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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece,” by Kevin Birmingham

Published Friday, July 1, 2022 By Justin McGeary

Birmingham’s book is brilliant. Brilliant prose. It is full of brilliant biographical, historical, and cultural narrative. He brings the world Fyodor Dostoevsky inhabited to life and shows how Dostoevsky turned that world into a gripping novel about human nature, ideas, crime, and evil. But it is not only about Dostoevsky’s life and novel, but also woven into the story are the vicious antics of Pierre-Francois Lacenaire—the French gentleman murderer of the 1830s who captivated, piqued, and puzzled the imagination of France and Europe with his nonchalant attitude during his trial over his infamous deeds. Birmingham turns their stories into a page turning thriller as he alternates between the life of the Russian novelist and the French narcissist.

It is a spellbinding biographical work. Birmingham covers Dostoevsky’s initial ascension to literary fame to his underground, political Fight Club-esque activities that land him in Siberian exile and then his return to St. Petersburg and his struggles to regain lost years and return to writing despite epileptic fits, family griefs, and a gambling addiction (204-205). Along the way, Birmingham catalogues the various events, persons, and happenings that gripped Dostoevsky and shaped his thinking that led to the writing of Crime and Punishment.

One of the persons who made an unusual impression on Dostoevsky was the petty gentleman turned murderer, Lacenaire. As a youth, his family fortunes collapsed, and he turned to petty crime that culminated in the gruesome murder of a former fellow inmate and his elderly mother. But why? This question plagued the minds of the French public during and after his trial—he gained almost no money though that seemed an intended outcome of the crime, but Lacenaire himself said even apart from the money, he would have done it again (158, 179). It was this question that also made its way into Dostoevsky’s mind, which he then worked out in his novel (187-189).

One of the brilliant features of Birmingham’s book is how he models it in many ways after Crime and Punishment. The book is a detective novel, and Dostoevsky is the detective where human nature, as found in Laceniare and himself, is the crime scene. The crime and criminal are clear, but the motive is the tangled web of intrigue (16, 180, 255). Dostoevsky was committed to studying human nature (28), and his time in Siberia among murderers gave him much to observe (140), and after his release he beheld the materialism, utilitarianism, and political radicalism surging in from Europe to 1860s Russia jumbled with the various forms of egoistic philosophy that often bore the newly coined name “nihilism” (168-177, 192-203). It was a world made by Hegel, Rousseau, Fourier, Voltaire, Bentham, Napoleon, and others (255, 263-64), as well as pressing social issues (199). Yet, Birmingham observes that for all of Dostoevsky’s interest in the philosophical and political debate of his day,

Crime and Punishment is a novel about the trouble with ideas. It is not a novel of ideas. It does not showcase or allegorize philosophical positions for readers to consider. It is not primarily the drama of a young man wrestling with ideologies… The trouble with ideas is the way they interact with everything else that’s human about us, things that have nothing to do with reason or evidence or theory. Dostoevsky’s novel is about how ideas inspire and deceive, how they coil themselves around sadness and feed on bitter fruit. It about how easily ideas spread and mutate, how they vanish, only to reappear in unlikely places, how they serve many masters, how they can be hammered into new shapes or harden into stone, how they are aroused by love and washed by great rains and flowing rivers. It is about how ideas change us… It about how ideas can do many of these things at once… (5)

Indeed, fixedly, Dostoevsky wondered at Lacenaire—the man amidst his “ideas” or ideological “explanations” of his transgressions—and translated an account of the murderer’s trial for his own literary journal Time in 1861 and later his novel. Such deeds and trials, Dostoevsky noted, “‘are more exciting than all possible novels because they light up the dark sides of the human soul that art does not like to approach’” (188-189). Dostoevsky strips away the ideology to find persons full of desire that they do not quite understand themselves.

As far as the history and culture go, the book provides fascinating descriptions of 19th century Russia. Birmingham chronicles such key features of the Russian ecosystem from the economy and pawnbrokers to serfdom and its attempted reform to the world of the literary elite and government censorship to phrenology and its relation to criminology (262). He explains the Russian social hierarchy, political movements, and the Siberian prison system—anything that might shed light on Dostoevsky’s experience and ideas. Sometimes it seems no stone is left unturned. There are even pages on the neuroscience of epilepsy, which plagued Dostoevsky (141). Birmingham and his research associates dig through Dostoevsky’s letters and notebooks as well as the letters, book reviews, novels, and other writings of various contemporaries: Turgenev, Belinsky, Tolstoy, and many more.

One of the thrilling features of this research is to watch Dostoevsky in his notebooks craft the novel and see his conundrums as he tries not only to write a novel, but delve into the human psyche. How could he best do this? Would the novel be first person—or were there limitations to this perspective? He tried, then scrapped it. He settled on “intimate third person perspective;” it enabled the reader to get realistically closer to the crime and the criminal mind (243-244). Birmingham also adeptly describes why Dostoevsky shows the murder scene, almost unheard of in fiction of the day: “Dostoevsky’s painstaking narration of the brutal crime was crucial to the novel’s philosophical goals. The vivid details dispel Raskolnikov’s ‘strange, “unfinished” ideas floating in the air’” (253). Murder made the “good” ideas monstrous. At numerous points, Birmingham provides ingenious exploration and explanation of Dostoevsky’s narrative choices and the resulting reactions of the critics.

The book though is not without weaknesses. First, description of Lacenaire’s mentality and the murders is lurid, and while this is perhaps an attempt to write in the vein of Dostoevsky’s novel (indeed Raskolnikov’s murders are graphic too), there are times where it goes too far—often appealing to baser things in us. Reader, beware. Second, it is among those modern biographical books that do not have footnotes or endnotes, though at the end of the book there are paragraphs for each chapter explaining the sources and occasional phrases. This can lack the accuracy a reader wants if they are to follow up on a particular point of interest. It is a shame considering the extensive research.

Finally, and glaringly, Birmingham claims that some have misunderstood Dostoevsky’s novel with regards to religion. It is not a “story of redemption from misguided thoughts and actions—the notion that Raskolnikov repents and finds God is one of the things that nearly everyone gets wrong about Crime and Punishment” (5). Even if such a strong claim is granted, the way Birmingham then seems to treat the novel as though it has nothing to do with God or religion, i.e., Christianity, cannot be granted. This is rather remarkable considering the author and his reputation as a religious writer. Does not Dostoevsky explore the psychology of a guilty conscience as a religious question? It seems yes, and guilt for Dostoevsky is more than a social construct. Is the question of God’s existence not at least an implicit theme in the novel? The striking recitation of John 11—Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of Lazarus—by the pious, self-sacrificing prostitute Sonya to the conscience stricken murderer, Raskolnikov, arguably the climatic moment (or at least in the running for it), gets only a sentence of discussion (315). Many of Dostoevsky’s key themes are explored as well as various facets of Russian life, but almost nothing on Christian themes or Dostoevsky’s religious development or Russian Orthodoxy, which he more and more turned to during and after his time in Siberia, though he previously had cast it off in his youth. Considering how thorough Birmingham is in describing and explaining other areas of Dostoevsky’s world, this gap is notable. At the end of the book, Birmingham argues directly against a religious resolution (344-346), though repentance, even of a “crude” sort, is the stated reason that Raskolnikov admits what he has done.[1] Pattison and Thompson write,

Dostoevsky had a gift, virtually unique among modern writers, for making Christianity dynamic, for subtly forcing the ideological challenges of the modern age to interact dialogically with his Christian vision and for embodying this vision in psychologically compelling characters.[2]

But this is not probed in The Sinner and the Saint—so curiously, religiously titled. This neglect on Birmingham’s part seems a great flaw in understanding Dostoevsky since he “kept to the spiritual plane, from whence he saw everything” (to quote Berdyaev).[3]

The book, despite this major defect, is a stirring introduction to Dostoevsky’s life and thought, his context, and certainly opens up his novel through Lacenaire’s famed crimes. Birmingham introduces some of the key themes of Dostoevsky’s work with historical and intellectual nuance. He shows Dostoevsky’s grappling with evil, freedom, determinism, crime, cruelty, suffering, ideas, love, guilt, “doubleness,” and more. For the interested reader, it would be ideal to read Crime and Punishment as well as the earlier works, especially Notes from a Dead House and Notes from the Underground before picking up Birmingham’s work as this will enrich the reading experience. Birmingham’s work seems to assume that the reader has read Dostoevsky as there are plenty of allusions to the works mentioned, but not always explicit explanations. Though that is the ideal approach, Dostoevsky’s life in itself is as fascinating as any novel, and Birmingham overall does it substantial justice.

Justin McGeary is Assistant Professor and Director of Christian Studies at John Witherspoon College in Rapid City, South Dakota.

[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky, Crime and Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 536.

[2] George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, “Introduction: Reading Dostoevsky Religiously,” in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, 1.

[3] Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, 23.

  • Justin McGeary

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