Joseph Frank, 1918-2013

Joseph Frank, biographer of Dostoevsky and a brilliant literary critic, died on Wednesday. Perhaps Frank's most influential argument was that modern literature was defined by "spatial form." Frank showed that modern novels likeUlysses andNightwood regularly favor simultaneity over sequence, asking the reader to, as he puts it, "suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of individual reference can be apprehended as a unity." In other words, to read the modern novel, you must read it like a poem--which is to say, you must re-read it (and then re-read it again).Frank is most well known, though, for writing his epic, five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. I know, every biography is described as "magisterial," but this one really was: deeply researched and endlessly rich in its readings of Dostoevsky's life and work. Frank's biography also served as the starting point for one of David Foster Wallace's greatest essays, appropriately titled "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky." The piece ends with Wallace calling for contemporary writers to reclaim the seriousness of Dostoevsky's vision, a vision that Frank elucidated as powerfully as anyone:

So he [Wallace means the contemporary writer]--we, fiction writers--won't (can't) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. The project would be like Menard'sQuixote. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn't (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How--for a writer today, even a talented writer today--to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models. Frank's books make one of them concrete and alive and terribly instructive.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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