Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, January 22, 2012

While the World's Still Small

So it turns out that Elif Batuman once nearly told a dirty joke in front of Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky scholar and subject of David Foster Wallace's essay "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky":

The joke involves the comic exchange between Thor and a farmer's daughter. "I AM THOR!" says Thor, to which the farmer's daughter replies: "I'm thor, too, but I had tho much fun!"

"So Thor comes down to earth for a day," I began, when I suddenly became conscious that Joseph Frank-the Stanford emeritus famous for his magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevsky-had abandoned the lively discussion he had been having with a Berkeley professor about Louis XIII. Both were regarding me from across the table with unblinking interest.

"You know," I said to Anna, "I just remembered it's kind of an inappropriate joke. Maybe I'll tell you another time.
And but so, although he doesn't come out and say it in the essay, I get the sense that Wallace was a Dostoevsky partisan in the bitter Tolstoy/Dostoevsky debate. ("You need only compare the protagonists' final conversions in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and FMD's Crime and Punishment in order to appreciate Dostoevksy's ability to be moral without being moralistic.")

(A macabre sidenote: DFW wrote the essay when Frank had published only four volumes of the biography, and DFW speculated about whether Frank would live to publish the fifth. He did - almost a year after DFW's suicide.)

Personally I don't think Dostoevsky can hold a candle to Tolstoy. This passage from Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman spells out the thoughts of a fellow Tolstoy advocate (a more ardent one than I):

Karimov turned to Madyarov.

'Leonid Sergeich, how can you reconcile your earlier hymn to Dostoyevsky with this passionate speech in praise of Chekhov and his humanity? Dostoyevsky certainly doesn't consider everyone equal. Hitler called Tolstoy a degenerate, but they say he has a portrait of Dostoyevsky hanging in his office. I belong to a national minority myself. I'm a Tartar who was born in Russia and I cannot pardon a Russian writer his hatred of Poles and Yids. No - even if he is a genius. We had more than enough blood spilt in Tsarist Russia, more than enough of being spat at in the eye. More than enough pogroms. A great writer in this country has no right to persecute foreigners, to despise Poles and Tartars, Jews, Armenians and Chuvash.'

The grey-haired, dark-eyed Tartar smiled haughtily and angrily - like a true Mongol. Still addressing Madyarov, he continued:

'Perhaps you've read Tolstoy's Hadji Mourat? Perhaps you've read The Cossacks? Perhaps you've read the story "A Prisoner in the Caucasus"? They were written by a Russian count. While Dostoyevsky was a Lithuanian. As long as the Tartars remain in existence, they will pray to Allah on behalf of Tolstoy.'

Viktor looked at Karimov, thinking: 'Well, well. So that's how you feel, is it?'
(Note: I can't vouch for the Hitler thing.)

Karimov's peroration reminds me of Elif Batuman's blog post on Michael Steele's mangling of the opening line of War and Peace, which includes this aside: "Note to self: could the entire dissatisfied-Muppet/ Grover relationship be based on the tense interchange between Oblonsky and the Tartar waiter?"

Batuman goes on to discuss DFW in the comments section to the post.


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