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Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time Hardcover – October 19, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 984 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691128197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691128191
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #285,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Co-Winner of the Etkind Prize, European University at St. Petersburg

"A monumental achievement. . . This is not a literary biography in the usual sense of the term. . . . It is, rather, an exhaustive history of Dostoyevskys mind, an encyclopedic account of the author as major novelist and thinker, essayist and editor, journalist and polemicist. . . . Wrought with tireless love and boundless ingenuity, it . . . [is] a multifaceted tribute from an erudite and penetrating cultural critic to one of the great masters of 19th-century fiction."--Michael Scammell, New York Times Book Review

"It is unquestionably the fullest, most nuanced and evenhandednot to mention the most informative--account of its subject in any language, and it has significantly changed our understanding of both the man and his work."--Donald Fanger, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In his aim of elucidating the setting within which Dostoevsky wrote--personal on the one hand, social, historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical on the other--Frank has succeeded triumphantly."--J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books

"Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time thus immediately becomes the essential one-volume commentary on the intellectual dynamics and artistry of this great novelist's impassioned, idea-driven fiction. . . . To understand Dostoevsky's often savage satire or nightmarish visions or just the conversations among the Karamazov brothers, one needs to grasp not only the text but also the ideological context. To both of these there is no better guide than Joseph Frank."--Michael Dirda, Wall Street Journal

"Magnificent. . . . A deeply absorbing account."--James Wood, New Republic

"The ideal one-volume biography of Dostoevsky could only come through a distillation of the much-acclaimed five-volume biography (1976-2002) by Joseph Frank. In compressing his longer work, editor Mary Petrusewicz tightens the rigor of a narrative that already departed from traditional biography by focusing chiefly on the ideas with which the Russian author wrestled so powerfully, providing the details of his personal life only as incidental background. Thus, for example, while readers do learn of formative incidents during Dostoevskys four years in tsarist prison camp, what they see most clearly is how the prison experience deepened the authors faith in God while dampening his zeal for political reform. In a similar way, Frank limns only briefly the life experiences surrounding the writing of the major novels--Crime and Punishment, Demons, and Brothers Karamazov--devoting his scrutiny largely to how Dostoevsky develops the ideological tensions within each work. Readers consequently see, for instance, how Napoleonic illusions justify Raskolnikovs bloody crimes, how the Worship of Man dooms Kirillov to suicide, and how deep Christian faith enables Alyosha to resist Ivans corrosive rationalism. Yet while probing Dostoevskys themes, Frank also examines the artistry that gives them imaginative life, highlighting--for example--perspectival techniques that anticipate those of Woolf and Joyce. A masterful abridgement."--Bryce Christensen, Booklist (Starred Review)

"Frank displays a brilliant command of Dostoyevsky's heroic endeavors, and his biography reads readily, especially for such a scholarly work. It compares nicely with Leon Edel's multivolume biography of Henry James. Highly recommended."--Robert Kelly, Library Journal

"It is wonderfully lucidly written and a marvellous portrait of the man behind the books."--Nadine Gordimer, Independent

"This extraordinary biography succeeds in making both irony and great ideas wholly alive, immediately accessible to us. It is a great work, both of scholarship and of art."--A. S. Byatt, Sunday Times (London)

"A narrative of such compelling precision, thoroughness and insight as to give the reader a sense not just of acquaintanceship, but of complete identification with Dostoevsky, of looking through his eyes and understanding with his mind."--Helen Muchnic, Boston Globe

"One of the finest achievements of American literary scholarship."--Ren Wellek, Washington Post Book World

"Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time at last offers non-specialist readers access to the definitive biography of an important figure in the history of the novel. . . . Patient, cautious, critical but not judgmental, using clear language and a chronologically ordered narrative structure, Frank neutralises the unreliable and hysterical self-constructions of which his subject was capable. The result is like watching an artist building an intricate, large-scale painting around a single figure. . . . Frank's great insight is that, just as no one aspect of Dostoevsky's complex personality can be separated from the others, no part of his writing--whether aesthetic, moral, religious or political--can be quarantined from the others. Frank's biography honours the polyphony of Dostoevsky's novelistic imagination: even in truncated form, it is a rare triumph."--Geordie Williamson, Australian

"Frank's monumental five-volume study of Dostoevsky deserves to be read, if only as an inspiring lesson about how much more thrilling a focus on ideas can be than the standard biography's obsession with the connections between creativity and the subject's personal life. The series has been condensed with incisive care and respect, giving those with limited time (and budget) a chance to engage with a revelatory vision of the Russian writer's enduring greatness."--Bill Marx, PRI's "The World"

"This is the Dostoevsky we encounter in Joseph Frank's superb Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, a one-volume, 984-page condensation of Frank's five-volume biography of the author, written over the course of a long and distinguished career. . . . Few biographers could muster the intelligence and imagination needed to capture all this in a single tome. We should be grateful for Joseph Frank."--Peter Savodnik, Commentary

"With the publication of Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time earlier this year, a massive abridgement of five volumes written over three decades, Frank breaks once and for all with his early critic's stilted categories in portraying the human subject. His innovative method of biography, influenced heavily by literary criticism, starts with artistic expression and moves backward, seeking to carefully situate his subject within ideological context. . . . Without a doubt, the genius of Frank's form is in combining three modalities in crafting his narrative: literary criticism, social and intellectual history, and biography."--Aaron Stuvland, Politics and Culture

"Joseph Frank's magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevsky--one of the exemplary achievements of our era--has invaluably been published in an abridged one-volume edition."--Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

"The depth of Frank's achievement is to put the writer and his work in social, political, ideological and historical context."--Jeff Baker, Oregonian

"Most of us spend much of our life trying to understand only a handful of people we know and love, in a span of time usually extending just three generations (from our parents to our children). Imagine, then, devoting your life to trying to make sense of one other person long dead, whom you had necessarily never met, with whom you may have nothing in common, and whose times and works must always seem elusive, encoded and frustratingly out of your reach. In a pursuit of that kind, Leon Edel trudged through five volumes on Henry James, Robert Caro is working away on his fourth installment of Lyndon Johnson's biography, and Edmund Morris is finalizing his third book on Teddy Roosevelt. Joseph Frank, though, trumps them all. After writing Feodor Dostoevsky's biography in five volumes, Frank and a gifted editor (Mary Petrusewicz) have now turned that massive, interminable endeavour into an abridged, accessible one-volume edition."--Mark Thomas, Canberra Times

"Joseph Frank, emeritus professor of Slavic and comparative literature at Stanford and Princeton universities, fully grasped the pressure of the political and religious issues seething in and around the visionary author to whom he dedicated his career. It took him five highly praised volumes and 26 years (1976-2002) to give a full account of Dostoevsky's life, works and times; this new, hefty condensation was done in collaboration with editor and Russian scholar Mary Petrusewicz, on condition that the original five volumes remain in print, available to anyone 'wishing for a wider horizon.' . . . Frank's magisterial homage deserves no less recognition."--Judith Armstrong, The Age

"Frank's five-volume biography has been called 'magisterial' and monumental,' as well as 'nuanced,' 'lucid' and 'penetrating.' The same might be said of this shorter version."--Marilyn McEntyre, Christian Century

"Frank's contribution to understanding Dostoevsky is no less than Dostoevsky's own gift to the world of literature."--Sarthak Shankar, Organiser

From the Inside Flap

"Although the pace has quickened, the serene and magnificent persistence that Joseph Frank brought to his five volumes resonates fully in this distilled story. If (as Frank tells us) Dostoevsky felt ideas, then Frank feels biography at any scale, with a perfect sense of proportion."--Caryl Emerson, Princeton University, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature

"[This book] ensures Franks status as the definitive literary biographer of one of the best fiction writers ever."--David Foster Wallace

"The editing and deep thought that have gone into this magnificent one-volume condensation of Franks magnum opus are to be greatly admired. This is the best biography of Dostoevsky, the best reading of some of the major novels, the best cultural history of nineteenth-century Russia. Just the best."--Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University, author of Dostoevskys Unfinished Journey

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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Reading this book is uplifting.
Bill Strunk
Often is Frank's work called one of the greatest literary biographies of the past half-century and the best of Dostoevsky in any language.
A. Stuvland
I never expected that this 1,000-page book would be so interesting.
Ruth Lichter

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

75 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Bill Strunk on December 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As the published reviews indicate, the scholarship in this biography is exemplary. But what I find most appealing about it is the thoughtful, gentle tone. The facts are here, the big ideas are examined in detail, but more than that, the biographer conveys a deep sense of awe for his subject's extraordinary career, and a genuine affection for Dostoevsky's complex character. Reading this book is uplifting.
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55 of 61 people found the following review helpful By A. Stuvland on March 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In the 1960s, when Joseph Frank submitted his first manuscript for a volume on Dostoevsky's fiction to Oxford University Press one reader summarized its negative reception bluntly: "I don't see how Mr. Frank can write so many pages about Dostoevsky without saying anything of his life." With the publication of Dostoevsky: A Writer In His Time earlier this year, a massive abridgement of five volumes written over three decades, Frank breaks once and for all with his early critic's stilted categories in portraying the human subject. His innovative method of biography, influenced heavily by literary criticism, starts with artistic expression and moves backward, seeking to carefully situate his subject within ideological context. The conventional biographical point of view, Frank clarifies early on in his preface, does not do justice to the complexities of Dostoevsky's creations (xiii). Thus, a precise account of an era's ideological doctrines reflected and refracted in literary achievement is the best way to fully grasp that era's most dominating figures.

Frank's objective in the abridged version is unwavering: to furnish readers with the context--social, cultural, literary, and philosophic--that will help forward a better understanding of the work (xiv). Whether or not Frank's biographical approach ought to be generalized as a model is debatable but such an approach, few would contest, is uniquely useful for Dostoevsky; the Russian literary giant was so shaped and consumed by the intellectual debates in the second half of the 19th century that his writing emanates almost naturally in capturing and defining the era's ideological--and Western literature's eternal--strivings.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Here are some of the reasons to read DOSTOEVSKY: A WRITER IN HIS TIME, despite its formidable length: Because it itself is an abridgement of the five separate volumes (averaging 500 pages each) of the magisterial biography Joseph Frank wrote over a 25-year period. Because Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the world's greatest authors and, intellectually (as well as spiritually?), one of the most complex of the world's great writers. Because with Dostoevsky, knowledge of his life and times is more helpful in understanding his literary work than is true for many authors. And because Frank's biography - both in its original five volumes and in this one-volume abridgement - is the definitive study of Dostoevsky's life and work, at least in English (and is likely to remain so for decades to come).

Here are some of the major points discussed at some length in Frank's biography that are most germane to an understanding of Dostoevsky the author:

* Of all the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century - including Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy - Dostoevksy was the only one who did not come from a family belonging to the landed gentry. On his father's side, he was descended from Lithuanian nobility, but the family had fallen to "the lowly class of non-monastic clergy." While his family was not poor, it certainly was not wealthy, and in the course of his life Dostoevsky had much greater exposure to the Russian masses than, say, his contemporaries and rivals Turgenev and Tolstoy. One result was that throughout his life Dostoevsky evinced genuine empathy for the Russian peasantry still untouched by secular Western culture.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Chilton on August 24, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am an English teacher and lover of Dostoevsky for over 10 years.

This biography is the best biography of Dostoevsky and easily one of the greatest biographies of all time. I have no issues with the scholarship of the impeccable Joseph Frank or the readable style of his wonderful prose.

I simply want to warn potential buyers that this book has a few important faults:

1. It's size is gargantuan and hard to hold. Literally, your arms will tire trying to read this. The size puts unnecessary strain on the spine. It takes a solid month of heavy reading to finish it, so your arms will get a workout and the spine/covers will wear out. The individual five volumes are much more manageable in your arms and feel better as you read.

2. You miss a lot of great details by not reading the extensive five volume edition. I tried reading volume one side-by-side with this book and was surprised to see many important stories, illustrations, and interesting tidbits that were left out of this edition. I completely understand the rationale behind this: if they kept it all in it would be even bigger and more unwieldy (see problem #1).

In summary, if you have enough time and interest to read this 1,000 page biography of Dostoevsky you'd probably have enough time and interest to read the complete story, the way it was originally intended by Joseph Frank. Buy the hardcover (they're clothbound and ready to be read over and over for years to come)! Hope this review was helpful.
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