Recalling a friendship with the late comp-lit professor

Joseph Frank taught comparative literature at Princeton from 1966 to 1985, and also directed the Gauss Seminars, before moving to Stanford. His two daughters, Claudine ’78 and Isabelle ’80, graduated from Princeton. And Princeton University Press published his magisterial five-volume life of Dostoevsky (1976-2002). He often returned to Princeton, where he owned a flat, en route to summers in France. He was always enthusiastic about his visits and sent me his impressions: “Our first response was very Californian and Western — everything seemed small and constricted, and we missed the wide-open horizons. But we also have the feeling of living in a community — amazing how many people we know, and meet everywhere we turn. And we still haven’t called up some of our old friends. … We really know a lot of people from the old days who seem eager to see us, and it’s nice to feel that one exists again. … Social life is much more active in Princeton, and we seem to be going out or receiving every night.” Alluding to the pernicious influence of French theory, which damaged the study of literature in America, he said, “I gave a lecture in my old Dept. (guess on what?), and it seems to have been a success. Maybe students are now so unused to hearing straight, comprehensible stuff that it strikes them as a wonderful novelty.” One hopeful sign was that the “biographical tradition in France is now being revived after the nonsense of structuralism. It was theory that killed biography here for a while, but it’s now coming back with a bang.”

The author, Jeffrey Meyers, left, with comparative literature professor Joseph Frank.
The author, Jeffrey Meyers, left, with comparative literature professor Joseph Frank.
PHOTO: COURTESY JEFFREY MEYERS

I had enthusiastically reviewed the first three volumes of his Dostoevsky. In 1992, after I’d left teaching and returned to Berkeley to live on my writing, my wife and I looked up Joe at Stanford. We had many interests in common and immediately hit it off. We then began our leisurely four-hour lunches, every two or three weeks, in our homes or at our favorite restaurants: the Iberia in Menlo Park and the Liaison in Berkeley. We swam in his pool in warm weather, went to art exhibitions in San Francisco, and had picnics in the Marine Headlands on the Pacific side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’m now exactly the same age — 73 — that Joe was when I first met him and his devoted, sharp-tongued French wife, Marguerite. He was 21 years older than me, and became an intellectual hero, father-figure, brother, mentor and friend. Joe was a tall, heavy, bald, white-fringed man, with defective vision and an occasional stammer. He moved slowly, and I was surprised to hear that he had once been an expert ballroom dancer. He read my books and essays, encouraged me, and liked my writing. Unlike many academic superstars who are notably arrogant and nasty, he was modest, gentle, and wise, with a brilliant mind and tender heart. His description of the Princeton professor Erich Kahler applied equally to himself: “a man of great kindness, human warmth, and an overflowing generosity of spirit.”

Learned, widely read, and well informed about a wide range of subjects, Joe could talk intelligently about almost anything. The depth of his knowledge was astonishing and delightful. We talked about our current work, classic and recent books, Russian writers from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn, major biographers, struggles with editors, conferences attended, favorite films (if not, for Joe, “too depressing”), mutual friends in Stanford and Berkeley, wide-ranging travels, current politics, children and grandchildren, jokes and literary gossip. It was especially interesting to compare our reviews of the same book, Olivier Todd’s excellent life of André Malraux I urged him to read the novels of Olivia Manning, J.F. Powers, and James Salter; he retaliated, unfairly I thought, by suggesting the German philosopher Max Scheler, “the founder of the sociology of knowledge.” 

I liked to hear Joe reminisce about distinguished writers who’d been his friends—Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, and Carlos Fuentes — and urged him (unsuccessfully) to write a memoir about them. He remembered Elizabeth Bishop telling him of her visits to Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C. and getting books for him from the Library of Congress. He recalled seeing Mary McCarthy in a hospital in New York, just before she died, and her pressing his hand at the time. He’d met the reclusive South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee, and found him “quite laconic and reserved, but with a kind of genuine inner warmth with people he likes.”

Joe once mentioned his student at Princeton who’d been Joseph Brodsky’s lover and was deeply hurt when he rejected her. Joe took her side and condemned Brodsky’s cruel behavior. Though Joe was a biographer, he discouraged me from contacting her, finding out more about her and asking if she were willing to talk (many people have an overwhelming need to tell their story). He tactfully said, “The incident in question occurred so long ago that I’ve forgotten the name you inquire about. Anyway, if it does come back, the encounter with Brodsky left such a wounding trace that I wouldn’t want to be responsible for recalling it.”

Joe grew up poor in the 1930s and was always politically engaged. When George Bush ordered the disastrous invasion of Iraq, Joe exclaimed, “I’ve never felt as outraged as I’ve become over this idiotic war, and never so torn in my feelings. Those poor Iraqis getting bombed, those poor soldiers dying and killing without knowing why, those cynical bastards in charge manipulating public opinion here and the media scared to ask why the hell we are in all this mess — I’ve never felt so disgusted with my own country.”

Joe had a wide range of friends. He introduced me to many Stanford colleagues, including Ian Watt, with whom I had clashed disastrously when I was his student at Berkeley, and enabled me to get on congenial terms with him. A tough, handsome Englishman with a strange gasping laugh, Ian had been captured at the fall of Singapore and survived as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai. Joe paid homage to Ian in his last book, Responses to Modernity, published when he was 93.

Joe also introduced me to the American biographer Curtis Cate, in his 80s and living in Paris, whom I liked and admired. Curtis was pleased that I owned his biographies of Saint-Exupéry, George Sand, and André Malraux, and grateful when I corrected errors in the British edition of his life of Nietzsche and helped him find an American publisher for that book. When I told Curtis that he should have written more about Nietzsche’s weird sex life, he bashfully replied, “Oh, no, Jeffrey; I leave that to you!” Joe and I, intrigued by Curtis’ frequent and mysterious winter visits to Moscow, later discovered — cherchez la femme—that he had a lady friend there, who looked after him during his last illness.

During the time I knew him, Joe was awarded honorary doctorates from Northwestern and the Sorbonne, and received a handsome sum from the Lannan Foundation. In November 1999 he wrote, “Something very nice happened to me quite unexpectedly — I just received a substantial grant out of the blue without having to do anything except write a letter in answer to a phone inquiry. I still don’t quite believe it. It’s enough to make me a devotee of New Age theology.”

Joe gave me generous help whenever he could. He recommended me for a Lannan grant (not awarded), and put me in touch with his editor at Barnes & Noble Classics, for which I wrote three long introductions. He also gave me the benefit of his considerable prestige by writing a selling blurb for my life of Edmund Wilson, whom he greatly admired: “Wilson’s life and work include an important stretch of the American cultural history of the twentieth century, and Jeffrey Meyers puts it all together for the first time with his practiced skill, indefatigable research and compulsive readability. A very valuable contribution to the study of our recent past!”

I was also able to help Joe, who could be rather naïve about publishing. I was honored to give him my editorial advice about cutting or revising his essays, and thought he should have been more critical of the highly praised Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, a zealous collaborator with the fascist Iron Guard in the 1930s. I also advised him about placing articles in journals and asking for higher fees. When his shy demands miraculously paid off, he told me, “the guy I’m dealing with upped the fee without a moment’s hesitation. I’m damned if I know what to say.” 

I wanted to organize a Festschrift for Joe’s 90th birthday, but could not rouse the Russian scholars and get them to participate. But I did arrange, with Bill Chace at Stanford, Joe’s 90th birthday party. With his younger daughter attending, we had a catered dinner, a case of wine and tributes by 15 friends. Soon after, with his usual warmth, Joe gratefully wrote, “I wish I had a castle in Spain that I could put at your disposal rent-free, with transportation also paid, to thank you for your wonderful contributions, both liquid and otherwise, to that splendid party at the Chaces’.” I wrote one of the few reviews of his Responses to Modernity, saying that it “exhibited a mastery of the historical, social, and philosophical background of many heavyweight European writers.” When I dedicated my book Orwell: Life and Art (2010) to him, Joe wrote, “I’m both touched and honored to accept the dedication of your book of essays. We’re now living in such a climate of lies that Orwell seems more contemporary than ever. … Thanks once more for the dedication — it’s the first one I’ve ever had.”

Joe had an unusual career. He was a journalist in Paris after World War II, got a late start in academic life after earning his doctorate at the University of Chicago, and learned to read (but not speak) Russian in middle age. His letters to me when he spent summers in Paris and in Collioure on the Mediterranean coast illuminate his work on Dostoevsky. “I don’t find the biographical sections difficult and quite enjoy writing them,” he said. “It’s the analysis of the works that poses the real problems for me.” After finishing the first draft of the last volume, he exclaimed, with justifiable pride, “Dostoevsky is already dead, and I’m now on the last few pages of the funeral. After that — the deluge of footnotes and second thoughts, as well as some extra reading (is one ever through!?). But the damned thing is done — over 1,000 pages of manuscript, and I think there’s a lot of good stuff in it.” I replied that I was through reading when I stopped finding anything new. But Joe felt some depression as well as exaltation after 30 years of work: “My own mood is up and down. I didn’t realize that finishing Dostoevsky would lead to such a sense of emptiness.” “What next?,” he asked, and briefly considered a life of Luigi Pirandello. Throughout his biography, Joe struggled to come to terms with Dostoevsky’s virulent anti-Semitism in what I called “The Brothers Karamazeltov.” Princeton University Press had accepted the final volume when Joe was in his 80s; and I was tremendously impressed that, not entirely satisfied with it (and unwilling to let go), he made another voluntary revision.

Joe’s biography — a synthesis of Russian history, personal fate, and literary evolution — revealed a masterly grasp of Dostoevsky’s complexity and a thorough presentation of the intellectual, cultural, social, and political background that shaped his mind and art. His second and most dramatic volume, on Dostoevsky’s years in Siberian prison and exile, showed that the psychological stress of the writer’s confinement and confrontation with death before a firing squad shaped his imagination, revealed new possibilities of literary creation, and inspired characters who express extreme states of feeling and embody contemporary ideas. Joe asked my wife to reduce his massive five-volume biography into one volume. But she thought our friendship might suffer if she got too involved in disputes about what should be deleted in this difficult project.

There was a sharp decline in Joe’s health after he fell off his motorized “scooter,” which he accidentally started as he dismounted. He broke no bones but was increasingly immobile and gradually weakened from a stiff walk to a cane, walker, wheelchair, and finally to bed. My visit on his 94th birthday in October 2012 distracted and cheered him. I asked what he was thinking about during his long days of confinement and if he wanted to dictate his thoughts to me. Though his mind was clear, he was too weak and weary to respond. Soon afterward, he made a surprising recovery, got out of bed, and even went down the steep inclinator and out of the house.

He inscribed all his books to me, and his generous words in the fourth volume of Dostoevsky summarized our relations: “For Jeffrey and Valerie Meyers — with admiration for an extraordinary biographer, and great affection for two friends and lively companions.” I felt privileged by his friendship and always listened intently to what he said while he sometimes held my wrist for emphasis. I’ll miss the benefit of his penetrating insights about my recent essays on Dostoevsky, Brodsky, and Coetzee. He taught me a great deal, enriched my life, and set a high intellectual standard, to which I aspired, in literary biography. 

Joe left behind a precious legacy: his books, his children and grandchildren, and his legion of friends in America and Europe. His critical position was similar to the one expressed in a letter of 1842 by the Swiss cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt: “My own substitute for abstract thought is my effort to achieve with every day a more intense immediacy in the perception of essentials. By nature I cling to the tangible, to visible reality, and to history. But I have a bent for incessantly looking for parallels in co-ordinating facts and have thus succeeded on my own in arriving at a few generalized principles.”

Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, recently has published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010) — his fifth work on Orwell — and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into 14 languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney.