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 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 canny-uncanny 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, anti-Semitism, 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 and unambiguous punishment in Siberia, which yielded Notes from a Dead House, a new conception of freedom and Dostoevsky’s unhappy first marriage, are especially fine. Most impressive of all is Birmingham’s evocation of the physical realities of Dostoevsky’s experiences, from the materials used for a knout (‘several hardened, three-foot rawhide thongs with metal tips that gouged the flesh’) and the nut ink he hoarded in Siberia to the way in which, during an epileptic fit, his ‘100 trillion synapses became the microscopic vectors of a complete catastrophe’. This approach is well matched to an author who, as Birmingham shows, homed in, draft by draft, on the aesthetically revolutionary violence of the murder scene in Crime and Punishment, an author who, like Raskolnikov, ‘had a compulsion not just to open a wound but to examine it, to probe it with his finger’. Living flesh, it seems, contains the truth that Raskolnikov’s theories ignore. ‘It’s essential’, Birmingham writes, ‘that Raskolnikov confronts the women as full bodies pointedly alive.’
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Birmingham has a further ambition, not mentioned in his ill-fitting title. Eighteen substantial chapters are spliced with half a dozen briefer ones devoted not to Dostoevsky or his characters but to Pierre-François Lacenaire (1803–36), a celebrity poet and killer of astonishing savagery and equanimity who, in his own words, came ‘to preach the religion of fear to the rich’. In December 1834, in the third arrondissement of Paris, Lacenaire finally committed crimes unspeakable enough to receive the public punishment he craved. He even had the satisfaction, after the guillotine blade got stuck at the first attempt, of being able to twist his body to see his ‘fiancée’, as he called it, speed towards him between its grooves. As the story of Lacenaire develops, fragment by fragment, Birmingham lets the parallels with Raskolnikov unfold in the reader’s mind: the physical similarities, the shared ‘duel with society’, the common literary ambitions and incomplete education. Lacenaire has been the object of many writers’ interest and Dostoevsky scholars have discussed the connection before, not least because Dostoevsky himself helped to translate and introduce a long article about Lacenaire for the journal he edited with his brother. But the parallel has never been drawn at this length and never with the claim that ‘if we want to understand Crime and Punishment fully, then we must understand Lacenaire’.
That Birmingham largely manages to maintain momentum and minimise repetition while pulling our attention this way and that is a considerable feat. The implicit, sometimes explicit, arguments that he pursues through his narrative are not always so compelling. Birmingham skilfully suggests the likenesses between Lacenaire and Raskolnikov, but he underplays the deeper divergences. The Frenchman’s indifference to the suffering of others and his strength of purpose have nothing in common with the faint-heartedness of Raskolnikov, whose deep uncertainty about his own venture is emphasised on the first page of the novel.
As for Crime and Punishment’s much-disputed epilogue, showing Raskolnikov in Siberia with Sonya, the woman who loves him, I am not with those (‘nearly everyone’, according to Birmingham) who conclude that Raskolnikov ‘repents and finds God’. But it is misleading to stress the fact that, at the moment the novel closes, he has not yet opened the Bible that he himself requested from Sonya while neglecting the question that he poses to himself: ‘How can her beliefs not be my beliefs too now?’ Similarly, Birmingham pauses on Dostoevsky’s most extensive first-person consideration of Jesus Christ as the unattainable human ideal (‘Masha is Lying on the Table’ – a diary fragment penned as Dostoevsky sat next to the corpse of his first wife) without once mentioning Christ. He also cites the second section of ‘The Idea of the Novel’ in Dostoevsky’s notebooks, on Raskolnikov’s pride and contempt for society, without referring to the first section, which sets out the novel’s ‘Orthodox point of view’. This bias aside, Kevin Birmingham has written 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.