Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They were expecting Mezentsov - The Gambler begins

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.


  1. I loved 'The Gambler'. I read it after 'The House of the Dead' as the two were collected in my edition, and it was a breath of fresh air after the depressing (slightly dull) tale of life in a labour camp.

  2. Packed with House of the Dead, how funny. I mean, not funny. Or half funny.

    The Gambler is loads of fun, and, trapped by Mezentsov, I have not got anywhere near the fun part. In tomorrow's post, grandma is coming.

  3. This is great stuff, this and yesterday's post. It's similar to Dickens' composition for serialization, yes? Though perhaps what we get from Fyodor (I am on a first-name basis with all my favorite writers) is more like a first draft than what we get from Dickens. It's typical of a lot of first drafts for there to be blind alleys and dropped characters/themes. I wonder how Karamazov or any of the other improvised novels would have turned out had FD spent more time with them. Would he have ironed out the strangeness, the contradictory ideas, the repetitions? Would that be better or worse? No way to tell. The novels he gave us are huge, dense, urgent and crazy. Who knows what he really had in mind?

    I have not read The Gambler, though we have a couple editions on the shelf. Maybe soon.

  4. Also, and tangentially, I tell you that while I was in Prague I picked up a book of Dickens' Christmas stories, translated into German by Gustav Meyrink.

  5. Some Dickens novels are improvised in the sense that he had no idea where he was going. He always, perhaps by the strictures of publishing, did more editing and had a strong sense of the snugness of the box, so to speak. A serialized unit is this long, and this much material fits in it.

    The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example. It is just as you describe - dropped characters, foreshadowing that never aftshadows. Yet many episodes and passages are brilliant, just the Dickensian imagination at gallop. Brilliant nonsense.

    You get right at what Dostoevsky does when you mention the strangeness and repetition. Given that this difficult, frustrating method is adopted by necessity, given that Dostoevsky trains himself in it, he then proceeds to perfect it, to squeeze every possible innovation and effect out of it. So the result is nothing like a perfect novel, nothing like Turgenev. So what, he says, so what.

    Gustav Meyrink's A Prague Christmas Carol, what a wonderful, frightening idea.

  6. To those who have not read it, I strongly recommend his short story, "The Crocodile"-it is hilarious and very strange,

  7. Oh yeah, I always forget about that one. I do want to read it. It is not in my Great Short Works collection, so it slips my mind. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Scott makes a point that was on my mind reading this. What if FD had adopted a straightdforward, traditional approach? - naturally, circumstances in his life would have had to be totally different to allow that. But what kind of work would have resulted? Different, certainly - but would we care? Would he be a literary titan regardless of the methods he chose, and the results they created?

    Well, I think it's a more interesting counter-factual strand than "the Nazis conquered Britain"....

  9. You can narrow the counter-factual, too. By the time Dostoevsky was writing Karamazov, he was a successful writer, no longer under the economic and contractual constraints that had led to the Method. What if he had spent more time revising and polishing that one book?

    I like to think the would have corrected its most glaring problems, but the odds are just as good that he would have ruined it or never finished it.