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

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Sinners and Saints: Dostoevsky and the Gentle Assassins Who Inspired a Masterpiece

by Kevin Birmingham
Penguin: 432 pages, $30


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Burdened by gambling debts, he feared imprisonment (again), suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures and began a masterpiece after recovering from the deaths of his wife and his brother, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in 1865. “Nothing of this sort has been written between us yet,” he told a friend. “I guarantee its originality, yes, and also its power to capture the reader.”

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“Crime and Punishment” will live up to its author’s exaggeration, although only after a difficult and painful birth. Increasingly, in panic, to deter his creditors, he planned a 90-page story, which he adapted into the larger novel, which, however, dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov as “so crude and so passive”, World earned its place in the theory of literature.

The creditors whom Kevin Birmingham trusted to writesinners and saints“How about an accomplished bibliography-biography”crime and punishmentwas born—along with a formidable range of scholars—including Dostoevsky himself. Yet the biographer shows no sign of panic. The story he tells is rich, complex, and complex, and though he has to make it Birmingham wrote about that subject with the poise and accuracy sometimes lacking (though it worked fine for him.)

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

Dostoevsky struggles to prepare an account by Raskolnikov, a brooding law school dropout, of how he killed a moneylender and his half-sister with an axe. At one critical point, he became disgusted with what he had written, abandoned everything 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 which, he said, would be “invisible but omniscient.” As Birmingham asks, “Why not look over Raskolnikov’s shoulder while he is face to face with the stupid, deaf, sick, greedy moneylender, waiting for his moment?”

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

Samuel Johnson claimed, “One man will turn half a library to make a book.” This principle is no less true for those who write a book about another. Michael Gora’s “Picture of a Novel” (2012) and Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” (2014) Both benefit from the wider familiarity of their authors with more than “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Middlemarch”, respectively. John Livingston Lowes filled over 600 pages of “The Road to Xanadu” (1927), documenting the books read by Samuel Taylor Coleridge before writing the two poems.

It is also not Birmingham’s first book about a book; In 2015’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce Ulysses”, He did the same for the quintessential modernist novel that he now does for Dostoevsky’s quintessential Russian novel. However, while most of the earlier volumes focused on attempts to ban and even burn “Ulysses” after it was published, “The Sinner and the Saint” concludes with “Crime and Punishment”. The last paragraphs are written. It is less interested in the reception of Dostoevsky’s novel than the experiences—which included a commuted death sentence and four years of hard labor for socialist sympathizers in Siberia—that inspired him to write it.

A page from Fyodor Dostoevsky's notebook, with a drawing of a face and writing.
A page from Dostoevsky’s 1865 notebook, when he was trapped in his German hotel unable to pay his bill – the beginning of his notes towards “Crime and Punishment”.

An important influence was the case of Jean-François Lesnare, a sociopathic French poet who was executed in 1836. Dostoevsky translated and published an account of Lesnire’s sensational crimes, including the murder of an axe, in Vermea, a journal he had edited. Birmingham stitches together parallel chapters on the trajectory of Lesnire towards the guillotine, towards the imprisonment of Raskolnikov and towards the completion of Dostoevsky’s own book. Although the lakenier is not always as interesting as Raskolnikov or Dostoevsky, crosscutting is generally effective at suggesting similarities and sources. As Birmingham notes, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander II by a young revolutionary on April 4, 1866 also inspired Dostoevsky during the final stages of the composition.

For all the research Birmingham bears, “Crime and Punishment” is not true crime. Nor is it a whodunit, as it is clear from the outset that Raskolnikov is Perp. Rather than tease the reader with the question of who is guilty of the two horrific murders, the novel prompts us to turn its pages to find out. Why, And yet, Raskolnikov remains confused about his own motives: does he kill the old moneylender in order to seize his valuables for himself or for others? Or is the murder an experiment to test his theory that ordinary moral constraints do not apply to superior persons?

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

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

Birmingham argues that Dostoevsky wrote “a novel about trouble with ideas. It is not a novel”. NS Thoughts.” The thoughts that clash in Raskolnikov’s febrile mind are never resolved, partly because of how the novel was created—hastily and in chapters that appeared sequentially. While working on the opening section, Dostoevsky had not anticipated that the philanthropic prostitute Sonya and the scoundrel Svidrigailov would later take control of the narrative. The novel’s power derives from its worrying inconsistency.

This book contains a book about Birmingham having a different function. In contrast to the unclean genius of its subject, “The Sinner and the Saint” is an admirably clear distillation of hundreds of other texts, including Joseph Frank’s five-volume monumental biography of Dostoevsky. And yet, in its category, it is an audacious effort – especially given that Birmingham relied on others to translate sources from Russian and French for itself. Not by or for an academic expert, his book instead invites any English-language reader to look over the shoulder of a famously suffering Russian author while his deathless novel comes to life.

Kellman’s most recent books are “Rambling Prose: Essays” and “Nimble Tongues: Studies in Literary Translingualism”.

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