The Gambler.

I’ve finished Dostoevsky’s Игрок [The Gambler], and it’s pretty much what I would have expected from a novel written in a single month under the gun of a deadline that, if missed, would have meant all the author’s copyrights would have gone to the vile Stellovsky — that is, it’s barely a novel at all, and while well worth reading (it is, after all, Dostoevsky) is not worth a great deal of attention. (In fact, William J. Leatherbarrow, in his excellent little Twayne book Fedor Dostoevsky, has no more to say about it than this: “The short novel The Gambler is an interesting product of Dostoevsky’s unhealthy preoccupation with roulette.”) But it’s worth as much attention as I give it here.

In the first place, Dostoevsky was right to want to call it Ruletenburg (Stellovsky insisted on a “more Russian” name) — it’s clearly intended as a group portrait of the people assembled in the German resort town given that alias (probably Baden) as well as a study of compulsive gambling, and the title it ended up with places too much emphasis on the latter. The problem with the group portrait is that there’s only one actual character in the entire book — the rich, aged, wheelchair-bound Muscovite Antonida Tarasevicheva, whose death (and consequent inheritance) has been anxiously awaited by most of the characters for their varied reasons and whose sudden appearance at the end of chapter 8 is a magnificent coup de théâtre. She is beautifully thought-out and realized; you would know her immediately if you ran into her, and she is as vivid in my mind as Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Porfiry Petrovich in the last novel of his I read or as the various Karamazovs, who have stayed with me since I encountered them in college almost a half-century ago. The rest are pure cardboard, including the narrator, and I can’t help but think that one of the problems with the novel is the choice of first-person narration; Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment that way, but eventually settled on the brilliant third-person approach that allowed him to open the story up and give it depth. But that was a lot of work, and he didn’t have time for it with The Gambler.

So what do people talk about when they talk about The Gambler? For one thing, they call it autobiographical, but that’s nonsense. Yes, Dostoevsky himself was a compulsive gambler and drew on the experience when writing the novel, but otherwise Alexei (the narrator) is nothing like him. Another thing they talk about is this (I quote Joseph Frank):

The Gambler may be seen as Dostoevsky’s brilliantly ambivalent commentary, inspired by his own misadventures in the casino, on the Russian national character. Disorderly and “unseemly” though the Russian character may be, it still has human potentialities closed to the narrow, inhuman, and Philistine penny-pinching of the Germans; the worldly, elegant, and totally perfidious patina of the French, and even the solidly helpful but unattractively stodgy virtues of the English.

Come on now. That sort of guff is great for “three guys walk into a bar” jokes, it can be useful as characterization when put into a character’s mouth, but it is not literary material as such, and here it’s basically recycled from his essay Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. “We X people are not like those silly Y people and those nasty Z people!” is nationalistic prejudice, pure and simple. (Of course, the worst form is anti-Semitism, with which Dostoevsky was badly infected and which must be confronted by any lover of the novels; Gary Saul Morson has an excellent discussion of this in “Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism and the Critics,” available on JSTOR.) And that’s much of what is going on in this novel; the Russians are fools for love (Alexei is in love with Praskovya/Polina, who is in love with Des Grieux, and the doddering general is in love with Mlle. Blanche), while the French are cynics out to take them for all they can get and the Germans are soulless money-grubbers. (The exception is the Englishman Astley, who is also in love with Polina and who is unfailingly decent and generous.) It all adds up to anecdote and melodrama, but it does have a memorable female character, his first since Netochka Nezvanova if you don’t count the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold Sonya in Crime and Punishment, which I don’t. Oh, and there’s only one episode of tears falling like hail. On to Turgenev’s Дым [Smoke], by pleasing coincidence also set in Baden!


  1. Granny! Yes, that’s a great character.

  2. Yes indeed. Are you still in France?

  3. I find that I picture the doddering general as Trollope’s old Duke of Omnium (as portrayed by Roland Culver in the splendid BBC series The Pallisers), who had a similar mad passion for the charming (and foreign) Madame Max Goesler. The difference is that both the duke and Madame Max are among Trollope’s best and most memorable characters.

  4. Just the one good character, but what a character.

    I’ am home from France. Soon I will try to write something about learning French. Soon, I hope.

  5. Dostoevski’s prejudice against Poles (very much in evidence in the Gambler) is something that jumps out at me now, much more than it did many years ago. Was it the fact that they had allied with Napoleon, or the fact that they were Catholic, or something else that drove him batty? I assume that it was a common prejudice, but one that he took to an extreme? It makes the ending of the Idiot unintentionally comic for me now, since he was obviously searching around for the worst possible fate he could find for a certain character. (Not sure I need spoiler alerts for classics from a century and a half ago…)

  6. Now I can’t even load this site without hearing Kenny Rogers in my head.

  7. I assume that it was a common prejudice, but one that he took to an extreme?

    I’m afraid it was as universal among Russians as the one against Jews, and I can’t even say that he took it to an extreme. I used to find it incomprehensible (it obviously wasn’t about Catholicism, since the French, Spanish, and Italians weren’t the object of similar loathing, and many enlightened Russians didn’t care about religion anyway), but when I learned more about Russian history I realized that the Time of Troubles, when the Poles occupied Moscow and imposed a Polish tsar, had left deep scars in the Russian collective memory, and of course their ungrateful objection to being occupied after the Partitions didn’t help. The only prominent Russian I know of who supported the Poles in their rebellion against tsarist rule was Herzen, and his principled stand sunk his formerly popular periodical The Bell (“He was instantly reviled as a traitor by many of his former admirers as the Russian gentry rallied en masse behind the government”). Russians just couldn’t stand the кичливый лях, as Pushkin called him.

  8. Hat – this is completely OT but within your field of expertise:
    Why are some people (including the prosecutors) spelling the first name of Мари́я Бу́тина when written in English with an extra “i”? Mariya I could understand – I would say it’s overly literal but perhaps not wrong – but Mariia seems silly. What’s your take?

  9. It’s the Library of Congress romanization system (technically, there should be a ligature over the ia — i͡a — but that’s omitted in nonspecialist publications). I can’t stand it either, but it’s very popular with academics and librarians, don’t ask me why.

  10. The only prominent Russian I know of who supported the Poles in their rebellion against tsarist rule was Herzen, and his principled stand sunk his formerly popular periodical The Bell (“He was instantly reviled as a traitor by many of his former admirers as the Russian gentry rallied en masse behind the government”). Russians just couldn’t stand the (vainglorious Lech) , as Pushkin called him.

    I instantly recalled from some grade school episode – or perhaps from some Samizdat of the same era – that Herzen was “bankrolled by the Poles”; searched for a corroboration and found none. In fact it was only the 1863 Uprising that seems to have shifted Herzen’s stance; he isn’t recalled as pro-Polish during the previous decade. Circumstantially, though, London was the seat of Polish resistance. Polish money for real or not, but it is interesting to observe that Russian historians were receptive to this idea of corrupted Herzen.

    Polish uprisings pitted the Catholic szlachta against their Orthodox serfs, and the aspirations of reborn Great Poland in the East against the emerging self-conscience of Ukrainians and Belorussians. The wars of Polish liberation were at the same time the wars for Orthodox enslavement; think Confederacy for parallels. The same kind of Old Pride which Pushkin equated with contempt. When they came for their lost lands again, in 1920, they threw my teenage relatives, boys and girls, into concentration camps, and it’s too easy for me to see the same self-righteous contempt.

    But I don’t think Dostoyevsky was so much about vainglorious nobles; it is the literate middle-to-lower classes, filling the jobs in the nation’s capital, “the petty ones”, which drove him nuts. More like an anti-immigrant sentiment today.

  11. Eastern Europe more generally was the place of deeply seated ethnic hatreds. It is well beyond the point to try to figure out what exactly is the reason for each particular example. If not the one that seems to be reasonable from what we historically know, than it would be something else (lovers of Russian letters may remember Krylov’s fable “The Wolf and the Lamb).

  12. Good point!

  13. Thank you! I should have guessed that there was a formal letter-by-letter transliteration protocol.

  14. it’s very popular with academics and librarians, don’t ask me why.

    I think it’s popular among academics because it’s popular among librarians (and therefore facilitates looking up references), and it’s popular among librarians because, gee, LC, it must be the Right Way.

    And speaking of academics, at least we’re not reduced to writing about “Gercen.”

  15. jamessal says

    Barely relevant but I saw a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal called Enemy maybe a year ago which for some reason immediately, and to this day, I strongly associated with Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double. I liked the movie and loved the book, but frankly I was way too young to appreciate anything but D’s page-turning, imagination-spinning prose. I should reread it.

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