A literary scholar delves into Dostoevsky's conception and composition of Crime and Punishment after his radical politics condemned him to a long Siberian exile and, once back in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, struggles with gambling and other personal crises. Birmingham argues that the inspiration for Crime and Punishment's protagonist Raskolnikov came from the sensational story of Pierre François Lacenaire, a murderer who charmed and outraged Paris in the 1830s.
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.