Remaking a Killing

How a brutal double homicide in 19th-century France enflamed the imagination of a great Russian novelist

The Griboedov Canal in Saint Petersburg, Russia (Flickr/kishjar)
The Griboedov Canal in Saint Petersburg, Russia (Flickr/kishjar)

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece by Kevin Birmingham; Penguin Press, 432 pp., $30

Long before I read Crime and Punishment, I walked the same streets Raskolnikov had walked before and after he committed murder. I went up the stairs to his attic room, stared at his door, and counted the 730 steps to the pawnbroker’s home. I was 23, visiting St. Petersburg, and taking a Dostoevsky walk led by self-proclaimed writer and dreamer James Boobar. After we had seen the attic room, Boobar took our group down to the corner of Stolyarnyy Alley and Kaznacheyskaya Street, explaining that because the Griboedov Canal curves in a particular way around these streets, you have three views of the same canal—the only spot in the city to offer such a perspective. It was an important lesson for me, an aspiring writer, about knowing the exact details of the streets in which you set your story. You never know when someone might show up and compare the page with reality.

Kevin Birmingham’s The Sinner and the Saint effects such a comparison, not with the reality of the street but with that of the mind, and of the cultural reality in which Dostoevsky composed his breakthrough novel. It’s one thing to know the streets on which your murderer walks, another to know what’s going on in his head. For this, too, even a writer as great as Dostoevsky needed a real-life model: Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.

Lacenaire was a self-proclaimed poet known for a double murder that made him a French celebrity in the early 1830s, especially as a result of his Memoirs, Revelations, and Poems (1836), published the year he was executed. Lacenaire was no regular killer: he came from a wealthy family that had lost its fortune, was sufficiently educated to write an article on the criminal justice system that was cited by Alexis de Tocqueville, and possessed a rhetorical flare that turned his crime, a premeditated robbery gone wrong, into a “fixed idea to resist.” He leaned on trendy philosophy to justify stabbing his victim’s ailing mother in the eyes.

Albert Camus refers to Lacenaire in The Rebel (1951) as “the first of the gentleman criminals,” a phrase Birmingham borrows for his subtitle. But Lacenaire was much more: he was a hedonist, an egotist, and a nihilist. And most importantly, he lacked any sense of conscience. This last is the greatest difference between him and the literary character he inspired. For Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov had to transform from a grotesque perversion of Schopenhauerian will power into an anxious, guilt-ridden, pathos-filled semblance of a human being with a heart. And Birmingham’s gambit—the premise on which he has based his book—is that the road from Lacenaire to Raskolnikov passes through the life and work of Dostoevsky himself.

Dostoevsky is a massive topic. Few people—and none I know personally—have read all 35 volumes of his writing in Russian or all five volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography (or the 959-page abridged version). But you don’t need to read every line of Dostoevsky or every analysis written about him to achieve insight into this paradigm-shifting writer. You need to read just enough—and Birmingham’s book offers the kind of access point that provides readers an entry into Dostoevsky’s creative psyche.

Birmingham provides readers the biographical background necessary to appreciate how Dostoevsky achieved his artistic breakthrough with Crime and Punishment. But he also threads this literary tale with an account of Lacenaire’s life, the murders he committed, and the way his social background made them into a major press event in France—leading to their inclusion in Armand Fouquier’s Causes célèbres de tous les peuples (1858), where Dostoevsky learned of the murders. In 1861, he helped translate Fouquier’s full account of Lacenaire’s murders for Vremya, a journal he published with his brother, calling Lacenaire a “remarkable personality, enigmatic, frightening, and gripping.” Birmingham picks up the trail here—embarking on an investigation of the parallels between Lacenaire, Raskolnikov, and Dostoevsky himself.

Dostoevsky appears to have identified with something central to Lacenaire’s life—gambling. Lacenaire’s beginning as a criminal, Birmingham hazards, came from playing rouge et noir, a card game at which he doubled his money once and then lost everything he owned, all the money he had borrowed, and even all the gold he had obtained from forged bills of exchange. Dostoevsky, too, embarked on Crime and Punishment as a compulsive gambler who had lost everything. According to Birmingham, however, one thing kept Dostoevsky from sharing Lacenaire’s fate: the desire for a family. By the end of The Sinner and the Saint, Dostoevsky has managed, against all odds, not only to write his novel but also to marry the stenographerAnna Grigoriervna Snitkina—whom he had hired to take dictation for The Gambler, a novel he composed in the midst of writing Crime and Punishment. A happy ending, perhaps, but one that leaves out the drama to come. Not long after the wedding, Anna Grigoriervna witnesses for the first time one of Dostoevsky’s nervous attacks—he had not confided in her the severity of his illness. Birmingham’s book concludes on this ominous note, with the couple’s long and arduous path to solidifying Dostoevsky’s literary legacy just beginning. In this sense, The Saint and the Sinner serves as a prequel to Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, a piece of samizdat from the Soviet era, which picks up when the couple leaves Russia for Germany, where Dostoevsky, again unable to stay away from the gaming tables, loses all his money and all of Anna Grigoriervna’s possessions.

And here a final common theme appears—suicide. “Surely,” writes Birmingham about Raskolnikov’s endgame, “when things go wrong, the urge to wipe everything away would turn inward.” He’s referring to the idea, laid out in Dostoevsky’s notebook, that Raskolnikov might kill himself. In the end, he doesn’t. The reasoning isn’t to be found in Crime and Punishment, but we might catch a glimpse of it in the story of Lacenaire’s life. In response to being asked why his intelligence had not protected him from himself, Lacenaire answered, “There came a day in my life when I had no alternatives other than suicide or crime.” So why not kill himself? “I asked myself whether I was my own victim or society’s,” Lacenaire said. The implied answer is that he took no responsibility for his crimes—and this is where Lacenaire and Dostoevsky part ways. In Dostoevsky’s moral universe, the individual is always guilty, every single one of us being the greatest of sinners, and only through the admission of this ubiquitous guilt can we find any sense of redemption. The gentleman criminal was no less a criminal for being a gentleman. Raskolnikov had to be given a different way out. Rather than embracing his own execution, stating that he has come to “preach the religion of fear to the rich,” Raskolnikov chooses punishment for his crime, and in this way accepts his own possibility for salvation. It’s the possibility of getting away with the crime—one that Lacenaire never has—and choosing to confess his guilt that distinguishes Raskolnikov from his French counterpart.

After publishing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky no longer concerned himself with Lacenaire; he shifted his attention to creating, in The Idiot, an innately good person who leaves behind him a trail of destruction. In that novel, too, all is lost—but as Birmingham’s book lays out so well, the bigger the failure portrayed on the page, the greater Dostoevsky’s literary achievement.


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David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar whose recent work has appeared in Speculative Nonfiction, EastWest Literary Forum, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. His latest book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, and his edited collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer's essays will be published in May. He was born in Israel, grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Jerusalem.


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