Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Double and The Gambler

It has taken me an extremely long time to finish this book, mostly because I have struggled to find a dedicated reading time like the one my afternoon commute used to provide.  I think I'm getting into something of a routine, and hope to be closer to my old reading pace.  Fingers crossed!
The brilliant Russian translators Richard and Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky brought together two of Fyodor Dostoevsky's short novels, The Double and The Gambler, into a single volume.  Both were gambles of sorts on Dostoevsky's part, the former dating to 1845 and the latter more than 20 years later.  I enjoyed them, but not in any way approaching how much I love Dostoevsky's other works.

The Double is something of a "rethinking" of Gogol - not a plagiarism or an imitation, but more of a tribute.  The protagonist is a poor government clerk named Goliadkin, not the most likable fellow and something of a scoundrel.  During a bitter cold November day, he finds himself spiraling into a nightmare of a situation: someone was quite literally taking over his identity, and there was nothing Goliadkin could do about it.  This story displays some of the earliest signs of Dostoevsky's genius, but frankly, I did not enjoy it all that much. 

The Gambler was risky for a very different reason: Dostoevsky himself struggled with a gambling addiction, and the general setting for the story closely resembles one of his own trips abroad.  The protagonist and narrator, Alexei Ivanovich, is a young man in the mold of Alyosha Karamazov from Brothers K or Prince Myshkin of The Idiot.  He is young, somewhat innocent and imminently likable.  He is in the fictional gambling town of Roulettenberg working as a tutor for a Russian general with whose stepdaughter he is in love.  The supporting characters - especially the kooky Grandmother - are superb and well written, and Alexei's descent into a gambling addiction is both inevitable and believable.  In contrast to the first story in this book, this was extremely enjoyable and easy to read.

I'd suggest that everyone read Dostoevsky's novels, but would only recommend this to his biggest fans.  It won't get you hooked the way Brothers K or Crime and Punishment will; neither will it be the worst book you've read.

Next up: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  I have really read nothing by him since high school; time to give him a chance.

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