Copious notes, soon abandoned; writing in a rush; the result sent off as soon as finished – no wonder I am so interested in Dostoevsky’s method of composition. It is mine. I cannot pace about like he did, but I would if I could.
Dostoevsky is in a hurry. If he does not deliver his new novel in time, he loses the publishing rights to all of his work, decades of writing. No time to waste. Get writing. Opening paragraph:
At last I have come back from my fortnight’s absence. Our friends have already been two days in Roulettenburg. I imagined that they were expecting me with the greatest eagerness; I was mistaken, however. The General had an extremely independent air, he talked to me condescendingly and sent me away to his sister. I even fancied that the General was a little ashamed to look at me. Marya Filippovna was tremendously busy and scarcely spoke to me; she took the money, however, counted it, and listened to my whole report. They were expecting Mezentsov, the little Frenchman, and some Englishman; as usual, as soon as there was money there was a dinner-party; in the Moscow style. Polina Alexandrovna, seeing me, asked why I had been away so long, and without waiting for an answer went off somewhere. Of course, she did that on purpose. We must have an explanation, though. Things have accumulated.
Talk about starting in the middle. Who are these people? Seven characters, including the narrator and the Englishman and the little Frenchman, with no hint of any relationship. Polina turns out to be the General’s step-daughter, and the narrator, along with most of the other men, turn out to be in competition for her hand.
The narrator is just the family tutor. How will he ever be able to marry her? By winning money at the roulette table. Thus the title, thus “Roulettenburg,” a German spa town with a casino. The one thing I knew about the book before reading it was that it contained a plausible and recognizable depiction of gambling addiction. Everyone plans to solve their money troubles by gambling.
At that point I ought to have gone away, but a strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put out my tongue at it. I laid down the largest stake allowed – four thousand gulden – and lost it. Then, getting hot, I pulled out all I had left, staked it one the same number, and lost again, after which I walked away from the table as though I were stunned. I could not even tell what had happened to me… (Ch. 4)
So gambling takes the place of the mysticism or manias of so many other Dostoevsky works. Perhaps infected by my own clinical age, I find the idea passable as fiction but thin, although plumper than the absurd soap opera into which Dostoevsky plunges the tutor and through his narration the reader.
I will glance back at the opening paragraph. The narrator’s absence is never really explained. The sister, Marya Filippovna, departs the novel after doing nothing at about the one-fifth mark. The money of course fits the gambling theme. And then there is Mezentsov, the great Mezentsov, who not only never arrives but is never mentioned again. Never hinted at. Dostoevsky’s Godot.
Sloppiness? Haste? A joke? A mistake? Whoever he is, he has achieved immortality as the strangest part of the strange opening of The Gambler.
I read The Gambler in Constance Garnett’s translation, as found in Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.