Letter 12: “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky”


Dear Mr. Wallace,

I am beginning to wonder if I should send my master’s degree back to National University and ask for a refund.  Your essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky” is the third one in this book written about an author that I know by name, but have not read.  You wrote a rather unfavorable review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time; I have only read his short story, “A & P.”  You wrote about Kafka’s unorthodox sense of humor; I know the basic premise of Metamorphosis, but haven’t read it yet. 

Now you add Dostoyevsky to my list of unread authors.  But this time, it’s not for a lack of trying.  About fifteen years ago, I attempted The Brothers Karamazov.  I think I got about fifty pages into it before giving up.[1]  I was supposed to read Crime and Punishment for one of my master’s courses.  But I must confess that I Sparknoted my way through it.  See, it was my last academic class and I had already read Madame Bovary and The Awakening during the first three weeks of the four-week course on Psychological Realism.  So I had one week to read the 400-page Crime and Punishment.  I was in the process of writing my term paper on a scene in Madame Bovary, and only needed to write an online discussion board post for C&P.  I was also in the middle of writing my thesis, which seemed to be the higher priority at the time.  So given the circumstances, I felt justified in relying on the summary of the book rather than the book itself.[2]  But I digress.

I remember enjoying what I read of both The Brothers K and C&P.  The language was so very rich, like biting into a thick fudge brownie.  That linguistic richness made for slow, sometimes arduous reading – probably why I never made it more than fifty pages in – but I believe you when you say it is worth the effort.  When I am done reading your books, I promise I will read one of Dostoyevsky’s books.

In your essay about Joseph Frank’s work, you highlight the fact that Frank does not merely offer a literary criticism of Dostoyevsky’s writings.  He goes into the cultural, ideological, and philosophical beliefs that undergird Dostoyevsky’s books.  Dostoyevsky led a fascinating life and wrote during a fascinating time in Russian history, and that is reflected in his literature.  Frank’s series of books are equal parts biography and criticism.  For how can you truly separate a man’s writing from the world from which he comes?[3]

Reading this essay made me genuinely interested in reading FMD’s books.  But more importantly, it got me thinking about your works, Mr. Wallace.  What are the cultural, ideological, and philosophical beliefs that undergird your writings?  What was your world like as you grew up and went to school and began writing?  Who were the great influences who helped shape your worldview? 

You had an incredibly unique perspective on the world around you.  You had an ability to peel back the surface and see things and people for what and who they really are.  You found the irony and sometimes the comedy in the ordinary and banal.  And then you had a way of using exactly the right words to say exactly what you wanted to say.  Your economy of words[4] is unparalleled.  Where did all of this come from?

I guess I’ve got some extra homework to do.


[1] But to my defense, I was young and naïve.  I had not even switched my major to English Literature yet.

[2] Just please don’t tell my professor* or my students.  I don’t want my grade retracted, and I don’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

*I purposely left his name out just in case someone felt the need to take the moral high ground and turn me in.

[3] Although the literary school of New Criticism seeks to do just that.  Their mantra is “The text alone.”

[4] A phrase that seems an oxymoron given the length of some of your books.

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