Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, and all the Big Important Russian Novels

I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.

The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.

Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.

Recommendation: Read it!

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