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Recent Reads: The Gambler by Dostoevsky

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“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed heatedly, “Dostoevsky is immortal!”
   (The Master and Margarita)

“The Gambler” is not one of Dostoevsky’s best known novels, but I felt the need to (re)read it recently for several reasons:

1. I found a nice, shiny new Hugh Aplin translation from Alma Press at a bargain price
2. I’ve been (trying) to watch online the late, great Aleksandr Abdulov in the title/Alexei role of a theatrical adaptation called “Barbarian and Heretic” – which, as it’s not subtitled and as I’m not a Russian-speaker is a tiny bit hard to follow. So I have just been gazing awestruck at the acting (and the rapidity and apparent unintelligibility of the language), but I figured if I re-read the book it might make more sense…
3. I haven’t read “The Gambler” for probably over 20 years
4. I just fancied some Dostoevsky!

So there!

Aleksandr Abdulov as Alexei in the 2005 Lenkom production of "Barbarian and Heretic"

Aleksandr Abdulov as Alexei in the 2005 Lenkom production of “Barbarian and Heretic”

“The Gambler”, as Aplin points out in his useful introduction, is just as famous for the circumstances of its composition as for the content itself, as Dostoevsky wrote it in a frenzy to meet a deadline laid down by a dodgy publishing deal he’d entered into – and all credit to him, he succeeded in meeting the deadline and also produced a wonderful book. Much of it was based on Dostoevsky’s own gambling experiences and also his love for a Polina in his own life, immortalised here in the story.

The book tells the tale of Alexei Ivanovich, a young tutor who is employed by a widowed General. With the General are his two young children (who are somewhat incidental to the story),  plus his step-daughter Polina. The group are washed up in Roulettenburg, a German spa town with a sideline in gambling, full of a wonderful array of characters of all nationalities. In the General’s party are also Mademoiselle Blanche and her mother, plus a sneaky Frenchman known as de Grieux. Another major character is a mysterious, rich Englishman, Mr. Astley, and “Grandmamma”, the General’s mother, makes a memorable appearance too.

gambler alma

Alexei is absolutely besotted with Polina, and they have an intense, almost sadomasochistic relationship. Alexei regularly throws himself at her feet, professing intense undying love, and half the time she rejects him, at other times confiding slightly in him and ordering him to do strange pranks to prove his love.

“You overwhelm me. Don’t be angry with my chatter. You understand why you mustn’t get angry with me. I’m simply mad. But it’s all the same to me, even if you do get angry. Upstairs in my tiny room, all I have to do is remember and imagine just the sound of your dress, and I’m ready to cover my hand with bites. And what are you getting angry with me over? Over my calling myself a slave? Exploit it, exploit my slavery, exploit it! Do you know that I’ll kill you some day? And I shan’t kill you because I’ve stopped loving you, or because I’m jealous, but for no reason – I’ll simply kill you because I’m sometimes drawn to eat you up.”

The party and its members have a complex set of relationships – the General adores the much-younger Mademoiselle Blanche and wants to marry her, although she is obviously only interested in him for his money and is not what she seems; de Grieux is also pursuing Polina (as, it transpires, is Mr. Astley). The General is in debt up to his neck, mortgaged to de Grieux, and they are all desperately waiting for Grandmamma to die, sending telegrams to Moscow to find out the state of her health.

But Grandmamma does not die, and instead turns up dramatically in Roulettenburg, to the amazement of all, and the delight of Alexei, who is something of a wild card. She instantly drags Alexei off to be her guide around the roulette tables, firstly winning vastly, but then getting the gambling bug and losing everything, finally returning to Moscow broke. This has a knock-on effect for the rest of the group – the General is dropped by Blanche; Polina is threatened by destitution, abandoned by de Grieux and has a breakdown; Alexei is overtaken by a kind of frenzy and goes to bet wildly to try to get money to rescue Polina but in her madness she rejects him and is whisked away by Astley. In a haze, after his rejection, Alexei takes off for Paris with Blanche, sets her up with his fortune so that she can marry the General, and ends up back in the betting world, completely hooked. The book ends a little ambiguously, with the news that Polina is in Switzerland and loves Alexei – but is the lure of love stronger than the lure of gambling?

“I remember you at a heated and potent moment in your life; but I’m certain you’ve forgotten all your best impressions of that time; your dreams, your present most urgent desires go no further than pair and impair, rouge, noir, the twelve middle numbers and so on and so forth, I’m certain!”

I have to say that I found myself absolutely gripped by this story! I hadn’t remember the book as being so compelling, so readable or so unputdownable, and maybe this is something to do with Aplin’s exemplary translation. Even the physical presentation of Alma Classics is lovely, with photos at the beginning, helpful introduction, notes, biography and synopses of Dostoevsky’s other work. But the story itself is great! The characters are alive and real, the events funny and exciting and the whole package very involving. On top of this, there is the underlying theme of obsession and its effect on human nature. There are two kinds of addiction on show in this novel – that of obsessive love (Alexei for Polina; the General for Blanche) and that of an obsession with money, power and gambling (the three are really rolled into one here). The need for money was essential in this kind of high-class, ex-pat society as it gave status and power, and the terrible temptation of gambling to gain it takes hold of many of the characters in the book. This obsession impacts with love in that a women like Blanche is motivated by a need for money to give her a comfortable, respectable position in society; whatever her emotions, if an older man like the General can give her that status she will marry him. Likewise, Polina knows and accepts that Alexei loves her more truly than the others but he is a poor tutor; when he wins vast sums of money to try to in effect give her a life, it is too late for her to be convinced that he is not trying to buy her.

“Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, to all appearances the most impossible idea, becomes so firmly fixed in your head that you finally take it for something that can be realised…”

The book’s narrator, Alexei himself, is an appealing and unforgettable character – impetuous, unpredictable, often unaware of the subtler relationships going on around him, and often relying on his friend Mr. Astley to interpret events for him. He is something of a prototype for many of Dostoevsky’s characters – dragged from pillar to post by fate and circumstance, not able to control his whims and in the end unable really to control his life. Despite all this, he’s a very likeable character and I reached the end of the book wishing for a happy resolution for him… It’s a testament to Dostoevsky’s writing that he emerges so strongly, because all of the characters in this book are wonderfully drawn and very alive.

Feodor-Dostoevsky

This story also paints a very strong picture of hold that gambling can get of a human being, so that all reason goes out of the window and a person ends up behaving wildly and uncharacteristically – the effect of the roulette table on both Alexei and Grandmamma is dramatic:

“…I remember distinctly that I really was suddenly possessed, without any call of vanity, by a dreadful thirst for risk. Perhaps, having gone through so many sensations, one’s soul is not sated, but only inflamed by them, and demands yet more sensations, more and more vigorously until it is finally exhausted.”

I actually can’t praise this book highly enough – for the quality of the writing, the liveliness of the characters, the storyline, everything. This is definitely one the author’s most accessible works, a rattling good yarn peopled with memorable types. If anyone tells you Dostoevsky is difficult, just point them at this particular edition of “The Gambler” and tell them to get engrossed!

Meanwhile, back to “Barbarian… ” to see if I can now follow the plot….

The Master and Margarita TV adaptation – more thoughts

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I find myself in a somewhat fragile state of mind today, after watching last night the final part of Vladimir Bortko’s magnificent TV adaptation. When the UK’s Sky Arts Channel showed their much-lauded (but not that great) version of “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” last year, they also snuck in this 2005 Russian TV show onto their second channel – without any hype or fuss or anything. I was initially wary, as I tend not to take to other people’s interpretations of books I love.

M&M cover

But I shouldn’t have worried, as it was obvious from the first shots how much Bortko loves Bulgakov’s work and what a marvellous experience watching this show would be. The cast are magnificent – there could be the odd quibble (Woland is older in the show than his description) – but I thought they were just spot on. The sets were magnificent, the effects creditable, the music uplifting – I could rave for hours!

There’s always the danger when adapting a long work of literature that the meaning will be lost, but Bortko stuck closely to the book, and the length and pace of the show allowed the themes to develop properly – no flashy, pointless, rapid-cut action or special effects, but proper acting and dialogue and scenes.

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The acting was remarkably good and from what I’ve read online, the cast were Russian heavyweights. I was particularly taken with Koroviev, played by the late Aleksandr Abdulov, and his scenes with Kot Behemoth were a joy!

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Any negatives? Not really – I felt that episode 10’s final parting scenes were perhaps slightly truncated and we didn’t really say a proper farewell to Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. But the “horses flying to the moon” sequence was incredible and the whole episode was very moving.

I’d recommend this series strongly to anyone who loves the book of “The Master and Margarita” – it is available with English subtitles, or maybe watch Sky Arts to see if it is shown again. There is also an excellent site here which has much information on the book and the show. I’m definitely up for a re-read now – if my emotions can take it!

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As a sidenote, it struck me during my obsession with this show how parochial we are in the English-speaking world. Initially my Internet searches brought up limited information on the show. However, when I had a lightbulb moment and hit Google Translate, then put in various search terms in Russian, I came up with a mass of results. We assume that all actors and filmmakers and tv shows are English and known to us. But in the same way as there is literature in many languages, there are whole industries producing multi-language culture. Many of these actors and film-makers are unknown to us, producing work only in their own tongues, yet what they are producing is incredible. Bortko in particular seems to be a film-maker worth watching as what I’ve seen so far of his version of “A Dog’s Heart” looks equally amazing in its own way. We need to look outside of our own culture because experiences like these enrich us.

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