The “Masterpiece” of the title is Crime and Punishment, and Birmingham narrates Dostoyevsky’s life and work through that novel’s serial publication in 1866. Birmingham positions us as if over Dostoyevsky’s shoulder, in just the way Dostoyevsky figured out how to present Raskolnikov’s experiences, which Dostoyevsky originally conceived of as an 80-page novella presented through the murderer’s letters:
“At some point in late November , one question must have occurred to him: What if the most intimate perspective isn’t actually the first person? What if we could be even closer to the murderer by lurking a half step behind him, looking over his shoulder, close enough to hear his quickening breath, to see his eyes darting, to think and feel what he thinks and feels not because the murderer narrates it but because we hear it slantwise from someone more lucid, someone who could be Raskolnikov’s double. The narrator would be ‘invisible but omniscient,’ Dostoyevsky decided, someone ‘who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment.’ The half-step distance from Raskolnikov allows the reader to follow all his actions, thoughts, and emotions, without being overtaken by them.”
This ever-engrossing biography is about Dostoyevsky’s eventual fevered writing of Crime and Punishment – “eventual” because it isn’t until halfway through the book that Birmingham brings us to the hotel room in Germany where Dostoyevsky, literally trapped by debt, begins writing his most famous novel. Birmingham’s repeated sidelong glances to “the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece,” that is, the cynically philosophical French criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire (1803-1836), is the only significant miscalculation by the author, as that madman was only one of many of Dostoyevsky’s inspirations. Birmingham otherwise elegantly and unobtrusively glides us over and through Dostoyevsky’s life and work while quietly offering one astute comment after another: “People sometimes think of Dostoyevsky as writing novels from the top down, beginning with an ideology he wished to explore and then looking for ways to dramatize it. But he almost always worked from the bottom up, starting with intriguing personalities, a handful of clear details, memorable scenes or circumstances.”
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