Friday, 17 August 2001

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Gambler (1866)

Translation: Jessie Coulson, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 912

Dostoyevsky wrote this short novel in three weeks to clear his debts. It is, like many famous nineteenth century Russian novels, partly autobiographical, but it paints a very different picture of that country's soul from any other. Almost uniquely, it is set abroad; the Russian countryside is completely absent.

The theme of The Gambler is addiction; its narrator starts playing roulette in a German resort, just as Dostoyevsky did, and is continually willing to lose everything, always expecting to win. It is an honest portrait of addiction, a precursor to Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, but the novel also contains humour. There is a wonderful portrait of a terrible old lady, Antonida Vasilyevna Tarasevichev, who starts out as a background figure whose death will solve everyone's financial troubles, but who suddenly appears without warning in Roulettenburg and herself starts gambling away the inheritance.

Even for someone, like myself, who has never really felt the appeal of this kind of gambling - I would like to win because of intelligence or skill, not because of luck, particularly with the odds are stacked against the gambler, as they are in casinos - Dostoyevsky's novel paints a fascinating portrait. This is especially the case, as in The Naked Lunch also, because it is to a large extent autobiographical.

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