NEW YORK — Joseph Frank — whose magisterial, five-volume life of Fyodor Dostoevsky was frequently cited among the greatest of 20th-century literary biographies — died Wednesday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 94 and lived in Palo Alto.
The cause was pulmonary failure, his daughter Isabelle said.
Dr. Frank was an emerging critic in the early 1950s and preparing a lecture on existentialist themes in modern literature when, to provide historical background, he began studying and analyzing ‘‘Notes From Underground,’’ Dostoevsky’s anguished outcry in the voice of an embittered former civil servant, a novel that had influenced Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The close encounter with the text changed his life, pivoting his interest to the intellectual culture of 19th-century Russia and consuming him to the degree that he undertook to learn Russian.
The Dostoevsky biography, conceived as a single volume, began in earnest in the early 1970s and quickly outgrew Dr. Frank’s initial ambitions. His intention — and his eventual achievement — was to consider Dostoevsky’s work not primarily in the context of his life but as a reaction to life in czarist Russia and as part of the intellectual discourse of his nation and his time.
On the basis of only the first volume, ‘‘The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849,’’ published in 1976, which included an analysis of Dostoevsky’s first novel, the socialistic ‘‘Poor Folk,’’ critics were predicting a masterpiece: ‘‘Not only a great book about the early life of a great writer,’’ Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times Book Review, ‘‘but probably the best book any American writer has yet given us on the literary culture of 19th-century Russia.’’
And when the second volume, ‘‘Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859’’ emerged in 1984, dealing with his arrest and exile in Siberia for participating in a discussion group whose antiserfdom views were considered subversive, the praise grew stronger: ‘‘Everything about this ambitious enterprise is splendid: its intellectual seriousness, its command of the Russian setting and sources, its modesty of tone, its warm feeling,’’ Irving Howe wrote in The Times Book Review. ‘‘Dr. Frank is clearly on the way toward composing one of the great literary biographies of the age.”
Volumes III, IV and V — Dr. Frank completed the final volume in 2002 — dealt with Dostoevsky’s evolution from radical to reactionary as he wrote his best known and greatest works, including ‘‘Crime and Punishment,’’ “The Idiot,’’ and ‘‘The Brothers Karamazov.’’
The volume of works rivals Richard Ellmann’s writings on James Joyce, Walter Jackson Bate’s on John Keats, and Leon Edel’s on Henry James,
And in 2009, when he was already past 90, Dr. Frank completed a one-volume synopsis of the entire opus, published under the title ‘‘Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.’’
‘‘It’s now regarded as the best biography of Dostoevsky in any language, including Russian, which is really saying something,’’ said Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, referring to the five-volume work. ‘‘That’s more or less universal. And this is my opinion, I don’t know if others will agree, but it’s the best biography of any writer I’ve ever read.’’
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Frank leaves his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, a mathematician he met in Paris and whom he married in 1953; another daughter, Claudine; a brother, Walter; and two grandchildren.