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The term "biography" seems insufficiently capacious to describe the singular achievement of Joseph Frank's five-volume study of the life of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. One critic, writing upon the publication of the final volume, casually tagged the series as the ultimate work on Dostoevsky "in any language, and quite possibly forever."
Frank himself had not originally intended to undertake such a massive work. The endeavor began in the early 1960s as an exploration of Dostoevsky's fiction, but it later became apparent to Frank that a deeper appreciation of the fiction would require a more ambitious engagement with the writer's life, directly caught up as Dostoevsky was with the cultural and political movements of mid- and late-nineteenth-century Russia. Already in his forties, Frank undertook to learn Russian and embarked on what would become a five-volume work comprising more than 2,500 pages. The result is an intellectual history of nineteenth-century Russia, with Dostoevsky's mind as a refracting prism.
The volumes have won numerous prizes, among them the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association.
This fourth installment in Frank's acclaimed, projected five-volume biography presents an astonishingly vivid, uncanny portrait of Dostoevsky's spiritual, emotional and artistic development during his crucial years abroad. Marrying his pert, reserved stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina (his first wife died in 1864), Dostoevsky fled Russia with her in 1867 to escape harassing creditors and grasping dependents. Their obscure, lonely existence in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, until their return to Russia in 1871, was punctuated by the tragic death of their first child, Sofya, who lived only two months; by the penurious writer's frequent, disabling epileptic fits; by his mania for gambling; and by a stormy meeting with liberal, pro-Western Turgenev in Baden-Baden. The miracle implied by the book's title is that during this period, Dostoevsky wrote three major novels-Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Devils-plus two novellas, The Gambler and The Eternal Husband. Frank anchors the prophetic writer in his social and cultural milieu, tracing his struggles against Russian nihilists, his expose of the pitfalls of revolutionary politics, his messianic nationalism and his vision of an authentic Russian culture rooted in Christian morality and mystical union with the soil.