The things Dostoevsky characters say. They reinforce my stereotypes sometimes. My stereotypes about Dostoevsky characters, I mean. The narrator of The Gambler is a close relative of the Underground Man, of Raskolnikov, of Prince Myshkin. His gambling, and the ecstatic state it brings on, replaces Myshkin’s epilepsy or Raskolnikov’s – how does Raskolnikov work himself into a frenzy? I have forgotten. Regardless, that out-of-context line I put in the title, from Chapter 7, is perfect.
The problem with The Gambler is twofold; first, that the governing conceit of gambling, although interesting for its own sake, is a poor substitute for ax murder, and second, the soap opera that I am plunged into in that remarkable first paragraph is not all that interesting for its own sake. Will the General marry the demi-mondaine; will the virtuous step-daughter marry the neurotic narrator, the decadent Frenchman, or the steadfast Englishman? The narrator plans to win his bride at the roulette table, while everyone is waiting for the wealthy Granny, back in Russia, to die. Then they can divvy up the estate and make whichever matrimonial mistakes they please.
Honestly, who cares? I am not convinced Dostoevsky cared too much. A little over a third of the way in, he jerks the novel sideways. I suppose this counts as a surprise in the plot, but I tell you, it is the best reason to read the book. A new guest appears at the hotel, waving for the narrator, a “woman sitting in a big armchair”:
who had arrived with her own servants and with so many trunks and boxes, and had been carried up the steps in an invalid-chair, was seated – Granny! Yes, it was she herself, the terrible old Moscow lady and wealthy landowner… the Granny about whom telegrams had been sent and received, who had been dying and was not dead, and who had suddenly dropped upon us in person, like snow on our heads. (Ch. 9)
Granny is an invalid, so she must be carried all over the spa in her armchair. She communicates by “shouting in a loud, peremptory voice and scolding every one.”
The narrator takes her to see her heir, the General, “immensely delighted at the thunderbolt we were launching at [him].” The soap opera has turned into a farce.
If Granny had remained silent for a few seconds longer, he would, perhaps, have had a stroke.
“How on earth what? I got on the train and came. What’s the railway for? You all thought that I had been laid out, and had left you a fortune? You see, I know how you sent telegrams from here. What a lot of money you must have wasted on them! They cost a good bit from here. I simply threw my legs over my shoulder and came off here.”
Granny is a great invention. She allows Dostoevsky to pour comic energy into the book, even before she takes to roulette and becomes a gambler herself. She completely takes over the middle third of the novel. It is worth reading the book just for this section.
Then as a bonus, after more melodrama the next to last chapter is a hilarious Balzac parody (“What shall I say about Paris? It was madness, of course, and foolery”). I won’t go into it. No, one line:
Bored and dispirited, I used to go nightly to the Château de Fleurs, where regularly every evening I got drunk and practised the cancan (which they dance so disgustingly there), and acquired in the end a kind of celebrity. (Ch. 16)
Now that is a line I never would have guessed to be Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky’s method lends itself to episodes, bursts that allow the restless author to focus, to create units that make sense on their own however strangely they fit in the novel. The Gambler features two great ones.
Maybe I will return to some of this when I finish The Idiot.