Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a gambler. Like most gamblers, he found himself in serious debt. Hence The Gambler, which he wrote (actually dictated) within twenty-six days in 1866 in order to meet his publisher’s deadline, which failure would have occasioned crippling financial penalties. Art mirroring life.

As someone with no interest in gambling, nor any comprehension of or sympathy for the psychological impulses that lie behind it (that being one of the more positive side-effects of Calvinism), I was doubtful whether The Gambler would hold much interest for me but, such is Dostoevsky’s brilliance as a novelist, even minor works like The Gambler remain gripping. And, in one respect, it strikes me as positively a major work. In it, Dostoevsky’s focus is principally on the City of Man, rather than the preoccupation with the City of God which suffuses Crime and Punishment, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. What we have, then, is man and his foibles, man broken by his weaknesses, a searing secular analysis of human failure. Thus, it may lack some of the theological and emotional sweep of the great novels, but that is not to say it is ephemeral or slight. Rather, it may be argued that in The Gambler Dostoevsky more successfully approaches questions of morality and human love precisely because he does not bind such material in portentousness. Sometimes, it is easier to apprehend the City of God by ignoring it; there is sufficient activity in the City of Man, moral and immoral, good and evil, to establish a valid metaphysical standpoint.

The primary subject matter of the novel is, of course, gambling. But The Gambler is about much more than that. Gambling for money becomes a metaphor for gambling with life, for the search in each of us for something beyond the inevitable pull of mortality or the strictures of morality or society, or the balm of common-sense or the false comfort of romantic love. The novel takes the form of diary extracts by a young man named Alexei Ivanovich. Alexei is a tutor in the employ of a Russian general, and this entourage has arrived in Roulettenburg, in Germany, a place renowned (and named) for its casinos. Alexei Ivanovich, miserably in love with Polina Alexandrovna and searching for some meaning in life, grows increasingly certain that his fate is bound to the roulette tables.

Time and again, Alexei has the opportunity to triumph – indeed does triumph, at one stage winning 200,000 roubles. But triumph is transitory. Within each triumph is the seed of its ultimate destruction. We are not even talking here about hubris, simply the ineluctable notion of time and its cleansing effect on the human pysche. Alexei Ivanovich’s ruination is depicted through his addiction to gambling. Notably, however, he is not the first character in the novel to be so afflicted: that dubious state belongs, instead, to the General’s mother, Antonida Vasilevna, whose fatal attraction to the roulette wheel is relayed in two magnificent scenes, one as comedy, the other, inevitably, as tragedy. This merely sets the scene, however, showing us that the capacity for foolishness and intemperateness resides in all of us.

But it is Alexei Ivanovich specifically who is key to Dostoevsky’s message. His addiction and subsequent ruination goes far beyond routine foolhardiness. In his quest for satisfaction at the roulette table he is demonstrating the loss of his self, of his soul, of any sense of meaning. Moreover, there is a hideousl inevitability about it. “I knew for certain,” he writes, “that I should not leave Roulettenburg unchanged, that some radical and fundamental change would take place in my destiny; so it must be and so it would be.” This sets up Alexei Ivanovich for an existential battle he is wholly unequipped to win. He is gambling everything on mere chance just as – in Dostoevsky’s world view, at least – modern man, divorced from God, presumes that existence can be remain a game of luck and fortune without responsibility or devoid of consequence.

This desperate battle with the roulette table is mirrored throughout by Alexei Ivanovich’s doomed attraction to the beautiful but manipulative Polina. There has always been some speculation that much of The Gambler is autobiographical and that, in particular, the character of Polina is based on Appollonaria Suslova, a femme fatale with whom Dostoevsky had a torrid affair in 1863 (three years before The Gambler was written and during the period when his addiction to gambling was at its peak). Although there may be a degree of truth in this, D.S. Savage, writing in 1950, is right to point out that Polina is not merely a caricatured femme fatale, nor is the novel as straightforwardly autobiographical as has been suggested. Any such interpretations are understandable, however. The first great set-piece in The Gambler (and probably the funniest single episode in all of Dostoevsky and proof that this miserabilist has a keen sense of the comic) begins when Polina persuades Alexei to demonstrate his love for her by playing a ludicrous prank on a pompous German baron and his wife and, in so doing, greatly insulting them. Alexei does so, to disastrous effect, ultimately losing his position as tutor. But, Savage reminds us, we are receiving these views of Polina through the distorted vision of the man who is in her thrall, the unreliable narrator Alexei. And, Alexei admits, “Polina was always an enigma to me.” Most significantly, though, in the end it is not Polina who is responsible for Alexei’s ruin, but the truly femme fatalistique Mlle Blanche de Cominges. And, indeed, Mlle Blanche is really only the implement of his ruination: rather, it is Alexei Ivanovich himself who is ultimately responsible.

Alexei Ivanovich, in his devotion to the roulette table, believes in the truth of chance. And, through that belief, he is revealed to believe in nothing. He is a lost soul who loses all: love, status, wealth, self. His unrequited love of something becomes, instead, a requited love of nothingness.


I am desperately sad and sick at heart said...

Thank you for the analysis. For some strange reason I am not finding much analysis on this novel, which seems a shame. In any case, I enjoyed what you wrote. Another website has speculated that Alexei found self-realization at the end - that when the novel began he didn't know himself, but by the end, (ruined though he may be,) he now knows who he is. Care to comment?

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi, thanks for commenting.

Well, that's an interesting idea, and there may be something in it.

There is certainly a strand of religiously inclined literature where characters reach a state of grace through their ruination - think of Tarwater in Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, for example, or Lancelot by Walker Percy. This could be another such example.

An interesting notion, thanks for suggesting it.

Teo Shato said...

Thank you for your analysis. I'd like to ask which of the translations you read & why you chose that one.

Tom Conoboy said...

It will have been the Constance Garnett translation, simply because it is easiest to get hold of.

I don't read Russian, so I can't comment personally, but many people suggest that Garnett took some liberties with the translation and more modern translations are usually felt to be better.

The translations of Dostoevsky by Pevear and Volokhonsky are usually considered to be the best by those who know.

thanks for dropping by