Review: The real-life demons that drove Dostoevsky to write his masterpiece

An illustration of a man attacking a person in bed with a knife.
An illustration of Pierre François Lacenaire, a French killer who partly inspired “Crime and Punishment,” in a magazine Dostoevsky discovered in his research.
(Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo)

On the Shelf

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

By Kevin Birmingham
Penguin: 432 pages, $30

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Burdened by gambling debts so onerous he feared imprisonment (again), suffering debilitating epileptic seizures and reeling from the deaths of his wife and his brother, Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1865 began what would be a masterpiece. “Nothing of this kind has yet been written among us,” he told a friend. “I guarantee its originality, yes, and also its power to grip the reader.”

Crime and Punishment” would live up to its author’s hyperbole, though only after a difficult and agonizing birth. Written rapidly, in panic, to stave off his creditors, the 90-page story he planned morphed into the hefty novel that, though dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov as “so crude and so inartistic,” earned its place in the canon of world literature.

The creditors whom Kevin Birmingham relied on to write “The Sinner and the Saint” — a dexterous biblio-biography about how “Crime and Punishment” came to be born — include a formidable array of scholars as well as Dostoevsky himself. Yet the biographer betrays no sign of panic. The tale he tells is rich, complex and convoluted, and though he must have struggled in constructing it, Birmingham writes with the poise and precision his subject sometimes lacked. (Though it worked out all right for him.)

A man with a long beard.
A portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky from Kevin Birmingham’s book “The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece.”
(Corbis via Getty Images)

Dostoevsky struggled to craft an account by Raskolnikov, a brooding law school dropout, of how he killed a pawnbroker and her half sister with an ax. At a crucial point, he grew disgusted with what he had written, discarded it all and started from scratch. What enabled him to find traction was his decision to switch from first-person narration to an intimate third-person perspective, a vantage point that would, he said, be “invisible but omniscient.” As Birmingham asks, “Why not peer over Raskolnikov’s shoulder while he’s face-to-face with the stupid, deaf, sick, greedy pawnbroker, waiting for his moment?”

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Birmingham himself applies this approach to Dostoevsky, peering over the Russian master’s shoulder as he peers over Raskolnikov’s. The result is a book about a book, an inside look at literary creation. The reader becomes a spectator to the construction of “Crime and Punishment” while learning a great deal along the way about the criminal justice system in 19th-century Russia, temporal lobe epilepsy, promissory notes, phrenology, gold mining, nihilism and much else.

“A man would turn over half a library to make one book,” claimed Samuel Johnson. The principle is no less true for those who write one book about one other book. Michael Gorra’s “Portrait of a Novel” (2012) and Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” (2014) both benefit from their authors’ extensive acquaintance with more than just “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Middlemarch,” respectively. John Livingston Lowes filled more than 600 pages of “The Road to Xanadu” (1927) while documenting the books Samuel Taylor Coleridge read before writing two poems.

This is not even Birmingham’s first book about a book; In 2015’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses,” he did for the quintessential modernist novel what he now does for Dostoevsky’s quintessential Russian novel. However, while much of the earlier volume focuses on efforts to ban and even burn “Ulysses” after it was published, “The Sinner and the Saint” concludes when the final paragraphs of “Crime and Punishment” are written. It is less interested in the reception of Dostoevsky’s novel than the experiences — including a commuted death sentence and four years of hard labor in Siberia for socialist sympathies — that led him to write it.

A page from one of Fyodor Dostoevsky's notebooks, with drawings of faces and writing.
A page from one of Dostoevsky’s notebooks, 1865, when he was trapped in his German hotel unable to pay his bill — the beginnings of his notes toward “Crime and Punishment.”
(NIOR RGB / RGALI / Penguin Press)

One crucial influence was the case of Jean-François Lacenaire, a sociopathic French poet who was executed in 1836. Dostoevsky translated and published an account of Lacenaire’s sensational crimes, including an ax murder, in Vremya, a magazine he edited. Birmingham braids together chapters paralleling Lacenaire’s trajectory toward the guillotine, Raskolnikov’s toward imprisonment and Dostoevsky’s toward completion of his book. Though Lacenaire is not always as interesting as Raskolnikov or Dostoevsky, the crosscutting is generally effective at suggesting similarities and sources. As Birmingham notes, the failed attempt on April 4, 1866 by a young revolutionary to assassinate Tsar Alexander II also inspired Dostoevsky during the final stages of composition.

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For all the research Birmingham brings to bear, “Crime and Punishment” is not thinly veiled true crime. Nor is it a whodunit, because it is clear from the outset that Raskolnikov is the perp. Instead of teasing the reader with the question of who is guilty of two grisly homicides, the novel entices us to turn its pages to find out why. And yet, Raskolnikov remains confused about his own motives: Does he kill the old pawnbroker to appropriate her valuables for himself or for others? Or is the killing an experiment to test his theory that ordinary moral constraints do not apply to superior individuals?

So it is with Birmingham’s mystery: We already know “Crime and Punishment” was written and published. Instead, the questions that drive this book are: How and why?

Kevin Birmingham. the author of "The Sinner and the Saint."
(Liz Linder)

Birmingham contends that Dostoevsky wrote “a novel about the trouble with ideas. It is not a novel of ideas.” The ideas that collide in Raskolnikov’s fevered mind are never resolved, in part because of how the novel was constructed — in haste and in chapters that appeared serially. While working on the opening section, Dostoevsky did not anticipate that the benevolent prostitute Sonya and the scoundrel Svidrigailov would later seize control of the narrative. The novel’s power derives from its anxious incoherence.

Birmingham has a different task in this book about a book. In contrast to the untidy brilliance of its subject, “The Sinner and the Saint” is an admirably lucid distillation of hundreds of other texts, including Joseph Frank’s monumental five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. And yet, in its category, it is an audacious effort — especially given that Birmingham was dependent on others to translate sources from Russian and French for him. Not by or for an academic specialist, his book instead invites any English-language reader to peer over a famously tormented Russian author’s shoulder while his deathless novel comes to life.

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