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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: The Text

The Gambler
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 9780140441796
Matt Alison

Preparation to read The Gambler by Dostoyevsky started in January on a cold Sunday afternoon in Manhattan. I live in Queens but even the short subway ride to Manhattan averages only once a week, on Sunday nights to dine with my sister. On that Sunday I met a grad school friend, Josh, earlier at one in the Union Square area.

Usually when Josh and I hang out, we go drinking, but both did not feel inclined to drink that afternoon. After lunch at a burger place, where we waited twenty minutes to sit down, we thought of where to go in the bitter cold. We concluded that it’s easier when drinking because you can sit in the same place for hours, if not the whole day. After Virgin Records, we decided to go to the Strand. Years have lapsed since I last stepped into that famous bookstore.
As a librarian I can check out basically any book I want to read which means I rarely purchase books. Someday I’ll buy my favorite books and brag about my personalized bookshelf, but not anytime soon. So, I did not plan to buy anything at the Strand, but wanted to browse. I noticed the tables cramped together, the high bookshelves, and plenty of people rushing back and forth. Near the entrance a display table highlighted the new Louise Erdrich short story collection. I told Josh how much I like her prose, that I own most of her books, and contemplated purchasing the collection. My friend listened politely to my description of her work, and even though I put the book down because of the twenty dollar price tag, something in me set off.

As we walked down the main aisle with the display tables I felt the need to point out the books I read or knew about and pompously talk loudly about them. Josh is into poetry, so I talked about the book Reader’s Block by Richard Markson, which is not poetry but experimental writing. Reader’s Block is basically an entire book of one sentence statements of weirdly tragic facts about famous literary and artistic types. While walking to my next book to sputter about I noticed an attractive woman, late twenties, pick up and examine that Markson book. Quickly after that I noticed another woman gaze at Josh, not an unusually occurrence, but it fueled my mania that we were two apparent literary geniuses in the eyes of these maidens. In the matter of minutes I pointed out Blindness, What is the What, Henry Miller, Tender is the Night, Native Son, People of the Book, and other books. I talked loudly with a delirious authority.
Josh went to the poetry section, and my mania was solo for a couple of minutes. In the cramped fiction stacks I smugly asked a woman sitting down to look for an author on the bottom shelf. I asked a worker to climb a ladder to see if a book was on the top shelf, which was the low point. After pontificating so much on books, I felt compelled to purchase one.

Josh returned to the fiction area with a couple of poetry books. We were standing in the D section of the fiction and Dostoyevsky came to my mind. I do not own a copy of Notes from the Underground and decided I must own one. But looking at the shelf that classic was not there, but The Gambler was, the Dover Thrift edition for a whopping three dollars and fifteen cents. In college, years ago, the Dover editions cost a dollar even, but I decided to purchase it anyway. The rest of my day passed pleasantly.

I notice these days I purchase books with the best intentions to read them, but they stay on my bookshelves for months, if not years. I guess I find comfort with the due dates of library books, and therefore finish my checked out books. Years ago I worked at a bookstore and accumulated a collection of books, but they still sit on my dilapidated bookshelf. Quite a few of my owned books are unfinished documented by paper bookmarks. However, The Gambler I vowed to read soon, after I read the checked out Bonfire of the Vanities first. I am a monogamous reader, one book at a time, so a few weeks passed to finish Wolfe’s massively good but dated book. When I got to reading The Gambler, I read it quickly.

Now I’ll explain my history with Doystoyvsky books. Probably in my late college years I tried to read Crime and Punishment but for whatever reason did not finish the classic. After college in my bookstore years, I read The Brothers Karamasoz and do not remember much of the story. All I can tell you about that book is part of the setting takes place in a house and revolves around some sort of a family. According to my reading log, in August 2005, I read the relatively new Crime and Punishment edition translated by David McDuff.

People that continue to read do so because of the sensations on a personal level that reading a great book gives you. This edition of Crime and Punishment mesmerized me, the troubles of Roskalnikov and his misguided judgment. The build up until he gets caught just conveys utter desperation that I find rare in literature.

In September 2007, I confided in my friend, Joe, what I wanted to write as a novel and he suggested I read these two books: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Notes from the Underground. I did so, and Goethe was wonderful but a little tough for me to comprehend fully. However Notes from the Undergound really gripped me in a different but just as important way as Crime and Punishment did. So prior to The Gambler two books by Doystoyevsky affected my greatly. Notes from the Underground has unnerving scenes that exemplify mania. The character gets frustrated on unimportant things, like worrying sick about seemingly common encounters. Also Notes from the Underground is written in the first person, a unique trait for Victorian era books.

After reading Wolfe’s diatribe on 1980’s New York City socioeconomic injustice I opened up The Gambler. A library term for the page at the beginning of every book with the publishing information is called the verso page. For the Dover edition of The Gambler the verso page documents that it is a slightly rendered Constance Garnett translation from 1917, over ninety years ago. Gloom overtook me because of my opinions of translations. I think that contemporary authors like Coehlo, Saramago, Marukami, Balanos, and others owe their English language success to the new science of modern day translations. My experience with several translated books proves in my mind that the linguistic types of today are better at making every language in the world into English. So with some skepticism I started the short novel of 117 pages.

My reading of the first few pages did not enthrall me. The first person narrator, Alexey Ivanovitch, observes a dysfunctional Russian family in a German gambling town awaiting the death of ‘granny’ and the inheritance to follow. The topic of mass inheritance I felt does not resonate with today’s independent minded culture. But within a couple of chapters into the book the theme of money and status does relate to contemporary society. Today’s reader can replace generals and barons with finance types and celebrities. Later in the book Ivanovitch’s all or nothing attitude towards money becomes his ruin.

Among this dysfunctional family that the narrator becomes entangled with is Polina Alexandrovna, the love interest, and one universal theme I found compelling. My interpretation of this theme is an intense love by a man toward a crazed woman who does not reciprocate the feeling but manipulates the devotion to her advantage. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham brilliantly shows the loving of the wrong and damaged woman theme. Anyway in The Gambler Ivanovitch tells Ms. Alexandrovna he would do anything for her, even kill. Instead she tells him to make a scene in front of the Baron. He does scandal the baron in a buffoon type way and he almost lost the roof over his head. All the while Polina courts a Frenchman, and treats the whole scenerio as a game. When ‘the granny’ comes to town and gambles the family fortune Ivanovitch plays sympathetic to various characters but continually lusts for Polina. I think the intensity is true to nature, that some men are drawn to troubled women and act crazy themselves.

Dostoyevsky also nailed the theme of impulse control in The Gambler. In chapter fourteen before Ivanovitch goes on his amazing run at the roulette table he contemplates this:
Sometimes the wildest idea, the most apparently impossible thought, takes possession of one’s mind so strongly that one accepts it at last as something substantial…more than that, if the idea is associated with a strong passionate desire, then sometimes one will accept it as something fated, inevitable, predestined—as something bound to be, and bound to happen. (Page 89)

This powerful insight can be applied to any obsessive vice. I interpret this theme as someone partaking in any vice examining the situation as not a choice but inherent to his or her life. People go through self destructive actions and think of it as the only way. At the end of the novella, after most of the characters dispersed ways, Ivanovitch sits and talks on a bench to the Englishman, Mr. Ashtley, who tells him in so many words the wrongs of his gambling life. Mr Ashtley tells the narrator that he will live in a constant all or nothing cycle with money. Ivanovitch agrees but the story ends with him calculating what is in his pocket and how he can gamble that change.

The Gambler and Notes From the Undergound really hit the spot with me as a reader because I identified with them. However I recommend these two short and not time consuming novels to anyone. Even to people not plagued by any type of vice or mania and always make the right decisions with the people they love. A good story can take the reader through varying parts of the world and lifestyles. I enjoyed the grit of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Herbert Selby Jr., but would never consider doing hard drugs.

I feel fortunate for my rambling conversations about literature and writing with my roommate, Tim, and other friends. Many people were English majors at one point, but their careers do not involve books, and therefore their literary interests fade. Sometimes I’ll plow through books that don’t grab me, just to mark off that I read them. But reading regularly I run into books like The Gambler where I get almost a feeling of euphoria when I turn the last page and contemplate what I read. Reading classics on your own differs from in the classroom setting, and something I recommend because your own reaction is what counts.

© Matt Alison March 2009
mallisonnumberone at

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