literary lives oliver ready
Raskolnikov in the Mirror The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky, a Crime and Its Punishment
By Kevin Birmingham
(Allen Lane 416pp £25)
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking one’s Crime and Punishment neat, without footnotes, introduction or weighty biography, sans everything except Dostoevsky’s incandescent text (as recast by your pick of fourteen translators). Countless readers, and all good formalists, have done just that, not least because the old translations tended to have no notes. Why interrupt the spell, the morbid giddiness that overcomes the trusting reader almost as strongly as it does Rodion Raskolnikov, in whose garret and mind we perch throughout the most searing pages of the novel? What’s more, this is a book that many devour when they are roughly the same age as Dostoevsky’s murderer (twenty-three), if not several years younger. Raskolnikov, as we first meet him, is imprisoned by his internal, ever ‘relatable’ struggle with social conventions and family pressures, and his story is in one shocking sense a universal metaphor: we all have our crimes to commit. Who has time for footnotes if your main concern is to determine whether you are with the ‘Lycurguses, Solons, Muhammads, Napoleons’, with those who have the right to transgress and trample over others, or whether you are merely a ‘quivering creature’ or, still worse, a bookish ‘aesthetic louse’?
However, over recent decades – the same decades that saw the tome-by-tome appearance of the late Joseph Frank’s monumental biography – it has become harder to ignore the fact that the lives Crime and Punishment portrays are twofold. The 43-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky, cooped up without food in his hotel room in Wiesbaden, where he has fled to escape debtors’ prison in St Petersburg, conceives the crimes of a man mired in similar depths of destitution, hunger and humiliation. While doing so, he revisits his own revolutionary youth and pride. Not everything, though, is in the past: just as Raskolnikov tries to convince himself that he can escape his straits in one bound, by means of a rational murder, coolly executed, so Dostoevsky thinks he can flip his fate at the roulette table, using a logical system that guarantees
Murder, he wrote: Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
success if only you can keep your head. Thus, the imperfect mirroring of characters fundamental to Crime and Punishment (Raskolnikov and the libertine Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov and the loving, open-hearted Razumikhin, Raskolnikov and his cannyuncanny investigator Porfiry Petrovich) extends into an infinity of taunting parallels with the author’s own life. Hence, too, the singular charisma with which Dostoevsky’s image – in portraits, films, memes – continues to be invested. Perhaps we search in it for the creases and convulsions where the characters Dostoevsky created with such fecundity merged with the self to which he so rarely gave direct written expression.
Intrepid novelists – Leonid Tsypkin in Summer in Baden-Baden, J M Coetzee in The Master of Petersburg – were among the first to venture into this unstable terrain, and the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth has brought further explorations in the realm of non-fiction. In Dostoevsky in Love, Alex Christofi managed to pack the life and works into just two hundred understated pages. Now Kevin Birmingham, author of a well-received ‘biography’ of Ulysses, pieces together the long genesis of Crime and Punishment, from Dostoevsky’s involvement in the 1840s with socialist utopians to his long imprisonment and exile in Siberia to the halting revival of his literary career in a much-changed St Petersburg.
While Christofi sought to illuminate the life through the work, Birmingham sets himself the more familiar task of illuminating the fiction through the life, the historical and intellectual context and the author’s notebooks, which he uses to excellent effect. The way Birmingham pursues his goal, however, is far from conventional and seems inspired by Dostoevsky’s own middle-period style. His tone is urgent, restless and aphoristic: ‘A gambling win is like biting into hollow fruit’; his ‘seizures taught Dostoevsky about powerlessness in a way that even exile and prison could not’; ‘At times, the sheer adversity of his circumstances was invigorating.’
The result is an absorbing, thickly textured biography of Crime and Punishment that develops through fragments and shards. Promissory notes, censorship, predatory pawnbrokers and publishers, women’s property rights, antiSemitism, judicial procedures, Omsk and the nomads of the Kazakh steppe: Birmingham treats all these topics and more with concision and substance, drawing on a wealth of sources in English, French and Russian (the author, not a Russianist, has good reason to thank his researchers so warmly). The chapters on Dostoevsky’s own ambiguous crimes, mock execution
Literary Review | november 2021 6