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Dostoevskii, Cervantes, Malraux, Kafka, Goya, Dickens, Twain…

June 7, 2012

I’m always glad when the non-Russian blogs I read overlap with the nineteenth-century Russian literature beat, like when Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes from a 1954 interview with Ralph Ellison (full interview):

INTERVIEWER

Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.

ELLISON

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.

I read this and thought “a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism” sounded like the part of Notes from Underground (and to some extent Crime and Punishment) that Joseph Frank would later emphasize. And then I remembered this from volume 4 (1995) of Frank’s 5 volumes on Dostoevskii:

As I was writing this preface, word reached me of the death of another cherished friend, Ralph Ellison, and I should like to record here how grateful I have always been to him over the years for our conversations about Dostoevsky just as I was on the point of launching out on a book (!) about him. The enthusiastic support he offered to such an idea was greatly heartening, and I still have the volume of Dostoevsky’s essays that he plucked off his bookshelf (we shared neighboring offices in Rutgers University) and gave me as a gift. I never pick it up without remembering the warmth of his friendship and the brilliance of his own assimilation of Dostoevsky, both in his magnificent Invisible Man and in his critical essays. (xiii)

I wish I had been able to overhear their conversations about Dostoevskii, and I guess I’m lucky that I can read what they wrote about him.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2012 9:35 am

    Fascinating! I love these kinds of unsuspected connections (and I’m very much looking forward to reading Frank in tandem with Dostoevsky when I make my way to that particular mountain range).

    • June 17, 2012 7:50 pm

      I can’t recommend Frank highly enough. I hope you enjoy reading the two together, and I look forward to someday reading your impressions!

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