A Murderous Poet Inspired a Dostoevsky Masterwork

The truth about Fyodor Dostoyevsky has proved to be as mysterious and inexhaustible as the enigmatic figures he wrote about, drawing the attention of novelists (Leonid Tsypkin, J. M. Coetzee) and any number of biographers (Joseph Frank, Leonid Grossman). In “Dostoevsky in Love,” published earlier this year, Alex Christofi combined genres, plucking lines from Dostoyevsky’s fiction and training them across a trellis of biographical fact.

The endless revisitation suggests something that Dostoyevsky himself may have appreciated. As Oliver Ready observes in the introduction to his superb translation of “Crime and Punishment,” knowing the facts is not the same as knowing the person — a notion that happens to align with Dostoyevsky’s own objections to the fixation on “mere data.”

So Kevin Birmingham has set out to offer something more interpretive and immersive in “The Sinner and the Saint.” Birmingham is the author of “The Most Dangerous Book” (2014), which told the story behind James Joyce’s “Ulysses”; his new book tells the story behind “Crime and Punishment,” another work of literary innovation, whose publication marked a turning point for both Dostoyevsky and the history of the novel.

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