Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

PREFACE

Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

Since the present volume is a condensation of the five that I have already published on the life and works of Dostoevsky, I should like to acquaint my new readers with the point of view from which they were written. My approach arose primarily from a troubling sense that important aspects of Dostoevsky's work had been overlooked, or at least not accorded sufficient importance, in the considerable secondary literature devoted to his career. The major perspective of these studies derived from his personal history, and this had been so spectacular that it was almost irresistible for biographers to recount its peripeties at length. No other Russian writer of his stature could equal the range of his familiarity with both the depths and heights of Russian society—a range that included four years spent as a convict living side by side with peasant criminals, and then, at the end of his life, invitations to dine with younger members of the family of Tsar Alexander II, who, it was believed, might benefit from his conversation. It is quite understandable that such a life, in all its fascinating particularities, should have furnished the background against which Dostoevsky's works were initially viewed and interpreted.

The more I read Dostoevsky's novels and stories, however, not to mention his journalism, both literary and political (his Diary of a Writer was the most widely circulated monthly publication ever published in Russia), the more it seemed to me that a conventional biographical point of view could not do justice to the complexities of his creations. To be sure, while Dostoevsky's characters struggle with the psychological and sentimental problems that provide the substance of all novels, more important, his books are also inspired by the ideological doctrines of his time. Such doctrines, particularly in his major works, furnish the chief motivations for the often bizarre, eccentric, and occasionally murderous behavior of characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or both Stavrogin and Kirillov in Demons. The personal entanglements of the figures in the novels, though depicted with often melodramatic intensity, cannot really be understood unless we grasp how their actions are intertwined with ideological motivations.

It thus seemed to me, when I set out to write my own work on Dostoevsky, that its perspective should be shifted, and that the purely personal biography

-xiii-

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