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much so, that even though his masterpiece was written 11 years prior to his death, he contractually stipulated that it not be published until 25 years following his demise.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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