerky alternation between the fantastic and the real in minds driven by guilt to the fringe of insanity.

1848, the year of failed revolutions in Europe and an abortive one in Russia, transformed Dostoevsky’s life. He had become a peripheral member of a group of utopian socialists, the Petrashevsky circle, which met regularly to talk about politics.

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