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What the critics liked

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, a Crime and Its Punishment by Kevin Birmingham

When Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, he was in a panic, says Steven Kellman in the LA Times. It was 1865, and the 43-year-old Russian author was suffering from painful epileptic seizures, mourning the death of his wife and brother, and saddled with gambling debts. Writing a book was the only way he could stave off his impatient creditors, so he needed to knock out his novel at pace. But that wasn’t straightforward either. Originally Crime and Punishment was a first-person account by Raskolnikov, a brooding law-school dropout who kills a pawnbroker and her half-sister with an axe. But speaking in Raskolnikov’s voice disgusted Dostoevsky. So, at a crucial point, he ripped everything up and started again – writing the same story, but in the third person.

It worked. The third-person perspective proved an intimate vantage point – Dostoevsky loved being “invisible but omniscient”, constantly peering over Raskolnikov’s shoulder. Kevin Birmingham takes this same approach to the author in his new book, The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, a Crime and Its Punishment (Allen Lane £25). He is “peering over the Russian master’s shoulder as he peers over Raskolnikov’s”. The result is a great book about a great book.

“There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking one’s Crime and Punishment neat,” says Oliver Ready in Literary Review. Some people just want the “incandescent text”, not footnotes, introduction or a weighty biography. But the novel is as much about Dostoevsky himself as it is about Raskolnikov. So Birmingham’s book is a welcome companion – “a bold and rewarding book that will allow readers, whatever their own predispositions, to return to Dostoevsky’s first masterpiece with a renewed and more capacious perspective’.

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