January 26, 2010 § 2 Comments
Now reading: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dostoyevsky, or any Russian writers at all, for that matter; I think the last thing I read was The Brothers Karamazov, maybe six or seven years ago. I’m amazed at how suddenly the force of his writing came back to me. Partly this is due to the nature of The Gambler, which begins very much in media res and plunges headlong, with part of the “fun” being to determine what’s going on among these seemingly sordid characters. But I think it’s also at least in part due to the very distinctive world Dostoyevsky creates in his books.
We don’t hear much about Dostoyevsky the creator of imaginative recreations of the world, of cities and places, as we do with, say, Dickens. Mostly this is because Dostoyevsky spends precious little time doing any sort of describing or scene-setting. And yet his focus on psychology, voice, relationship, and character create a kind of claustrophobic universe just as visceral and recognizable as the London of Dickens. You’re plunged into an alternate reality — or, if you prefer, a fantasy — with Dostoyevsky just as surely as you are in a science fiction novel; it’s just the alternate reality of a mind, usually a mind in serious trouble.
For me, this intense, almost hallucinatory quality to Dostoyevsky’s works makes for an odd reading experience. I find myself quite involved with the books as I read them, gobbling up chunks of text, catching intricacies of interrelationship and forebodings of coming events, savoring Dostoyevsky’s little flashes of surreality and powerful emotion. And then, when I finish… they somehow vanish. I’m astounded by how little I remember of what I’ve read of his. I remember more of Anna Karenina, read about ten years ago, than any of the three major Dostoyevsky works I read since. I’m baffled by this.
No one claims The Gambler is Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece; it’s better known for his having to write it in a hurry under great pressure, and for its autobiographical elements, than for anything actually involved in the text itself. But in a way its subject and setting — a group of nobles desperate for money and love, set loose on the roulette tables of a fictional spa town — are perfect for the fevered tone of his prose (or at least, his prose as it seems in translation). The most remarkable passage so far is in chapter two: in a single three-page paragraph, the narrator (about whom we know next to nothing at the point) discourses on the “two kinds of gambling: the genteel kind, and the plebeian or mercenary, such as that played by all sorts of riffraff.” (The translation I’m reading, by the way, is by Victor Terras.) He ranges over a variety of observations and anecdotes; he is witty and interesting on the various kinds of gambling; and yet the length and intensity of the discussion, and the switchbacks and asides and seeming contradictions and pronouncements such as “of late I have been finding it somehow extremely repulsive to apply any kind of moral standard to my actions and thoughts” contribute to a sense of derangement. The narrator (and an author?) plunge into their monologue to such a depth as to barely find their way back to the surface, the masterful tics and ramblings giving the sense of a character seriously lost in their subject, betraying a very likely problematic fascination.