Grandma Goes Gambling

January 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Gambler.

Reading next: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

I love gambling, though I’m too cheap to gamble for anything but small stakes.  Gambling as a powerful force in American life has forced its way to the surface in the past fifteen or so years after a long, long existence underground: the poker craze (now, maybe, dying out, though the World Series of Poker events and online poker rooms are still drawing more and more players each year, I believe), offshore Internet gambling, stocks and other sordid financial risks.  Maybe most of all, gambling on sports.  I remain convinced that the two biggest reasons why pro (and to a lesser degree, college) football has become the overwhelming spectator sport of choice in the last 30 years have been the perfection of its scoring system and statistics to facilitate gambling (on point spreads, over/under total points, fantasy leagues, and the like), and the matching of the pace and flow of the game to television broadcast.  College basketball might have died out completely by now, were it not for gambling on the NCAA tournament.

All of which has nearly nothing to do with Dostoyevsky.  Nearly, but not absolutely nothing: the darker aspects of American culture that are revealed in its gambling economy (in its various forms, from semi-secret to publicly financed) are also examined in the section of The Gambler in which Grandmother, the matriarch of the group waiting and hoping for her to die, goes on a spree at the roulette wheel.

Grandmother’s gambling is crucial to the plot, but Dostoyevsky also structures his telling of her spree as a kind of self-contained vignette: a primer on how not to gamble, or the worst that can happen with gambling to the wrong sort of personality.  Grandmother has the bad luck to have very good beginner’s luck: seeing zero come up on her first bet (zero being the number in roulette that loses all bets except those on zero), she becomes convinced that she should bet on zero until it comes up, and it does, twice more, soon thereafter, and becoming convinced of her mastery of the wheel, she then bets everything she’s won on red — and wins again. Satisfied, she stops for the night, having won a massive amount.

But now she has the fever.  Grandmother is quite used to things going her way, to people obeying her commands — she is a Russian noblewoman, after all, owner of entire “villages” of people.  Her first observations of people playing roulette convince her that people are just “fools” for placing the wrong bets; they just don’t have God on their side, they just aren’t marked for greatness the way she is.  And so she goes back, and the bets she placed the previous day don’t work now, and she loses, and loses, and loses, and exchanges her Russian funds at a truly usurious rate, and loses some more, and even when she’s full of rage at how much she’s lost she remains convinced that she’ll win it all back, and cancels her first train back to Moscow, and goes through one more round of losing nearly everything she has.

This is how pure gambling (in games with no skill at all involved) works.  It reveals the obvious: there’s no rhyme or reason to luck.  God is absent, on no one’s side, particularly — unless it’s the house’s, which is a rather monstrous thought.  Or isn’t He?  Does He abase Grandmother?  All of this is interesting in relation to Dostoyevsky.  His telling of the passages in the casino is quite detailed, in terms of the wagers placed, the outcomes, the ebb and flow of the game; there is an investment in the play-by-play of the action which reveals his own gambling obsession, his attempts to work out how and why roulette seems so maddeningly simple and yet continues to take her (and his) money.  He is interested in these minutiae, and you can almost hear the frenzy of his narration of the events.

Most of the time the outcomes and wagers are realistically inconsistent, if that makes sense.  Dostoyevsky (through Alexsei, his narrator) inserts observations of how the game seems to work, with runs of numbers coming up over and over and then passing out of favor, with red or black coming up more than the other on a particular night and how this affects the wagers.  He seems honestly perplexed about whether these observations actually mean anything, reveal any system operating behind the random motion of the ball and the wheel.

This pattern breaks during Grandmother’s losing streak, when zero emerges as a Satanic figure.  Twice it comes up at crucial junctures right after she has forsaken it, speeding her fall while also fueling her rage and determination to win it all back; the cruel timing of these appearances in Dostoyevsky’s narrative, after zero has tempted Grandmother into earlier belief in its power, suggests that his roulette is not random, that it is an expression of the metaphysical.  (That Grandmother has been gambling with funds she’d originally earmarked for the renovation of a church is also quite suggestive of the Satanic power at work here.)  But this is not the end of the story.  Will Alexsei gamble his own money?  What will happen when he does?

Mothers and Other Monsters

November 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Woman in White.

Reading next: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

This book really does have more than its fair share of monsters, doesn’t it?  People monstrous — grotesque might be another way of putting it (but then I couldn’t use that killer title, lifted from this Maureen McHugh collection) — in their self-interest, their willful disavowal of wrongdoing or even wrongful impulse, their superficial gentility.

Fosco is an obvious example — like Milton’s Satan, he seems something of a heroic villain until you remember the bodies he’s buried under rhetoric, charm, and rationalization (it’s more complicated with the rather defensible Satan, of course, but that’s a whole other topic) — and I’ve already talked a little about Frederick Fairlie, who is so indifferent to everything in the world but his own comfort as to be rather delightful.  But I’m thinking here of other monsters.

The monstrous mother is Mrs. Catherick.  In her discussion with Walter, and especially in the letter she sends him, Mrs. Catherick displays her absolute lack of interest in her daughter’s well being; the coldness with which she dismisses news of Anne is matched only by the warmth with which she justifies her abandonment of Anne.  It’s a magnificent portrait, this little sketch of Mrs. Catherick.  There’s her pride at being bowed to by the minister, this tiny measure of civility and her rehabilitated status in her community to be clung to at all costs.  And, especially, there’s her magnificent sign-off to Walter, which, in context, seems like the epitome of that hoary old chestnut, the banality of evil: “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Is it wrong to argue that Walter Hartright himself is something of a monster, too?  What brought this to mind for me was his insistence that he bore no blame for Glyde’s death.  Of course, Glyde never would have been where he was if Walter were not digging into Glyde’s past — it’s not like he bears no responsibility.  And one of the main conflicts throughout the Third Epoch is Walter’s internal struggle between the need for vengeance and the need to protect Marian and Laura.  Collins kind of bails Walter out of this conflict, in the end.  But the conflict hews awfully close to that classic noir trope of the detective as the other side of the criminal coin: capable of impulses as dark as any murderer’s.  Interesting, that this proto-detective novel already contains the DNA of hardboiled novels and The French Connection.

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

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