Book of the Week: Sinners and Saints by Kevin Birmingham

In his 2014 debut, most dangerous book, Kevin Birmingham tells the gripping story of how ‘Dublin Pub Drunken Night’ inspired James Joyce’s writing Ulysses, said Boris Fishman of The New York Times. In his new book, Birmingham ‘does it again’ – this time giving the ‘Ulysses cure’ crime and punishment.

Birmingham presents Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel – about the double murder of a former student named Raskolnikov – partly inspired by real life Inspired by the murderer: French poet Pierre-François Lacenaire stabbed to death a convicted thief and his widow in 1834. Mother. (He was on a comedy show later that same day. “It was a good day for me,” he recalls.)

The case became the talk of Paris. Nearly three years later, Dostoevsky read it and found Rassenel “mysterious, terrifying and gripping” — and made him a role model for Raskolnikov. Birmingham has weaved the duo’s stories together for an “authoritative, immersive, novel-like account of how the Russian literary masterpiece came to be.”

Anna Aslanyan in The Spectator said the Birmingham account also revealed some striking similarities between the lives of Lassenell and Dostoevsky. Both writers grew up wealthy but fell into poverty as adults. Both were imprisoned for long periods of time: La Senelle’s thieves landed him in prison, while Dostoevsky’s activism in his youth led to a decade of exile in Siberia. (There, he met many murderers and recorded his observations in a secret diary.)

writing sinners and saints No easy task – the “absolute weight of the source” must have been overwhelming – but Birmingham changed “a seemingly easy layer of history”. The result is a book that “works on multiple levels: as a historical study, a work of literary criticism, and, comfortingly, a double thriller”.

crime and punishment Alex Christofi in The Guardian is often described as ‘why’: Raskolnikov committed his crimes at the beginning of the book, and never quite Know what drives him to do so. But for modern readers, another mystery “hangs behind the novel” – how can we explain such a work of genius that seems to “suddenly appear in a fully formed world”?

In exploring how Dostoevsky’s masterpieces come to life, Birmingham has come a long way in answering that question. It’s “not only a fitting tribute to a great work of literature, but a dazzling literary detective”.

Allen Lane 432pp £25; Weeks Bookstore £19.99

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