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Examined Life

Joseph Frank, Renowned Dostoevsky Scholar, Dies at 94

His biography of the Russian writer spans five volumes.

Courtesy of the Frank Family (left)

By Cynthia Haven

Joseph Frank was en route to a career as a literary theorist (with a special emphasis on French culture and literature) when he bumped into a large Russian bear.

It was the mid-1950s, and Frank was lecturing at Princeton on postwar French Existentialist writers. He thought he would situate his discussion in an earlier context, with Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Even as he was expounding Dostoevsky's worldview, Frank later wrote, "I had the uneasy feeling it was far from adequate." Intrigued by "the irrationalism and amoralism" of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, he decided to tackle the subject more deeply.

The result was half a century of labor and five mammoth volumes of the definitive biography of Dostoevsky, widely considered one of the greatest biographies ever written.

Professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures, Frank died of pulmonary failure at his Stanford home on February 27. He was 94.

Michael Scammell, a translator of Russian writers and a biographer of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler, paid tribute, calling Frank's work "unique in the annals of Russian literary criticism. Its lovingly detailed examination of both the life and the works of this great writer is a monument that will stand for as long as books about literature continue to be written and read."

"He was sui generis," says Marguerite Straus Frank, at their campus home crammed with books and posters and photos. Starting over, well into his 30s, as a Dostoevsky scholar meant teaching himself Russian. Although he was fluent in French, German and Spanish, Russian "was always a foreign language," his widow says. "He mastered it so he could read it. He was learning it all his life, with a dictionary and grammar."

Frank's offbeat academic path began in New York City as a child—a student with a stutter so pronounced that, Marguerite says, "for years, he couldn't get a word out." The stand-and-deliver classroom style of that era foredoomed him to failure. Then he won half a dozen literary prizes in a national competition. Writing became his salvation.

As an undergraduate student at NYU, the teenager contributed prolifically to the Washington Square College Review. He went on to write for the Hudson Review, the New Republic and the Partisan Review. A three-part essay in The Sewanee Review of 1945, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," cemented his critical reputation. A few years later, after he'd won a Fulbright fellowship, Frank entered the PhD program of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago—sans bachelor's degree.

The turn toward Dostoevsky was another unexpected twist in a remarkable journey, a meeting with a mind that was "completely alien and mysterious—and at the same time transcendent," Marguerite says. "There's no equivalent in Western literature."

Frank worked indefatigably. "Basically, he wrote every morning, in a room with a metal table," said his daughter Isabelle Frank, a dean at Fordham University. "If it was a vacation or holiday, we had to be quiet." She remembers him starting work in bed, with a Russian dictionary open on his stomach, and the book he was reading resting in front of it.

Dostoevsky was "absolutely" part of her parents' conversation, Isabelle recalls. "It was a lifetime conversation that sometimes emerged into books." Frank praised Marguerite in each preface as one who "held me to the highest standards of conceptual rigor as well as lucidity and felicity of expression." Marguerite, a mathematician, downplays her contribution. "Of course, we were together for 60 years; I was not just cook and bottle washer. We were companions." In his prefaces, Frank credits his older daughter Claudine with finding a title for one of the books, and both daughters for helping proofread.

Beyond the books, poet Adam Zagajewski remembered his friend's wisdom, "which concerned both spiritual and life-related matters. He was a great intellectual and also a witness: He knew so much about 20th-century history, about American and European literatures, about Paris and New York. About important people he met. And he was a good person. It was obvious."

Cynthia Haven is a visiting scholar in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

Comments (1)

  • Professor Emeritus Charles Dunlop

    It should be noted that Joseph Frank's five-volume opus has been adroitly condensed into a single (959-page)  volume by Stanford lecturer Mary Petrusewicz -- a two-year task for which she receives the author's gracious acknowledgment.

    Posted by Professor Emeritus Charles Dunlop on May 9, 2013 6:55 AM


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