Tuesday, April 17, 2012

100 Books #29 - Joseph Frank's DOSTOEVSKY: THE SEEDS OF REVOLT 1821-1849

Though the event is not actually depicted or described in Seeds of Revolt, the specter of Russian uber-novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky's arrest, mock execution and sentence to Siberia looms large over this first of Joseph Frank's five-volume biography of the man. This should not be a spoiler for anyone; this fact and its timing (1849) are quite possibly the best-known and most-talked-about biographical detail in all Dostoevskiana, mentioned in every introduction, foreward, sketch and essay I've ever seen about the man. I might say it's as impossible not to know Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia as it is not to know that he wrote The Brothers Karamozov and Crime and Punishment, but then I run the risk of wandering into bless-me-what-do-they-teach-at-these-schools-ism.

What is not generally known to the casual Dostoevsky fan (which is what I would call myself; I certainly could not hold forth with Michael at Pink's for any length of time*) is the details of why and how this pivotal event came to happen. Enter the redoubtable Joseph Frank, whose staggering work I learned of, as is probably the case with everyone in my cliques and circles, through an essay by the late and much-lamented David Foster Wallace.** And before you ask, yes, I plan to read the other four volumes, for having completed this one I find myself a much less casual Dostoevsky fan and a Frank fan as well.

Frank could definitely go toe-to-toe with Michael at Pink's, and wouldn't even have to serve up a hot dog to keep the ordinary punter's attention while he did so.

As I said, the arrest looms large over this account, ominous and always feeling just around the corner even as Doestoevsky grows up with his strict father, suffers through military school, attracts the praise and attention of the great critic Vissarion Belinsky with his first novel Poor Folk (which I have yet to read but now very much want to) and then falls out with him, takes up other, nicer friends and watches them move away, writes, writes and writes and always wrings his hands over the plight of the enslaved peasantry of Russia (among whom he had had mostly happy formative experiences as a boy on his family's little estate) -- and then meets Petrashevsky, he of the circle accused of subversion and revolution and all sorts of other things that autocratic regimes do not like.

Frank's painstaking examination of the Petrashevsky circle -- a very informal salon in which members of the intelligentsia gathered of a Friday night to talk Socialist ideas, religion, politics and, occasionally, literature -- frankly gave me the chills, not so much because of what happened to them per se, or how they conducted themselves or what they talked about as what they resembled: they resembled Twitter, if not the entire internet. Everybody got a chance to spout off or argue, there was rarely a set agenda, anyone who wanted to could participate (within limits, of course, in St. Petersburg of the 1840s, of course), anyone could get sucked in and, potentially (and later actually), everyone could become tarred with the same brush. So when some members started up a secret society with the aim of actually staging a revolution in Russia, everybody got busted.

Back then, of course, the government had to work hard at it, to infiltrate the circle with an actual person hanging out at actual gatherings at specific times; nowadays, we've turned everything inside-out, having our conversations in full public view, asynchronously, trusting the First Amendment and the odd pseudonymous identity and that those in power won't confuse rhetoric with intent. This may be very foolish of us. Especially as things like NDAA have been allowed to happen. I do not fear being mock-shot or sent to Siberia, but I do fear an internet fettered and stunted by corporate/government interests, or being cut off from it and thus my world. I fear falling into the prison of my own flesh.***

Such are the dark thoughts a good Dostoevsky biography can inspire. And this one is very, very good. And, as I said, I'm itching to get my hands on the other four volumes.

And I'll be sleeping with one eye open, and tweeting with a little more concern (though I'm sure I already damned myself long ago out of my own typing fingers. I've always been free with my opinions, and have paid the price for this before when they were misconstrued, misunderstood, or just unpopular. Dostoevsky was not a revolutionary or even much of a socialist, Frank says, but if you got him going defending literature that wasn't written purely as a dialectical tool for social reform, or, worse, on the plight of the peasantry, then he could potentially wind up out in the streets screaming and waving a red flag. As a friend of mine once observed, some people have buttons to push, others have a whole keyboard. Unca Fyodor had perhaps a modestly sized keyboard; mine is vast and varied).

But what of it, Orson Welles might ask. Go on singing.

*Wink wink at Unca Harlan Ellison, the modern writer of whom I was most reminded as I read this biography of Unca Fyodor. Go watch the YouTube video I linked to above, or better yet, get your hands on a copy of Angry Candy, far and away my favorite of his short story collections and the one containing the amusing and awesome "Prince Myshkin and Hold the Relish."

**Which appears in his last essay collection Consider the Lobster, if you're wondering. I could not find a link to the complete text online. The book is worth acquiring or at least reading, though, and not just for the Frank/Dostoevsky piece!

***Wink wink at William Gibson. Of course.

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