The Gambler, from Tom Marks

August 9, 2008 |

DostoevskyI'm re-reading The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, like Ayn Rand, is associated with the literary branch of the Romantic Realism school.

Behind the roots of The Gambler lies an industrious irony that I've always found fascinating, and if not already aware, your sensibilities probably will as well.

I am a firm believer in the notion that almost all art is autobiographical, at least on some level. The reasoning being that the creator can never fully detach themselves form the body of their personal experiences, especially the darker ones. Which is why it's always instructive to be familiar with a novelist's or playwright's bio, as at some point it is going to creep into their work, consciously or not.

One of the most prominent examples is Eugene O'Neills' Long Day's Journey Into Night, in which he cathartically addresses his uneasy family life as a young man, including an unvarnished treatment of his mother's struggles with morphine addiction. It is a brilliant play, but if one is familiar with the playwright's background, painful to read or observe, so one can only imagine how torturous it most have been to write. So much so, that even though his masterpiece was written 11 years prior to his death, he contractually stipulated that it not be published until 25 years following his demise. And he went so far as to arrange having a copy of the manuscript placed in a document vault at Random House until such time. Widow saw otherwise though, after only three years. Did an end-around, donated the rights and royalties to Yale, voiding the original contract's terms.

In his novella, Dostoevsky also lets some of some of his foibles bubble to the surface. But he took it to another level, one which speaks directly to the genesis of that book's interesting inspiration.

In order to pay off some chronic gambling debts, roulette being his bete noir, he requested an advance from a shady publisher. But in order to receive the funds, he had to double down and further wager that he would be able to complete the work under a short and strict deadline, even though it was known that he was already in the midst of another pressing project. Per the deal, if he failed to meet the deadline, and it was assumed that he wouldn't, then the calculating publisher would not only have exclusive literary rights to all his future works for the next nine years, but also without any compensation at all to the author.

Forced to negotiate from a position of abject weakness, Dostoevsky nevertheless accepted the long and risky odds and franticly set about writing about what else but the perils of gambling. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.





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3 Comments so far

  1. steve leslie on August 11, 2008 9:51 am

    Your contribution reminds me of my visit to the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg Florida some years back. I am only superficially knowledgeable in art and am most familiar with his The Persistence of Memory which I viewed at the MoMA in New York and the Sacrament of the Last Supper on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

    St. Petersburg is the permanent home for the A. Reynolds Morse & Eleanor R. Morse collection. I was immediately overwhelmed by The Discovery of America in its totality and enormity of 14 feet tall and 9 feet wide. It also houses some of his other famous works. Upon reading the commentaries on some of his painting, it provided me with a very illuminating view into the demons that Dali wrestled with during his life and how he projected them through his works. Some of the commentary is quite disturbing when one learns why his used surrealism to project the innermost darkness of his soul.

    The museum is not as large as I had envisioned it to be but very accommodative and has many paintings on display. If one is in the Tampa area I would encourage a side trip. I would doubt that a younger audience would appreciate Dali as it takes some effort to discern the complexity of his genius.

  2. shmuel on August 11, 2008 9:56 am

    I don’t care what schools they have been placed in — Rand and Dostoevsky have nothing to do with each other. However this is only a secondary folly; the original sin is inventing schools of artists in the first place. Not so much because art is “beyond category” blah blah blah but rather because it is too flattering to the mediocre — Rand — and too reductive of the great ones — Dostoevsky. Rand said some very important things but she is not an important artist.

  3. Valery Kotlarov on August 15, 2008 5:39 pm

    It reminds me that all genius inventions are mostly simple (following the ‘Occam’s razor’).
    Dostoyevsky is a brilliant example of implementation of this principle (hence making lemonade out of lemons). But what makes him extraordinary as a personality is probably this contrast of taking a risk - a courage - a contrary of being rational or consequential.


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