Kevin Birmingham

Author and scholar Kevin Birmingham has shown that books as much as people are worthy subjects of biography. This year he has followed up The Most Dangerous Book, his award-winning account of the battle to get James Joyce’s Ulysses published, with The Sinner and the Saint, a book about the genesis of another classic: Crime and Punishment. In this week’s episode of The ABR Podcast, Geordie Williamson reads his review of Birmingham’s latest study, one which ‘brings microscopic detail and a sense of drama to the composition’ of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece.

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There really isn’t another biographer like Joseph Frank – nor a biography to place beside his 2,400-page, five-volume life (1976–2002) of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the wildest and most contradictory of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Frank set out in the late 1970s – a time when historically grounded literary scholarship was losing favour in the academy – to fix Dostoevsky (1821–81) in the complex matrices of Russian history, politics, religion, and culture. An author who had been read in the English-speaking world as a hallucinatory thinker, somewhat detached from reality, could now be seen as one fully imbricated in his era and milieu.

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Ulysses was the first novel to become a celebrity in the mass media age. Its reputation was ‘enhanced’ by its alleged scurrility, its banning in the Anglophone world in both serial and book form, its having engendered legal proceedings centred on obscenity and copyright, and its notoriety as a wilfully difficult text. James Joyce wrote a novel that aspired to map its author’s home city – he claimed its success would be founded on the ability to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick from the novel, should the city cease to exist – and to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ (so far successful, one would have to say). George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization’, while many other writers and critics dissented, claiming Ulysses to be the wonder of the literary world, a work of genius elevated beyond the ephemera of provincial morals and pearl-clutching citizens’ committees. It encompassed a world in its pages, and created it anew. The novel re-imagined modernity, drawing myth and epic and tragedy into its field of vision, and provided readers with the means to see their lives in the same milieu as that of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, Blazes Boylan, and all the rest. It changed everything.

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