10 November 2021, The Tablet

Dark mysteries

Dark mysteries

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Photo: alamy/world history archive


Dostoevsky’s life is intertwined with that of an infamous murderer

In the summer of 1865, Dostoevsky was in trouble. He was 43, and both his wife and brother had recently died, meaning he was now the sole supporter of his brother’s family. At the same time, he was 15,000 roubles in debt – the equivalent of several years’ income – and suffering from increasingly severe epileptic seizures. What’s more, he had yet to write any of his major novels and was struggling to persuade editors to publish his work. However, that summer he began to imagine the story of a murder seen from the murderer’s point of view, turning the killer into someone with whom the audience might sympathise. That was the moment Raskolnikov was created.

Dostoevsky was born 200 years ago, and the anniversary has prompted several books about his life. Kevin Birmingham’s biography, The Sinner and the Saint, focuses on the early stages of the author’s career and the writing of Crime and Punishment. Birmingham’s previous biography was an account of James Joyce and the publishing history of Ulysses, where his detailed discussion of the obscenity laws in Britain and America made for an unexpectedly gripping read. This time the sense of suspense is provided by the story of Pierre François Lacenaire, an infamous murderer in nineteenth-century France, which is ­interspersed with Dostoevsky’s own life.

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