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

Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-630-6
Literary critic Birmingham (The Most Dangerous Book) analyzes in this erudite yet tangled study how Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment “came to be what it is.” He delves deep into Dostoyevsky’s money troubles and reckless gambling, his 1849 arrest and mock-execution for belonging to a revolutionary political group, his imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp, and his affair with nihilist and short story writer Polina Suslova. Birmingham also discusses how Czar Alexander II’s liberalization efforts, which included the emancipation of the serfs, ground to a halt after his attempted assassination in 1866, and traces the influence of Max Stirner’s philosophy of egoism on Dostoyevsky. 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. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, William Morris Endeavor. (Nov.)
Reviewed on : 07/22/2021
Release date: 11/01/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
Book - 1 pages - 978-0-698-18288-2
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