September 01, 2013

Dostoyevsky the Gambler

On September 18 (30 new style), 1863, Dostoyevsky wrote to his friend Nikolai Strakhov from Rome, asking him for help coming up with some money, specifically, help finding a publisher for a story he was planning to write:

The story is as follows: a certain type of Russian living abroad. Take note: Russians abroad have been a major topic in the journals. All this will be reflected in my story. And in general, it will reflect this moment in our inner life (to the extent possible, of course). I am taking the immediate nature of a man who, while highly cultured, is entirely incomplete, who has lost all faith, but dares not cease believing, who rebels against authorities and fears them? He comforts himself with the thought that there is nothing for him to do in Russia – bitter criticism of people urging our Russians living abroad to come back home... The main thing is that all his vital humors, energy, pluck, and courage have gone into roulette. He is a gambler, and no ordinary gambler, just as Pushkin's miserly knight was no ordinary miser. (I don't mean to compare myself with Pushkin. I'm just trying to be clear.) He is a sort of poet, but the point is that he is ashamed of his own poetry, since he has a profound sense of its baseness, although the need for risk also ennobles him in his own eyes. The entire story is about how he is in his third year of playing roulette in various gambling houses.

Dostoyevsky was no stranger to the torments suffered by inveterate gamblers. Throughout his entire life he was plagued by a mad passion for roulette. The reason he found himself writing this letter from Rome in the first place was that he had recently lost all his money in Wiesbaden. Now, in the throes of pennilessness, debt, and a complicated love life, he was hoping to earn money with the help of a "short story."

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