Review: Kevin Birmingham’s book “The Sinner and the Saint”

on the shelf

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Noble Killer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

Written by Kevin Birmingham
Penguin: 432 pages, $30

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Burdened with onerous gambling debts so much that he fears imprisonment (again), suffers from debilitating epileptic fits and suffers the death of his wife and brother, Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1865, he began what would be a masterpiece. He told one of his friends, “Nothing of this kind has been written between us yet.” “I vouch for its originality, yes, as well as its ability to attract the reader.”

Crime and Punishment lives up to its writer’s hyperbole, albeit after a difficult and painful birth. Quickly written, in a panic, to fend off creditors, the 90-page story he planned was turned into the massive novel which, though dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov as “crude and not too technical,” earned its place in the canon of world literature.

The creditors that Kevin Birmingham relied on to write The Sinner and the Saint—a masterful biblical biography of how Crime and Punishment came about—include a formidable group of scholars as well as Dostoevsky himself. However, the biographer does not betray a panicked gesture. The tale he tells is rich, complex, and intricate, and although he must have struggled in constructing it, Birmingham writes with the balance and subtlety that his subject matter sometimes lacks. (Although it worked well for him).

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky from Kevin Birmingham’s book Sinner and Saint: Dostoevsky and the Noble Killer Who Inspired His Masterpiece.

(Corbis via Getty Images)

Dostoevsky struggled to craft an account for Raskolnikov, a law school dropout, of how a mortgage broker and her half-sister were murdered with an axe. At a critical point, he was disgusted with what he wrote, ignored everything and started from scratch. What enabled him to find the attraction was his decision to move from first-person narration to an intimate third-person perspective, a view that would, he said, be “invisible but omniscient.” As Birmingham asks, “Why not look over Raskolnikov’s shoulder while he is face to face with his stupid, deaf, sick, and greedy mortgagee, waiting for his moment?”

Birmingham himself applies this approach to Dostoevsky, staring over the shoulder of the Russian professor as he beats Raskolnikov. The result is book for book, an inside look at literary creativity. The reader becomes a spectator of the construction of Crime and Punishment while learning much along the way about the criminal justice system in 19th century Russia, temporal epilepsy, promissory notes, phrenology, gold mining, nihilism and much more.

“A man was turning over half a library to make one book,” said Samuel Johnson. The principle is no less true for those who write one book than another. Michael Gorra “Portrait of a Novel” (2012) and Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” (2014) Both benefit from their authors’ extensive knowledge of more than just “Portrait of a Lady” and “Middle March” respectively. John Livingston Louise filled over 600 pages of “The Road to Xanadu” (1927) as he documented the books that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had read before writing two poems.

This isn’t even Birmingham’s first book about a book. In 2015 “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle of Ulysses by James Joyce” He did for the ideal modernist novel what he does now for Dostoevsky’s ideal Russian novel. However, while the bulk of the previous volume focuses on efforts to ban and even burn Ulysses after its publication, The Sinner and the Saint concludes when writing the last paragraphs of Crime and Punishment. She is less interested in receiving Dostoevsky’s account than the experiences—including a reduced death sentence and four years of hard labor in Siberia out of socialist sympathy—that prompted him to write it.

A page from Fyodor Dostoevsky's notebooks, with drawings of faces and writing.

A page from one of Dostoevsky’s notebooks, 1865, when he is trapped in his German hotel unable to pay his bill – the beginnings of his notes on “Crime and Punishment”.

(NIOR RGB / RGALI Press / Penguin Press)

One decisive influence was the case of Jean-François Lasseneres, the sociopathic French poet who was executed in 1836. Dostoevsky translated and published a report on Lasseneres’ sensational crimes, including ax murder, in the journal Vremia which he edited. The Birmingham Plaits bring together chapters paralleling Lassener’s path toward the guillotine, Raskolnikov’s path toward prison and Dostoevsky’s chapters toward completion of his book. Although the Lacenaire is not always as interesting as Raskolnikov or Dostoevsky, the cross-cut is generally effective at suggesting similarities and sources. As Birmingham points out, the failed attempt on 4 April 1866 by a young revolutionary to assassinate Tsar Alexander II also inspired Dostoevsky during the latter stages of formation.

Despite all the research Birmingham brings, “Crime and Punishment” isn’t a true, covert crime. He is also not a criminal, because it is clear from the outset that Raskolnikov is the culprit. Rather than tantalizing the reader with the question of who is guilty of two horrific murders, the novel prompts us to turn its pages to find out. Why. However, Raskolnikov remains confused about his own motives: Is he killing an old pawnbroker to allocate his valuables to himself or others? Or is the murder an experiment to test his theory that normal moral constraints do not apply to superior individuals?

Such is the case with the Birmingham Mystery: We already know that Crime and Punishment has been written and published. Instead, the questions that drive this book are: How and why?

Kevin Birmingham.  author

Kevin Birmingham. Author of “The Sinner and the Saint”.

(Liz Linder)

Birmingham claims that Dostoevsky wrote “a novel about the problem of ideas. It is not a novel.” from Ideas.” Ideas that crash into Raskolnikov’s frantic mind are never resolved, partly because of how the novel was composed — hastily and in chapters appeared sequentially. While working on the opening section, Dostoevsky did not expect that respected prostitute Sonya and scoundrel Svidrigailov would later dominate the narrative. The novel’s strength stems from its anxious asymmetry.

Birmingham has a different assignment in this book related to the book. In contrast to the untidy brilliance of its subject matter, “The Sinner and the Saint” is an impressively clear compendium of hundreds of other texts, including Joseph Frank’s massive five-volume biography of Dostoevsky. However, in its category, it is a daring effort—particularly 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 look over the shoulder of a tormented famous Russian writer as his undying novel pulses.

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

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