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'The Sinner and the Saint' masterfully unpacks a Dostoevsky classic

Penguin Random House

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 Ulyssesand 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 cliché, 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. Listen to these passages where Birmingham imagines that moment of exile:

Just past midnight, on Christmas morning, the guards nailed Dostoevsky into his leg irons. He was being sent to Siberia in a convoy... . Each of the three prisoners lumbered into an open sleigh with an armed guard and a driver. ... The reality of exile hit [Dostoevsky] when his sleigh passed the glowing apartment where [his brother's family was] having their Christmas party. ...

[A]s the convoy began its ascent into the Urals, the temperature dropped to fifty-eight below zero Fahrenheit. ...

A snowstorm was raging as Dostoevsky's small convoy approached the cross that marked the end of Europe. Guards would customarily stop to let exiles bid farewell to the continent, ... Night had fallen. Dostoevsky stood in the Great Siberian Road, with ... all of Asia filling the white darkness ahead, and he cried.

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.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.

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