Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Red and Black: The Gambler by Dostoevsky

It's not every writer that can take a break from writing a classic to pen an excellent novella but as we should know by now FD is not every writer.  For this is exactly what he did with this work alongside one of his masterpieces Crime and Punishment.  Apparently he wrote this in four weeks and in a very un Dostoevsky Hollywood moment he fell in love and married the young stenographer who helped him.  This has been the subject of a pretty ropey movie with Michael Gambon -  interspersed with the plot of the original book - which to be honest would need a bit of padding as it is a fairly slight story.

The other part of this story is that the reason he wrote it was to pay off a gambling debt.  This segues into the most striking element of the book - that is the element of autobiography.  All the early Dost traits are here: doomed unrequited love with unattainable woman, mediation on the nature of addiction and vaguely xenophobic characteristics of the main European nationalities.  In some ways the work this most resembles is his travel journal of his continental travails.

I think one of the most significant elements of the work is that it is his first fiction set completely outside Russia.   This gives a sharpness to his description of the Russian psyche when they are far from home.  The nominal "hero" works in the loosest sense for a "family" of chancers - an ostensibly aristocratic group who have washed up in the elite mittel - European gambling resort of Roulette-enberg.  Headed by the General the pretence is that they have untold wealth - he has attracted a few parasitic good looking hangers-on with this story.

In reality there is nothing there.  Quite a telling comment by FD on the flimsiness of the image of much of the entourage of Tsarist Russia in the 19th Century.  Money means status - nothing else; it is not related to work  or wages.  A common theme of some of the weaker aristocratic figures in Dost's work. When there is no money everything else crumbles away.  This is similar to FD's characterisation of a French nomadic aristocrat who does seem to have wealth - maybe making an ironic point of the relative wealth of an aristocrat who comes from a country that overthrew its feudalism to the poverty of ones from a country that they nominally rule.  The pragmatic Englishman  (Mr Astley! Never gonna give him up) who is in the ambit of the group has a stable financial background - the nascent bourgeoisie then beginning to dominate all of Europe - if not Russia.

Given that context gambling is the perfect activity.  Dostoevsky explains brilliantly in parts of the work the attraction of beating the casinos: in the novella (and in FD's actual  life) this is roulette.  He also explains the double think and calculations gamblers make with every transaction in life - including in the final analysis with the "Gambler" Alexis' romantic obsession with the femme fatale Polina.  He also provides a whistle stop tour of the finer technical points of "rouge et noir" or the roulette wheel -useful for any online gambling addicts out there.  Money and the weird forms of coin that make up the currency are a constant in the work - all relations are measured in some financial way - with wins and losses.

There is no real narrative direction the Gambler wins and loses but it is full of very funny vignettes.  In particular the appearance of the General's grandmother - who the General is expecting to drop dead at any minute to give him his legacy - at the resort and her arrogant behaviour which sees her believing she will beat the odds.  In short measure she loses all her wealth outlined in painful detail as the General sees his Russian inheritance essentially disappear before his eyes.

Another thing I noted about the work was the absence of any real ideological debate which underpins most of the dynamic of Dostoevsky's fiction.  Perhaps this is what leads to the slightly disposable feeling of the piece.  It seems to focus solely on the dynamic of inter-Euro relations of the nineteenth century and Alexis own obsessions with gambling and Polina - the former wins.  There are a few broad swipes at comparing Russia with other European countries but that is about it - no detailed dissection of nihilism or the necessity of religious feeling.

It is an enjoyable 100 pages though and actually given the utter reliance on gambling which late capitalism has  - with house prices, credit and the stock market - there is a telling insight into the psychology of people thrust into this world.  In 2014 in a sense that is all of us if we want to navigate the choppy waters of capitalism.  I think Dostoevsky saw this even in early nineteenth century capitalism and could see the problems attached - he wrote this to clear his own gambling debts for God's sake!

All in all a slight detour from the wonders of writing Crime and Punishment then but a worthwhile little rest.  That he created this in essence as a throwaway tells us a lot about the writer and the man.

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