Pursued by furies. Once condemned to death for treason, Dostoevsky eventually became Russia's national prophet. A S Byatt on an "unrepeatably individual, tormented and brilliant life"

Dostoevsky: the mantle of the prophet, 1871-1881

Joseph Frank <em>Robson Books, 784pp, £29.95</em>

After finishing the fifth volume of Joseph Frank's wonderful biography, I tried to put together the idea I had of Dostoevsky before and after reading it. I remembered my adolescent attempts to make sense of a whirling phantasmagoria in terms of Dickens's world - which revealed some things, and occluded others. I remembered my attempts to teach the novels in the 1960s - formalist and Freudian attempts, backed up by little or no historical knowledge, hampered by translation, coloured by Nathalie Sarraute's praise, in The Age of Suspicion, for his foreshadowing of the disintegration of "character" into "tropisms" of behaviour. I remembered my own amazement, not as a critic but as a novelist, at the apparent open-endedness and chaos of both plot and structure in The Idiot, during its serial writing and publication, which can be seen in the Notebooks. And yet The Idiot felt both coherent and ineluctably formed.

Frank prefaces this fifth volume with a reminder that he began his task as a literary critic, not as a biographer or a cultural historian. He is interested in reading the novels, and was dissatisfied with existentialist and Freudian readings that ignored Dostoevsky's socio-political ideas, and his messianic and eschatological vision. He found he needed to repair Anglo-Saxon ignorance of Russian cultural history - and in doing so, he has helped me at least to read and understand for the first time much in (and beyond) Dostoevsky's novels. This book covers Dostoevsky's last years, from 1871-81, and is particularly concerned with the transition among Russian thinkers from Nihilism to Populism.

The final part of Demons (also translated as The Possessed, or The Devils) appeared in 1873. It dealt with a real contemporary incident - the murder, by the nihilist Nechaev, of a fellow- conspirator, to silence him. Throughout the 1860s, Frank writes, Dostoevsky had been exposing the dangers of Russian nihilism, which was based on "rational egoism", and "a purely home-brewed mixture of Benthamite utilitarianism, atheism and utopian socialism". Dostoevsky believed that these ideas were imported from France, Germany and Britain and he himself, at this stage of his life, believed in Orthodox Christianity, the tsar, and the superiority of purely Russian culture and feelings. In the 1870s, idealistic young Russians gave up abstract arguments in favour of "going to the people", looking in villages for some Arcadian innocence and for a way to be useful. At this time, Dostoevsky became editor of The Citizen and offered his next novel to Notes of the Fatherland, edited by Nikolay Nekrasov, which was the leading Populist journal. Dostoevsky continued to believe that socialism, and Populism, were ultimately misguided because, in his view, they were essentially atheistic, and relied on flawed reason. But he found the Populists, with their respect for the "Russian people's truth" and Christ's teachings, less repugnant than the scientific atheists and anarchists, like Turgenev's Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons, or his own Raskolnikov and Stavrogin.

Between 1873 and 1881, at first as a column in The Citizen, and subsequently in monthly book format (intermittently), Dostoevsky published his Diary of a Writer, in which he created a new form, unlike anything I know by any other novelist. In it he commented on news and social problems, told anecdotes and discussed his own projects for fiction in the making, was satirical and sentimental, factual and visionary. It is part of its nature that it was first proposed by one of his characters, Lizaveta Nikolaevna Tushina in Demons, as a project for the subsequently murdered Shatov. Her idea was to combine the ephemeral newspaper reports of facts into yearly books. Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer is both a work of art in itself and a demonstration of how the art of fiction relates to "facts" - and to opinions.

Dostoevsky defined his own fiction as "fantastic realism". Its wild, phantasmagoric quality was intimately connected with his sense of the importance of the true sensational stories which appeared daily in the press. "For our writers, they are fantastic; they pay no attention to them, and yet they are reality because they are facts." Classic realist fiction concerns itself with the probable - characters like Anna Karenina and Vronsky are moving because the reader comes to understand that they are behaving as such lovers in such a situation must behave. All fictional narratives, to put it differently, show people who are both individuals and recognisable types. A writer can show his wise understanding of psychology. Or, like Dostoevsky, he can look for his types in the mess and furore of newspaper reality. And he can comment on his own observations.

(It might be observed that the existence of this plethora of self-observation and comment makes life difficult for a biographer, particularly for a biographer like Joseph Frank, whose skill is in teasing out the relations between particular fictions and the events in the world, and Dostoevsky's life, that are wound into them. It is not easy to tell a story if your subject has already told it himself, in a way both virtuoso and tendentious. Frank imitates Dostoevsky by telling his readers that he had to rewrite and restructure his treatment of the Diary. He has solved his own aesthetic problem excellently.)

There are several themes that recur in both Diary and fiction, and turn out to be interconnected, sometimes surprisingly. There are many instances of Dostoevsky studying cruelty to children, from Hans Andersen-like fantasies of starving children dreaming of feasts to very real studies of trials of child-torturers or child-murderers, and the instincts of juries composed of the not-long-emancipated People - all of which illuminate the Brothers Karamazov to come. More startling is the relation of a series of reflections and stories about suicide to a series of discussions and representations of utopian visions, and ideas of the Golden Age.

In the Diary for October 1876, Dostoevsky published an item entitled "Two Suicides". The context is significant - his descriptions follow a record of a discussion with another writer about the way art "always comes out weaker than real life". Dostoevsky claims that vision and depth can be found in "facts" if you have the capacity. A Shakespeare may see all the meaning in a fact. Even to simplify and understand "requires some artistry". A man incapable even of that may "resort to simplification of another sort and very simply plant a bullet in his head so as to quench at one stroke his tormented mind and all its questions". Suicide as a response to intractable facts. He follows this with the account of the suicide of a daughter of one "very well-known Russian emigre" (in fact, Alexander Herzen, the great socialist writer) who chloroformed herself, leaving a note that her resurrection if it happened, should be feted with Veuve Clicquot - and that if she did not wake, her family was to make sure she was completely dead, as to awaken underground "would not be chic at all!" Dostoevsky detects a challenge in "this nasty, vulgar chic" and wonders if she was angry about life's banality.

"The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" appeared in the Diary in April 1877. It is a fantastic fable about a young man whose mind is quite made up to shoot himself - which leads him to ignore the pathetic pleas of a suffering little girl on the streets. He dreams that he shoots himself - in the heart - and is buried. He is quite calm in his coffin (unlike Ms Herzen), although indignant about leaks. But he is taken up by a spirit and conveyed through the universe to a planet exactly resembling earth, except that it exists in a blissful Golden Age, where the people all love each other, and love also even the trees, to which they speak and by which they are understood. This planet is corrupted by the narrator himself, who introduces discord, and with it science, ideas about justice, the guillotine and persecution of animals. He awakes a changed man and goes to look for the child he spurned.

Throughout Dostoevsky's work of this period, the idea of a classical golden age, a utopian vision of human harmony on earth, both in a lost past and in a projected future, is set against the Christian story of suffering on earth, the Second Coming, and the promise of resurrection and immortality. For Dostoevsky, the idea of the Golden Age is associated with Claude Lorrain's Acis and Galatea, which he had seen in Dresden in 1867. It is described by Stavrogin in the cancelled chapter of Demons that contained his confession. He describes its beauty - "the cradle of European civilisation, the first scenes of mythology, of the earthly paradise" where people "woke up and fell asleep happy and innocent". Having deleted this vision from his presentation of Stavrogin, Dostoevsky was able to rework it in a dream of Versilov, the interesting liberal Russian nobleman who is the father of the narrator, Arkady, in A Raw Youth (1875).

A Raw Youth is an interesting mixture of weak melodrama and subtle characterisation. It is about the new kind of confused family - Arkady is the illegitimate son of Versilov and one of his emancipated serfs, unsure of his place in society and ready to hate his father. Versilov is related to the wonderful Stepan Trofimovich in Demons, a westernised liberal who has travelled abroad, and has seen the destruction of the French Commune and the sacking of the Tuileries. Versilov's vision of an atheistic golden age is profoundly moving in its sadness. When "the great idea of immortality" would set like Claude Lorrain's sun, human beings would have to fill God's place themselves "and all the wealth of love lavished of old upon Him who was immortal would be turned upon the whole of nature, on the world, on man, on every blade of grass". The result would be a tragic golden age. "Men left forlorn would begin to draw together more closely and more lovingly; they would clutch one another's hands, realising that they were all that was left for one another."

The suicide of Kirillov in Demons is one of the most real and terrible scenes in any novel. At the same time, Kirillov's self-destruction is one of the most clearly articulated presentations of Dostoevsky's ideas about its necessity, or inevitability, in a godless world. Kirillov, like Dostoevsky's fellow-conspirators in the old days of the Petrashevsky circle, is taken by a vision that owes much to Feuerbach's ideas about the origins of religion. According to Feuerbach, the idea of God is a human self-projection, and the Trinity represents human ways of thinking about aspects of human nature. Mature and wise human beings, mature and wise civilisations, would come to understand this, would see that the true object of veneration was the species itself. They would come to see that man was god. They would come, in Dostoevsky's formulation, to replace the God-man with the man-god.

Kirillov talks something between sense and nonsense. He loves life, he claims, and has resolved to shoot himself, because "Life is, and death is not at all." Once a man has come to love life, and to understand that it is all there is, it becomes a matter of indifference to him whether he is alive or dead. Everything is good. He himself will be the future man-god, who will enter eternity because he understands that "there are moments, you reach moments, and time suddenly stops and will be eternal".

Here - as throughout Dostoevsky's work - his ideas on suicide and utopia meet his belief in Christianity as a historical and eschatological truth. These suicides take their perpetrators outside meaningless time. The utopias exist also outside time, both lovely and un- real. Christianity is a story, embedded in history, whose events are in themselves meanings. Dostoevsky's fictions can only be read in terms of the Christian story.

Dostoevsky characterised A Raw Youth as a picture of the disintegration of Russian social and family life, depicting an "accidental family" in which the youth in question is illegitimate, and has to come to terms with his real father and his legal peasant father, in a maze of confused identities. The notes for this novel are initially combined with notes for what would eventually become The Brothers Karamazov, a more profound study of the internecine conflicts (and curious affinities) of an accidental family. In his self-commentary in the Diary in January 1876, he wrote that he had "almost begun my Fathers and Children, but I held back, and thank God I did, for I was not ready". His novels of accidental families are planned against the families depicted by Turgenev and Tolstoy. (He keeps explaining how much more modern his people are than the aristocratic Rostovs.) But they are also planned among a series of unwritten mythical projects - the Life of a Great Sinner, a Russian Candide, a book on Jesus Christ - and Dostoevsky's own memoirs. It is often pointed out that Freud admired The Brothers Karamazov as the essential novel of patricide - but it is a novel written within the form of the Christian story of the sacrificed Son and the just Father.

The different kinds of narrative within that novel are like a kaleidoscope of ways of telling the human story. There is the form of the courtroom drama, which Dostoevsky had publicly observed in the reportage of the Diary. There is the fabular form of the rational Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, who makes the socialist point that bread comes before anything else - and this form is made more riddling by it being the same Ivan who sees the real/unreal sleazy minor devil and cannot, to his own horror, tell dream-life from real life. There is the complication of the bonhomous everyday narrator, a kind of homme moyen sensuel who does not comprehend what he relates, and thus also makes it mysterious. There is the use of the rambling, inconsequential, Russian "saint's life" to present Father Zosima on his deathbed, and within that the unforgettable Christian parable of the old woman and the onion. All these tales and lived arguments do add up to one imaginative whole, which has to be experienced as a whole - if Dostoevsky has succeeded. Many thought, like D H Lawrence, that he had not: Lawrence believed that Dostoevsky was punishing his only good character, Ivan, and that he was, like Blake's Milton, "of the Devil's party without knowing it".

He was apprehensive himself. He wrote to his editors just before writing Zosima's deathbed scene, insisting that it would be "not preaching, but a kind of story, the story of his life. If I succeed I'll have done a good thing. I'll have forced people to recognise that a pure ideal Christian is not an abstract matter but one graphically real, possible, standing before our eyes, and that Christianity is the only refuge of the Russian land from its evils." Such a theme he said, did not occur to Russia's modern writers, and was absolutely original. "The whole novel is being written for its sake, but only let it succeed, that's what worries me now!"

Here the prophet meets the artist. The Brothers Karamazov is a cosmic - and occasionally simply a Russian - battlefield between the world where the angels of immortality, Christian praxis and peasant wisdom fight the demons of socialism, materialism, pure reason and enlightened self-interest.

"Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" asked St Paul. It has taken me years to form an idea of why it was important to Dostoevsky that Zosima's corpse should rot and stink. I think now that it was because, in the world of the Christian story, real death must precede the resurrection. Zosima's stinking body is the necessary experience of death itself.

Frank's biography, and this review, have been about the form of the ideas that went to make the novels - on the assumption that great art is the most important thing in a great artist's life. Frank does tell us the events in the biography of the man - the emphysema and epilepsy that plagued him, his love for his resourceful wife, the sudden death of his small son, his arrival (he who had once been condemned to death for treason) as a national prophet, a Russian sage. Frank describes his triumph with his Pushkin speech in 1880, where he outshone Turgenev, who nevertheless embraced him. He points out that it was the huge success of the Diary that led to Dostoevsky's final status as a Russian symbol.

Dostoevsky knows about life and death, and about how demons enter into swine - and that is why we trust him, even though demons, including virulent anti-Semitism, entered into him. Joseph Frank's tale of his life - an unrepeatably individual, tormented and brilliant life, a significant life in the story of Russian thought and art, and of the history of the novel in the world - illuminates both the particular and the general. We are grateful for its expansiveness and its detail.

A S Byatt's latest novel is A Whistling Woman (Chatto & Windus)

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