Years ago, Joseph Frank set out to write a book on Dostoevsky. He wound up writing five; they now comprise a massive, five-volume biography of the great Russian writer. A sixth book–a one-volume, 959-page condensation of the other five–is now out, and Frank recently recorded an NRO podcast. We discuss several subjects, including why 21st-century American conservatives seem to like Dostoevsky so well.
Months ago, when I started to compile a list of great conservative novels for NR, I asked readers to recommend titles. Many suggested books by Dostoevsky. (Some of the conversation took place here.) We eventually restricted the NR list to American writers of the last half-century or so. (The final results are here.) This of course ruled out Dostoevsky. But I still wanted to probe the question of why Dostoevsky appeals to conservatives. Frank says it’s because he defended traditional Christian values from assaults by radicals. In the preface to Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Frank writes:
No modern writer rivals Dostoevsky in the grandeur of his presentation of this eternal Christian dilemma–the fierceness of his attack on the presumed goodness of God, on the one hand, through Ivan Karamazov, and his attempt to counter it with the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor and the preaching of Father Zosima on the other. These pages bring Dostoevsky into the company of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, and of Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare, rather than of fellow novelists, who rarely venture into such exalted territory. Each of his central figures is elaborated on a richly symbolic scale influenced by some of the greatest works of Western literature, among which his own novel now takes an undisputed place.
I also asked Frank to pick a title for first-time Dostoevsky readers. He suggests Crime and Punishment. So maybe The Brothers Karamazov is something to work toward.
Next week’s podcast: Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System.