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'The Sinner and the Saint' masterfully unpacks a Dostoevsky classic

Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Kevin Birmingham's biography of the novel Crime and Punishment is packed with cinematic episodes.



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Other segments from the episode on November 22, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 22, 2021: Interview with Ryan Busse; Review of book "The Sinner and the Saint.'



This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says literary scholar Kevin Birmingham manages to write books about books that themselves read like page-turners. His new book is called "The Sinner And The Saint" and it's about Dostoyevsky's novel "Crime And Punishment." Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's something audaciously old-fashioned about Kevin Birmingham's biographies of great novels. His first, "The Most Dangerous Book," was a bestselling, critically lauded account of how James Joyce came to write "Ulysses" and the censorship battles that prevented that novel from being published in the U.S. for over 10 years after its serialization in 1920. Birmingham's latest book, "The Sinner And The Saint," gives the same treatment to Dostoevsky's "Crime And Punishment." These are not new subjects, but Birmingham writes the kind of deeply researched and deeply felt literary biographies for which cliched rave terms immersive and reads like a novel were coined.

These days, the word masterpiece is also regarded - in the academy, at least - as a quaint cliche, but Birmingham throws it down when referring to novels like "Ulysses" and "Crime And Punishment." By the end of his own superb book on those masterpieces, Birmingham makes the case that no other word will do. His angle of approach on "Crime And Punishment" is that Dostoyevsky's revolutionary subject in that novel is consciousness itself, specifically how the idealistic murderer Raskolnikov is captivated by free-floating political and philosophical ideas that cause him to see himself and the world off kilter.

To dramatize how such a strange tale came to be, Birmingham, as you'd expect, delves into Dostoyevsky's early life. We hear about Dostoyevsky's noble but precarious background, his friends, mistresses and love of gambling. Birmingham also widens the scope of his narrative, tracing the emergence of what we would call true crime literature in the 19th century. In particular, he explores the real-life career of a Parisian poet-murderer named Pierre-Francois Lacenaire who inspired the character of Raskolnikov.

Then there's the dangerous world of politics. Birmingham explores the radical political fervour that almost destroyed Dostoyevsky's life. It was the 28-year-old Dostoyevsky's reading aloud at a political meeting of a so-called impertinent and free-thinking letter written by someone else that led to his arrest and exile to Siberia in 1849. Listen to these passages where Birmingham imagines that moment of exile.

(Reading) Just past midnight on Christmas morning, the guards nailed Dostoyevsky into his leg irons. He was being sent to Siberia in a convoy. Each of the three prisoners lumbered into an open sleigh with an armed guard and a driver. The reality of exile hit Dostoyevsky when his sleigh passed the glowing apartment where his brother's family was having their Christmas party. As the convoy began its ascent into the Urals, the temperature dropped to 58 below zero Fahrenheit. A snowstorm was raging as Dostoyevsky's small convoy approached the cross that marked the end of Europe. Guards would customarily stop to let exiles bid farewell to the continent. Night had fallen. Dostoyevsky stood in the Great Siberian Road, with all of Asia filling the white darkness ahead. And he cried.

That exile to Siberia was touted as an act of mercy by Tsar Nicholas. Days before his prisoner convoy left St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky, along with his political comrades, had been lined up before a firing squad. Just as the soldiers were given the order to load their weapons, horsemen galloped up and delivered an orchestrated reprieve from the tsar - pure theater of cruelty.

"The Sinner And The Saint" is packed with cinematic episodes like one. that. In fact, at the very end, Birmingham recounts a story about a deadline for Dostoyevsky's novella "The Gambler" that's so frenzied it momentarily wipes out all else Birmingham has described. He clearly has an affinity for writers who produce great works in extremis. Joyce battled poverty, censorship and the agony of chronic eye problems requiring multiple surgeries, all of them necessarily performed while Joyce was awake watching the surgeon's scalpel approach his eye. Dostoyevsky suffered political persecution, poverty that meant he sometimes went for days without food while writing and decades of epileptic seizures that fogged his memory and ability to write. As Birmingham certainly knows, it would take a Dostoyevsky novel to do full justice to Dostoyevsky. But "The Sinner And The Saint" is a pretty exquisite consolation prize.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Sinner And The Saint" by Kevin Birmingham. On tomorrow's show, we'll pay tribute to jazz songwriter, pianist and singer Dave Frishberg, who died last Wednesday. He was 88. He wrote satirical songs, including "My Attorney Bernie" and "I'm Hip," ballads like "Heart's Desire" and "Sweet Kentucky Ham" and kids songs for "Schoolhouse Rock," like "I'm Just A Bill." He was interviewed and performed on our show several times. I hope you'll join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) I'm impressed with my attorney, Bernie. I'm impressed with his influential friends. He's got very big connections, and I follow his directions. Bernie knows his way around, and so I always do what Bernie recommends. I am blessed with my attorney, Bernie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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