Birmingham’s chapters on Dostoyevsky’s exile are among the finest ... The Lacenaire link is not new. What is new is the way Birmingham has alchemized scholarship into a magisterially immersive, novelistic account of the author’s life...These episodes are the work of a skilled storyteller who understands that you need scenes made from, say, the concrete details of Snitkina’s diary — as opposed to quotations from it, or summary, with commentary from the author, to make the tale come alive ... This approach has risks. Early on, I occasionally longed for a better sense not only of Dostoyevsky but of Birmingham ... But starting with Dostoyevsky’s time at the roulette tables in Wiesbaden, Germany, Birmingham maintains exceptional balance ... a magnificent and fitting tribute.
Dexterous ... The tale he tells is rich, complex and convoluted, and though he must have struggled in constructing it, Birmingham writes with the poise and precision his subject sometimes lacked ... A book about a book, an inside look at literary creation. The reader becomes a spectator to the construction of Crime and Punishment while learning a great deal along the way about the criminal justice system in 19th-century Russia, temporal lobe epilepsy, promissory notes, phrenology, gold mining, nihilism and much else ... In contrast to the untidy brilliance of its subject, The Sinner and the Saint is an admirably lucid distillation of hundreds of other texts ... It is an audacious effort — especially 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 peer over a famously tormented Russian author’s shoulder while his deathless novel comes to life.
... tautly constructed ... masterly ... As narrator, [Birmingham] sits as tightly on Dostoevsky’s shoulder as Dostoevsky does on Raskolnikov’s, so that we feel as if we are seeing the world — a terrifying, claustrophobic world — from their doubled perspective. Birmingham sketches out Russia’s mid-century byzantine chaos with a deft hand ... gripping, even for those who have not read Crime and Punishment for years or, indeed, have never even skimmed it. Birmingham provides just enough of Dostoevsky’s plot to make the novel intelligible without feeling the need to spend pages on deadening summary (so often a failing in books about books). Particularly fascinating is the scrutiny he gives to Dostoevsky’s working notebooks.
... interpretive and immersive ... Birmingham ably guides us through the first few decades of Dostoyevsky’s astonishing life, paying particular heed to his time amid reformist circles in St. Petersburg ... Against all of this turmoil, Birmingham’s chapters on Lacenaire begin to feel like an intrusion, despite the vivid portrait. The poet-murderer was chillingly unrepentant — kneeling before the guillotine, he twisted his torso so that he could see the blade coming down. But next to Birmingham’s rich, detailed narration of Dostoyevsky’s life, with all of its paradoxes and tortured ambivalences, Lacenaire’s extreme self-regard quickly becomes predictable, even a bit tedious. His villainy is like a gargoyle — inert and thoroughly grotesque.
Meticulously piecing together the debates that fired Dostoevsky’s imagination, The Sinner and the Saint is filled with arresting details that bring the turbulence of the 1860s to life ... Birmingham traces the evolution of Crime and Punishment through Dostoevsky’s notebooks, offering a thrilling glimpse of the creative faculties at work as he tweaks dialogue, defers the resolution of Raskolnikov’s motivations, and adds in unexpected twists. As we approach the end of The Sinner and the Saint, and Raskolnikov begins to live and breathe in all his complexity, Lacenaire begins to seem less and less interesting by comparison ... The Sinner and the Saint is not just a fitting tribute to one of the great works of world literature, but a dazzling literary detective story in its own right.
Birmingham devotes too much space to Lacenaire’s seductive story without demonstrating its centrality to Crime and Punishment ... Lacenaire is best seen as just one ingredient of Raskolnikov’s 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 ... Birmingham excels at close readings of the text, and recounts Dostoevsky’s biography with a novelist’s eye ... 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.
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 ... packed with cinematic episodes ... 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.
Birmingham sets out to provide the first 'sustained attention to what Lacenaire meant to Dostoyevsky.' But amid summary and analysis of the novel, Dostoyevsky’s life up to the point of its completion, and the intellectual climate in Russia, Lacenaire gets comparatively little real estate. The evidence of Dostoyevsky’s engagement with the French murder case is simple ... Birmingham’s continued interweaving of the two stories can feel belabored ... [Dostoyevsky's wife] Anna’s dowry, her wedding ring, and even her underwear would be pawned to support her husband and his roulette addiction—but Birmingham cuts off his thread before the love story curdles into something less wholesome.
This true tale of self-consciousness forces readers to consider whether a person’s intentions matters or if their actions should define them. Birmingham loudly proclaims Dostoevsky’s triumph against the evil of his creation Raskolnikov while pushing readers to consider the impact of fiction itself ... Equal parts biography, literary analysis, and true crime, Birmingham’s book entrances and entertains from the first page.
Birmingham’s riveting dual narrative provides a multifaceted exploration of nineteenth-century thought and society. His deep reading of Dostoevsky’s journals and drafts provides penetrating insights into the artistic process and how Dostoevsky sought to write from the killer Raskolnikov’s perspective (raskol is Russian for schism). The cultural and literary influence of Crime and Punishment is incalculable, introducing a character both brilliant and chilling, who is perhaps best illustrated by a question posed by one of Lacenaire’ s doctors, 'How is it your intelligence did not protect you from yourself?'
Birmingham conveys in vibrant detail Dostoevsky’s literary aspirations, struggles to publish, and tumultuous world of 'angels and demons.' Prodigious research enlivens a vigorous reappraisal of the writer’s life.
... this erudite yet tangled study...delves deep ... Selections from Dostoyevsky’s notebooks shed light on his search for the novel’s narrative voice and the development of the character of Raskolnikov, whom Birmingham contends was inspired by Pierre-François Lacenaire, a French poet and dandy executed for murdering a banker and his mother in the 1830s. Though Dostoyevsky was clearly intrigued by the case, Birmingham overstates his claim that Lacenaire was the inspiration for Raskolnikov, and the sections devoted to the French murderer feel more like a sideshow than the main event. This ambitious survey covers a lot of territory without breaking much new ground.