Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The destructive force of gambling. Human passions and the difficulty of controlling them. This is the primary focus of The Gambler, a short novel with big themes by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Winners, losers, and users. Alexei, the main character, observes that " ... people not only at roulette, but everywhere, do nothing but try to gain or squeeze something out of one another." This astute yet cynical observation sums up the characters in The Gambler. The tutor, the naif, the imperious general, the wealthy matriarch ... all are driven by obsessive love/hate passions with gambling, with money, with each other and it spells ruination for them all. In the midst of these self-destructive characters are the users, the parasites, who also gamble ... gamble on the rise and fall of the fortunes of others.

Did I like The Gambler? I wouldn't use the word "like" since it was much too noir for my tastes. The Gambler looks at the dark side of human nature and is very psychological. It is also very honest, peeling back the masques of the characters ... characters who are representative of the darker side of us all with our suppressed obsessions and passions that, if let loose, would likely drive us to destruction. Yes, this makes for an uncomfortable read.

Dostoyevsky's ability to pull the reader into the tension filled mental state of a character is also quite uncomfortable, yet brilliant. These moments of extreme tension set your nerve endings vibrating and looking for release. Dostoyevsky does this in The Idiot as he describes the increasingly manic internal state of Myshkin preceding an epileptic seizure. You can feel it. Likewise, the mania in The Gambler as Alexei tries to guess the next turn of the wheel at the roulette table is palpable. Dostoyevsky's own bouts with epilepsy and addiction to gambling undoubtedly contribute to his ability to capture these states so vividly.

Some things never change. I saw something in The Gambler that took me by surprise. A reference to lawyers using mental illness as defense:

"Lawyers have taken to arguing in criminal cases that their clients were not responsible at the moment of their crime, and that it was a form of disease. 'He killed him,' they say, 'and has not memory of it.' And only imagine, General, the medical authorities support them - and actually maintain that there are illnesses, temporary aberrations in which a man scarcely remembers anything..."

Would I recommend The Gambler? Yes, with some caveats. Everyone should be able to relate to the larger theme, the struggle with our darker natures and passions and the destructive force of those passions. The 19th century struggle of Russian identity and the culture clash with other nationalities, especially the French, might be harder to grasp or understand. Dostoyevsky also pays little attention to details of settings and personal descriptions of his characters, which might leave some readers without a "place to hang their hat." There are no lovely snow swept vistas or lilac infused gardens in which to revel here. Dostoyevsky chooses to focus on the thoughts and emotions of his characters. The characters are effusive and a bundle of contradictions always undergoing some kind of internal torment. The emotions and situations will seem sensationalistic, but it is important to remember that Dostoyevsky likes to examine the depths of human experience in his writing. He has done just that in The Gambler.

1 comment:

  1. I've only read Dostoevsky's most famous books (C&P and The Brothers Karamazov), but I do want to read more of him! Did you know he wrote The Gambler in a v short time period to pay off his own gambling debts? hehe