The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, A Crime and Its Punishment by Kevin Birmingham

Review by Karen Langley

The bicentenary of the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky has seen a flurry of books about the man and his work. I covered Alex Christofi’s Dostoevsky in Love for Shiny back in June; and this month sees the release of an equally intriguing title which looks at how Dostoevsky came to write his great work Crime and Punishment, and the events from real life which influenced him. The book is The Sinner and the Saint by Kevin Birmingham, and it explores territory which might not be familiar to those who’ve read C&P before.

Birmingham is the author of a New York Times bestseller, The Most Dangerous Book, as well writing for various American publications; he’s also received the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, and brings a wealth of scholarship to The Sinner and the Saint. The bulk of his book, after a brief look at Dostoevsky’s early life, focuses on the period from his involvement with revolutionary circles and exile in Siberia up until his success with C&P, as well as his life-changing marriage to his third wife, Anna Grigorievna. Running alongside this narrative is the story of Pierre Lacenaire, a French murderer from the early part of the 1800s, whose life and actions Birmingham feels were behind Dostoevsky’s writing of C&P. Lacenaire was notorious worldwide at the time, a kind of criminal celebrity, and his reputation spread to Russia. A charismatic yet ruthless man, a law student and a poet, he went to the guillotine seemingly happy to accept his fame and his fate, leaving behind him weeping women and men intrigued by his life. He also penned a scandalous memoir, detailing his crimes, and perversely became regarded as a kind of romantic hero.

Dostoevsky was apparently fascinated by the story of Lacenaire, and for Birmingham that fascination is the thing which drove the Russian author to write his book about an impoverished young student who commits a gruesome murder and doesn’t even seem to know himself why he’s done it. Birmingham explores in depth Dostoevsky’s Siberian exile, his exposure to the real poor, the misfits and the raskolniks (Russian ‘Old Believers’, whose name inspired C&P’s central character, Raskolnikov). And as he makes clear from these chapters, Dostoevsky was fascinated with the life stories of the criminals with whom he mixed, drawing on these for C&P. It seems to Birmingham, then, that a blend of Siberian experience and the story of Lacenaire may well have fused in Dostoevsky’s mind and led to his writing the novel for which he’s probably still best known.

Dostoyevsky

On his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky rebooted his literary career with Letters from the House of the Dead, and continued with his rackety lifestyle, gambling away his money, having unsuitable liaisons, entering dodgy publishing deals and frantically writing The Gambler to save his finances. Finally, his marriage to his young stenographer, Anna Grigorievna, literally saved his life and enabled him to go on to write his later great masterworks – but that is outside the remit of this book and Birmingham ends his story at the point of their wedding.

The Sinner and the Saint is a fascinating read from start to finish, although of course much of the reader’s response may depend on how convincing they find Birmingham’s arguments regarding Lacenaire; he certainly makes a strong and compelling case for the French dandy’s influence, although I do personally think that the Siberian criminals may have had more effect on Dostoevsky.

Nothing about Saint Petersburg’s grandeur could undo the fact that it was a dream built on a swamp. No matter how high the domes and spires climbed, people knew that for all but a few hours on the longest summer days the shadows are bigger than the monuments. Petersburg will always be a city of distant sunlight. At night the streets were lit by feeble oil lamps creating little more than a flickering, fear-conjuring chiaroscuro. Carriages would shoot out from the darkness and vanish just as quickly.

Where The Sinner and the Saint excels is in the details, background and context it provides for Dostoevsky and his world. He explores deeply, and explains clearly, the political set-up in Russia at the time, the political issues, the restrictions of the ruling Romanovs, the feudal structure and the beliefs of the various revolutionaries. He clarifies the social set-up, from the various Government ranks to the expectations a particular person could have, depending on which societal strata he was born into. The background information dealing with publishing was absolutely fascinating, and the complexities writers had to face when negotiating with the censors were quite unbelievable; the meticulous detail Birmingham provides will be essential for anyone unfamiliar with the Russia in which Dostoevsky lived.

The portrait of Russia painted by Birmingham stands in stark contrast to the one he gives the reader of early 19th century France; the world in which Lacenaire moves is much more modern, sophisticated and liberal. Switching between the two narratives really emphasises how incredibly backward Russia was, and how the feudal system and the dominance of the ruling class was still almost mediaeval. For these elements alone, The Sinner and the Saint  is definitely worth reading!

Birmingham has obviously done an immense amount of research and his erudition shines through; whether relating the case of Lacenaire, or covering Dostoevsky’s life in Siberia, he paints a vivid picture of the world about which he’s writing and the people who lived there. As I said, I think he perhaps over-estimates Lacenaire’s influence a little bit, but there’s no doubt that the story of the French criminal is a fascinating one in its own right (and would make the excellent subject for a book on just his exploits).

Putting that aside, however, if you want a book which gets you right inside the Russia of Dostoevsky’s time, explores his influences, looks at the genesis of his most famous work and puts forward an intriguing new theory about what helped the book develop in the form it did, then The Sinner and the Saint  is most definitely the book for you; it’s a worthy additional to Dostoevsky scholarship for the great author’s bicentenary!

Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and probably enjoys reading about 19th century Russia more than she would actually living there… (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

Kevin Birmingham, The Sinner and the Saint  (Allen Lane, 2021). 978-0241235942 432pp, hardback.

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