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. The heart pounds as Dostoyevsky, zero pages written just weeks before a book deadline would force him to surrender his royalties to a creditor for nine years, having already sold off everything he could to cover his and his extended family’s debts, reluctantly resolves to try dictation. And it pounds again as he, until now doomed in love, slowly finds it with Anna Snitkina, his stenographer. 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. (The guards’ thongs were rawhide.)
This approach has risks. Early on, I occasionally longed for a better sense not only of Dostoyevsky but of Birmingham — for instance, his judgment of Dostoyevsky’s first novel, “Poor Folk,” and certainly how he reconciled Dostoyevsky’s criticism of France’s 1848 revolution with his participation in anti-monarchical groups. But starting with Dostoyevsky’s time at the roulette tables in Wiesbaden, Germany — his losses spurred the first pages of “Crime and Punishment” — Birmingham maintains exceptional balance. (The 1867 trip Dostoyevsky and Snitkina, by then his wife, took to a nearby German spa town was the wellspring of another fine double narrative of Dostoyevsky’s life, Leonid Tsypkin’s “Summer in Baden-Baden.”)
In its concreteness, Birmingham’s book sometimes improves on even fiction like J. M. Coetzee’s Dostoyevsky novel “The Master of Petersburg,” which can be, in places, frustratingly broad. (“He wears a dark suit of somewhat démodé cut,” Coetzee writes. Démodé how?) It also complicates the popular notion, certainly encouraged by Coetzee’s book, that Dostoyevsky was tormented to the point of perversity. Here is Dostoyevsky in love, in self-sacrificing dedication to his brother’s ungrateful family and in fits of ecstasy that preceded his epileptic seizures.
Reductiveness may be the cost of legend. Also of callowness: My youthful readings of “Crime and Punishment” left me with the impression that it was well-dressed advocacy for Christianity and suffering. But the novel, as Birmingham reminds us, is “about the trouble with ideas. It is not a novel of ideas.” Ultimately, it is the work of an author whose insights into the idiosyncrasies that make written life feel real were spectacularly acute. In that sense, among others, “The Sinner and the Saint” is a magnificent and fitting tribute.