In the summer of 1865, Fyodor Dostoevsky one-time literary prodigy, former political prisoner debilitated epileptic and gambling addict was in gargantuan debt. To pay his creditors, he began writing a 90 page story that he pitched as a psychological account of a crime. His aim was to take readers deeper than ever into the mind of a murderer. In The Sinner and the Saint, Kevin Birmingham describes how, over the next 18 months, that idea metamorphosed into one of the great novels of the 19th century Crime and Punishment. In parallel, Birmingham tells the story of one of Dostoevsky’s sources of inspiration the Parisian psychopath Pierre François Lacenaire. Lacenaire 1803 to 36 was a thief confidence trickster and murderer. He was also a would-be poet, who wrote a thousand lines of verse per week from prison.
Birmingham is not the first to analyse Lacenaire’s influence on Dostoevsky but he provides the most detailed juxtaposition yet of the Frenchman with Dostoevsky’s protagonist Raskolnikov an impoverished ex student in St Petersburg who commits murder out of a sense of alienation from conventional morality. Dostoevsky came across Lacenaire while searching for material about criminals. In 1861, he helped translate a 50 page account of Lacenaire’s career, published it in his periodical, and wrote the foreword. He considered another piece on Lacenaire in 1864, but never wrote it. Birmingham contends that when Dostoevsky began work on Crime and Punishment the following year, he recast Lacenaire as Raskolnikov. Like Lacenaire Raskolnikov is a law student-turned-criminal. Both published essays on jurisprudence and ostensibly believed in creating utilitarian utopias. The debonair Frenchman’s career is memorable he rivalled Dostoevsky’s recklessness at the casino table but Birmingham devotes too much space to Lacenaires seductive story without demonstrating its centrality to Crime and Punishment.
In his introduction, Birmingham recognises that Raskolnikov is not simply Lacenaire in Russian attire. Indeed, Dostoevsky had many other sources, such as the infamous young idealist Dmitry Karakozov 1840 to 66 who tried to assassinate the tsar, or a newspaper story of an ultra-conservative religious dissenter a so called raskolnik who killed a cook and washerwoman with an axe. His notebooks were filled with tales from his fellow inmates, not to mention his own imagination. Lacenaire is best seen as just one ingredient of Raskolnikovs make up. As such, he is a strange premise for Birmingham’s book.
Birmingham is at his best when he inspects the crux of the novel Raskolnikov’s two murders. He argues convincingly and contrary to many commentators that Crime and Punishment is not a story of redemption. Raskolnikov, he reminds us, repents only of killing his intended victim, the pawnbroker; but shows no remorse for murdering her half-sister, who discovers him at the scene. Rather than find God, at the end of the novel Raskolnikov is still an amoral criminal. As Birmingham writes His confession is unfeeling. The other woman he killed Lizaveta isn’t even worth mentioning. Like Lacenaire, who touted himself as a class warrior Raskolnikov tries to provide intellectual and moral pretexts for vacuous crimes that he is a superman unbound by society’s rules or that he will use the pawnbrokers money to do good. Birmingham explains that Raskolnikov is fully honest only when he confesses to Sonya, the novels heroine. I just wanted to dare Sonya that’s the whole reason. For Birmingham Raskolnikov doesnt kill for an idea. Raskolnikov kills for nothing.
Birmingham excels at close readings of the text and recounts Dostoevsky’s biography with a novelist’s eye. When the writer is being conveyed to prison in the early hours of a late December day in 1849 we can imagine the streets empty Petersburgs houses lit up for the holiday and how The reality of exile hit him when his sleigh passed the glowing apartment where his brother Mikhail’s wife and children were having their Christmas party. It is a pity that Lacenaire’s story takes Birmingham away from the Dostoevsky he captures so well. If readers approach these chapters as an entertaining detour, then The Sinner and the Saint is a superbly written account of Dostoevsky’s creative journey.