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The Sinner and the Saint masterfully unpacks a Dostoevsky classic

There’s something audaciously old fashioned about Kevin Birmingham’s biographies of great novels. His first, The Most Dangerous Book, was a bestselling critically lauded account of how James Joyce came to write Ulysses and the censorship battles that prevented that novel from being published in the U.S. for over 10 years after the completion of its serialization in 1920.

Birmingham’s latest book, The Sinner and The Saint, gives the same treatment to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. These are not new subjects but Birmingham writes the kind of deeply researched and deeply felt literary biographies for which clichéd rave terms immersive and reads like a novel were coined. These days, the word masterpiece is also regarded in the academy at least as a quaint cliche but Birmingham throws it down when referring to novels like Ulysses and Crime and Punishment. By the end of his own superb books on those masterpieces Birmingham makes the case that no other word will do.His angle of approach on Crime and Punishment is that Dostoevsky’s revolutionary subject in that novel is consciousness itself specifically, how the idealistic murderer, Raskolnikov, is captivated by free floating political and philosophical ideas that cause him to see himself and the world off kilter. To dramatize how such a strange tale came to be, Birmingham, as you’d expect delves into Dostoevsky’s early life. We hear about Dostoevsky’s noble-but-precarious background his friends mistresses and love of gambling.

Birmingham also widens the scope of his narrative, tracing the emergence of what we would call true crime literature in the 19th century. In particular, he explores the real life career of a Parisian poet murderer named Pierre François Lacenaire, who inspired the character of Raskolnikov. Then there’s the dangerous world of politics. Birmingham explores the radical political fervor that almost destroyed Dostoevsky’s life. It was the 28 year old Dostoevsky’s reading aloud at a political meeting of a so called impertinent and freethinking letter written by someone else that led to his arrest and exile to Siberia in 1849.
That exile to Siberia was touted as an act of mercy by Tsar Nicholas. Days before his prisoner convoy left St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky, along with his political comrades, had been lined up before a firing squad. Just as the soldiers were given the order to load their weapons, horsemen galloped up and delivered an orchestrated reprieve from the tsar pure theater of cruelty. The Sinner and The Saint is packed with cinematic episodes like that one. In fact, at the very end, Birmingham recounts a story about a deadline for Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler, that’s so frenzied, it momentarily wipes out all else Birmingham has described. He clearly has an affinity for writers who produce great works in extremis. Joyce battled poverty censorship and the agony of chronic eye problems requiring multiple surgeries, all of them necessarily performed while Joyce was awake, watching the surgeon’s scalpel approach his eye. Dostoevsky suffered political persecution, poverty that meant he sometimes went for days without food while writing, and decades of epileptic seizures that fogged his memory and ability to write. As Birmingham certainly knows, it would take a Dostoevsky novel to do full justice to Dostoevsky but The Sinner and The Saint is a pretty exquisite consolation prize.

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