The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

Image of The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece
Release Date: 
November 16, 2021
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

The “masterpiece” in the title of Birmingham’s big new intriguing book is Crime and Punishment—the grandfather of modern crime fiction and the contemporary detective novel—which was published in 1866 when the author was just 23. That much ought to be clear to a reader from the start.

What isn’t clear is who is “the sinner” and who is “the saint” that’s referred to in the title. Perhaps the sinner and the saint are one and the same person. After all, sinners like Augustine become saints and saints seem to be capable of sinning after they are sainted.

Birmingham, who teaches at Harvard and who is the author of The Most Dangerous Book, which is about James Joyce’s Ulysses, tackles another no less explosive a book in The Sinner and the Saint. Along the way he also explores 19th century Russian literature; discusses authors like Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Leo Tolstoy; and explores Russian society and culture under the autocratic rule of the tsars when censorship and police surveillance were the order of the day.

In Russian in the 1860s it was already 1984 before publication of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 (1949). Birmingham shows that Dostoevsky became a novelist under some of the most adverse conditions any writer has had to face in the past 200 years. He served time as a political prisoner under horrendous conditions in Siberia, and he suffered from epilepsy.

As Birmingham explains, Dostoevsky “kept a log of his seizures in an effort to identify what was causing them.” He does not seem to have found an answer.

The Sinner and the Saint might be called a source book for Crime and Punishment. Birmingham writes at length and in detail about the life of Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, the mid-19th century French criminal who inspired Dostoevsky and who prompted him to create his Russian murderer, Raskolnikov, one of the most iconic fictional characters in modern literature.

Birmingham is good at giving plot summaries and at providing the background to the celebrated novel. He is less good at literary analysis, though literary analysis doesn’t seem to be what he most wants to do.

He is good at getting inside the head of Dostoevsky, the author and creative genius, and inside the head of Raskolnikov who kills because he must kill, much as Captain Ahab must hunt and kill Moby-Dick, the white whale.

Perhaps what is most valuable about The Sinner and the Saint, in addition to the author’s infectious enthusiasm for his subject, is his explanation of how Crime and Punishment came to be written and published and how it was received by critics and the reading public.

Birmingham uses Dostoevsky’s manuscripts and notebooks to unpack the novel and to explain why and how the author moved from first person to “invisible but omniscient narrator” and to “intimate third person.” By doing so he “found a portal” into the character of his enigmatic protagonist and anti-hero. 

At times, Birmingham seems too intimate with the author of Crime and Punishment. How indeed does he know, as he states, that Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures “began deep inside” his brain, “beneath his left temporal lobe, at the bottom of the Sylvian fissure, in a small neural body called the insular cortex”?  After all, he did not see any X-rays and did not examine any medical records from the 1860s.

Birmingham adds that a “field of neurons” in the Russian author’s brain would become “uninhibited,” and that those waves deep inside would “reverse course and ricochet back through Dostoevsky’s brain at different speeds, intensities, and scales as his 100 trillion synapes became the microscopic vectors of a complete catastrophe.” 

In the notes at the back of the book, Birmingham writes that “detailed description of a temporal lobe primary seizure followed by a secondary complex generalized tonic-clonic seizure derives from several sources.” All of the sources he provides date from the 20th and 21st century.

None of them date from the 19th century and there is no reference to any medical examination of Dostoevsky by a Russian doctor.

Birmingham’s explanation could be true. It might be true. But it reads like an imaginative recreation of what went on in Dostoevsky’s brain. Some readers might enjoy that approach to biography. Others not. Take your pick.

Birmingham is on much firmer ground when he writes about Dostoevsky’s notebooks and manuscript revisions. They are tangible documents. They help the reader get inside Raskolnikov’s crazy head, and they also show how Dostoevsky created his masterpiece under the most adverse personal and political conditions, including the aforementioned epilepsy, along with the repression, the secret police, and censorship imposed by Tsar Alexander II.

Birmingham discusses the nihilists, the attempted assassination on the tsar’s life and the emancipation of Russian serfs, which took place at about the same time as the emancipation of Black slaves in the US. 

More comparative history would have helped amplify the story. It also would have helped to include discussion of Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe, who created the first modern detective in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842). Both were published in Russia in Russian before Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment. Poe seems to have shaped some of his thinking about criminality and its detection.

Birmingham’s scholarship does enable him to reconstruct the fabric of life in Tsarist Russia, in St. Petersburg and in Siberia where Dostoevsky’s soul was tested, and where he managed to survive by keeping his consciousness alive and well.

Some of Dostoevsky has apparently rubbed off on Birmingham.

In the spirit of Dostoevsky, Birmingham writes that, “The bourgeoisie was afraid of losing everything, and that fear was what lay beneath its obsession with appearances. For what is orderliness but a tight grip upon things as they are?” 

Reading the Russian novelist’s own words is one of the pleasures of this dual biography which offers a fascinating portrait of the bizarre French criminal, Lacenaire, and the eccentric novelist who cannibalized Lacenaire’s life. In a way, the book is also a biography of Crime and Punishment, its genesis and evolution

In The Sinner and the Saint, Birmingham paints a complex portrait of one of the fathers of the modern novel who noted insightfully, “There’s a blackness in my soul.” Out of that blackness, Dostoevsky’s shape-shifting art emerged kicking and screaming.