Dostoevsky: life and gambling in Baden Baden

Dostoevsky and Anna Grigoryevna spent five agitated weeks in Baden-
Baden, with their fortunes and their future riding on the turn of the roulette wheel.
The sojourn of the Dostoevskys in this famous watering
place reproduces the predictably monotonous, sadly familiar, and demeaning
pattern of his gambling misadventures. During this time, how-
ever, an unavoidable call on Turgenev, now residing in Baden-Baden as
a more or less permanent resident, led to an epochal quarrel that left its
mark in the annals of Russian literature. Often thought to be merely a
rancorous personal altercation, the dispute between the two men had
explicit social-cultural implications of much greater scope that would re-
echo in both The Idiot and The Devils. Dostoevsky’s visit to the Basel
Museum, where he saw Holbein the Younger’s upsettingly realistic pic-
ture of the dead Christ, was also a notable event marking the termination
of this turbulent period.

The Dostoevskys arrived in Baden-Baden with very little money and,
able to afford only the most modest accommodations, rented two rooms
over a smithy in which work began at four in the morning. Anna Grigoryevna,
suffering some of the symptoms of her pregnancy, often felt weak
and queasy, and was, not surprisingly, subject to accesses of depression
and apathy. For the most part, however, she gallantly concealed her fears
and misgivings from her husband, and exhibited an extraordinary
staunchness in coping with the nerve-racking demands placed on her by
Dostoevsky’s shortcomings.

He began to gamble immediately, with the more or less usual results,
but occasionally winning sums large enough to give them a certain security
for the moment while allowing him to continue gambling for smaller
stakes. This was, in fact, what he intended to do, and he turned over the
amounts he gained to Anna for safekeeping; but after losing the allotted
amount, he always returned and begged for more. Anna found his pleadings
impossible to withstand because he was so tormented by the conflict
between his remorseful sense of baseness and his irresistible obsession.
A typical scene occurred on their third day, when half their money
had vanished; after losing five more gold pieces, Dostoevsky made his
usual pleas. “He was terribly excited, begging me not to think him a
rogue who robbed me of my last crust of bread only to lose it, while I
implored him only to keep calm, and that of course I did not think all
those things of him, and that he should have as much money as he liked.
Then he went away and I cried bitterly, being so cast down with sufferings
and self-tormentings.”

the gambler free pdf
Dostoevski wrote The Gambler at the same time he spent his fortune at the roulette tables of the Baden Baden casino.

In the midst of her own well-founded worries about the future (she
worked to improve her shorthand skills, and began to practice translating
from the French as a possible source of family income), Anna found
herself continually called upon to calm Dostoevsky’s own despondency
and self-castigations. Once he went out to gamble, promising to return
home quickly, and came back only seven hours later without a penny
and “utterly distracted.” Anna tried to quiet him, “but he would spare me
none of his self-reproaches, calling himself stupidly weak, and begging
me, Heaven knows why, for forgiveness, saying that he was not worthy
of me, he was a swine and I an angel, and a lot of other foolish things of
the same kind . . . and to try and distract him I sent him on an errand to
buy candles, sugar and coffee for me. . . . I was terribly disturbed by the
state he was in, being afraid it may lead to another fit.”2 This last sentence
explains a good deal about Anna’s remarkable self-control; nothing
was more important than to guard Dostoevsky against the over-
excitement that might bring on his epilepsy.

The house where Dostoevski wrote The Gambler Baden Baden
The house where Dostoevski wrote The Gambler, in Baden Baden, Germany.

One such attack is described in detail, and helps us to understand why
Anna felt that almost anything-even yielding without protest to Dostoevsky’s
mania-was better than risking the possibility of provoking an
epileptic seizure. “I wiped the sweat from his forehead and the foam
from his lips, and the fit only lasted a short while and was, I thought, not
a severe one. His eyes were not starting out of his head, though the convulsions
were bad. . . . As, bit by bit, he regained consciousness, he kissed
my hands and then embraced me. . . . He pressed me passionately to his
heart, saying he loved me like mad, and simply adored me. After the fits
he is always seized with a fear of death. He says he is afraid they will end
in his death, and that I must look after him. In order to quiet him I said
I would lie down on the sofa that is close to his bed.” Dostoevsky also
asked Anna to make sure, when she awoke the next morning, to check
whether he was still alive.

Dostoevsky himself was quite astonished at Anna’s extraordinary tolerance
of his failings, even when this meant, at times, pawning not only
their wedding rings but the earrings and brooch he had given her as a
present and, as a last resort, Dostoevsky’s overcoat and Anna’s lace
shawl and spare frock. He even commented to her that, “if I had been
older . . . I should have behaved quite differently and told him I had been
foolish before, and that if my husband was trying to do some stupid
things, I, as his wife, must not allow anything of the kind.” On another
occasion, when she had given way once more to his entreaties, he said,
perhaps half-seriously, that “it would have been better for him to have a
grumbling wife who would be scolding instead of pardoning him, and
nagging instead of comforting him, and that it was positively painful to
him the way I was so sweet.” Anna’s refusal to blame or berate Dostoevsky,
we may adduce from such words, could well have increased his
sense of guilt by blocking the possibility of turning angrily and self-
defensively against an accusatory judge. Prince Myshkin’s
all-comprehending desuetude will have much the same effect; but no more than
in the case of Dostoevsky will such a surge of guilt lead, in the novel, to
more than a momentary access of moral self-scrutiny.

Anna’s forbearance, whatever prodigies of self-command it may have
cost her, was amply compensated for (at least in her eyes) by Dostoevsky’s
immense gratitude and growing sense of attachment. When Anna
remarked once that she may have affected his luck adversely, Dostoevsky
replied: “ “Anna, my little blessing, whenever I die remember only how I
blessed you for the luck you brought me,’ adding that no greater good
fortune had ever come his way, that God had been lavish indeed in be-
stowing me upon him, and that every day he prayed for me and only
feared one day all this might alter, that to-day I both loved and pitied
him, but once my love were to cease, then nothing would be the same.
That, however,” Anna hastens to write, “will never happen, and I am
quite certain we shall always love one another as passionately as we
do now.”

Dostoevsky was not only lavish with such sentiments, which surely ex-
pressed everything he had begun to feel about Anna, but also clearly
tried to atone in other ways for all the material and emotional hardships
she was forced to endure. The moment he won a little money, and this
occurred with fair frequency, he would return home laden with fruit,
flowers, and wine. “He is a sweet person, this husband of mine,” Anna
wrote of one such occasion, “with a nature all loving and gentle, and I
am happy beyond words.” Such moments did not last very long, and the
couple went from relative plenty to total destitution from one day to the
next; but these instants of fleeting festivity, which showed that Dostoevsky
was not a completely self-preoccupied monster, should not be
left out of the picture. Anna seems to have succeeded, like Dostoevsky
himself, in divorcing his gambling mania from his moral personality, and
in regarding it as something extraneous to his true character.

“One had to come to terms with it,” she wrote in her memoirs many
years later, “to look at his gambling passion as a disease for which there
was no cure.” Such a conclusion merely extended to gambling the same
attitude she took toward Dostoevsky’s personal irritability and irascibility.
Although this trait often led to an abusive treatment of herself as well
as others, she blamed Dostoevsky’s epilepsy and refused to accept it as
his genuine nature. On the morning after the seizure already mentioned,
she notes that “Feodor is always very difficult to please after one of his
fits,” and then adds: “Poor Feodor, he does suffer so much after his at-
tacks and is always so irritable, and liable to fly out about trifles, so that
I have to bear a good deal in these days of illness. It’s of no consequence,
because the other days are very good, when he is so sweet and gentle.
Besides, I can see that when he screams at me it is from illness, not from
bad temper. ”

Struggle though she might, however, Anna could not prevent herself at
times from giving way to furious resentment. And as the nerve-racking
days passed without noticeable change, so that no end seemed in sight,
even her seemingly infinite indulgence began to wear thin. “I had suf-
fered beyond words waiting for Feodor,” she writes on their fourth day
in Baden. “I cried, and cursed myself, roulette, the Baden-Baden casino,
and everything on earth; I am ashamed now to confess it, and never remember
to have been in such a state before.” Ten days later, just after Dostoevsky
had gone to pawn her brooch and earrings, “I could no longer control
myself and began to cry bitterly. It was no ordinary weeping, but a
dreadful convulsive sort of sobbing, that brought on a terrible pain in my
breast, and relieved me not in the slightest. . . . I began to envy all the
other people in the world, who all seemed to me to be happy, and only
ourselves-or so it seemed to me-completely miserable.”

What drove her into a frenzy was the thought that “yesterday we had
one hundred and sixty gold pieces and now not one of them left, and
that we had been fools not to leave the place when we could.” At such
moments, her loneliness and isolation became crushing, and we remember
that she was still only twenty-one years old. “I am so utterly alone
here,” she writes piteously, “with no Mama to come and bring me
crumbs of comfort.” Anna confesses to herself that she wished Dostoevsky
to stay away as long as possible; but when he returned that day
to tell her he had lost the money obtained for her jewelry, and wept as
he said “Now I have stolen your last things from you and played them
away! ” she sank on her knees before his chair to try and calm his wretchedness.
“Do what I might to comfort him, I couldn’t stop him from

Dostoevsky continued to gamble on their very last day and lost fifty
francs that Anna had given him, as well as twenty more obtained from
pawning a ring. Now short of funds for the trip, they pawned Anna’s ear-
rings again, redeemed the ring, and bought their tickets. Just an hour
and a half before departure, Dostoevsky returned to the casino with
twenty francs for a last fling-of course to no avail. Anna jots down la-
conically: “I told him not to be hysterical, but to help me fasten the
trunks and pay the landlady. ” After settling accounts, which turned out
to be an unpleasant affair, they finally left for the station. Nobody-not
even the servant girls, whom Anna thought she had treated with consideration,
and whose ingratitude she censures-bothered to bid them farewell.