Between Religion and Rationality: Essays in Russian Literature and Culture

Between Religion and Rationality: Essays in Russian Literature and Culture

Between Religion and Rationality: Essays in Russian Literature and Culture

Between Religion and Rationality: Essays in Russian Literature and Culture


In this book, acclaimed Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank explores some of the most important aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century Russian culture, literature, and history. Delving into the distinctions of the Russian novel as well as the conflicts between the religious peasant world and the educated Russian elite, Between Religion and Rationality displays the cogent reflections of one of the most distinguished and versatile critics in the field.

Frank's essays provide a discriminating look at four of Dostoevsky's most famous novels, discuss the debate between J. M. Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa on the issue of Dostoevsky and evil, and confront Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism. The collection also examines such topics as Orlando Figes's sweeping survey of the history of Russian culture, the life of Pushkin, and Oblomov's influence on Samuel Beckett. Investigating the omnipresent religious theme that runs throughout Russian culture, even in the antireligious Chekhov, Frank argues that no other major European literature was as much preoccupied as the Russian with the tensions between religion and rationality. Between Religion and Rationality highlights this unique quality of Russian literature and culture, offering insights for general readers and experts alike.


the present volume is composed of essays and reviews largely written over the years when I was working on the five volumes I devoted to studying Dostoevsky and his times. Such incidental pieces were of course conditioned by my concern with that key figure in Russian literature, but it is impossible to write about Dostoevsky without dealing with many others as well, and especially his great rival Tolstoy. Moreover, since my aim was to approach Dostoevsky not primarily as a biographical personality but as a writer whose work in effect provided “a condensed history of 19th century Russian culture” (seen of course from his own idiosyncratic point of view), it was necessary to range over a much larger area than merely the details of his existence could provide. in my view, Dostoevsky’s stories, novels, and journalism essentially responded to the moral-philosophical and moral-religious issues raised by the evolution of radical ideology during his lifetime (positively in his works of the 1840s, negatively, as its most devastating critic, beginning in the 1860s). It was thus necessary to become acquainted with his entire social-cultural context, and I kept an eye out for various books as they appeared that dealt with one or another facet of this broader horizon. Some of these works did not concern Dostoevsky directly but dealt with problems of Russian culture that formed the essential background of his creations. I have added to this collection a piece on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, which, although not dealing with Russian works except indirectly, is too fascinating to be eliminated for this external reason. It was, after all, written by a Russian author.

The title I have given this volume, Between Religion and Rationality, also indicates a general sense of what distinguishes the thematics of the Russian novel from those of other literary traditions. the distinctiveness of the Russian novel was noted at the end of the nineteenth century by the unjustly neglected figure of the Vicomte Eugene Melchior de Vogüé, whose book, The Russian Novel (1866), first brought this body of work to worldwide attention. the vicomte, himself a minor man of letters and later novelist, was stationed in the French Embassy at Petersburg for several years. He was one of the few foreign diplomats who made an effort to learn the Russian language and, marrying into the highest strata of Russian society, gained entrance to the court circles surrounding Alexander ii. He was also personally acquainted with Turgenev and Dostoevsky (much

Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: the Mantle of the Prophet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), xiii.

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