Summer in Baden-Baden
The Master of Petersburg
Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 17/7/2006, 19:51:35
I am ready to start discussion of SIBB if you guys are ready too. I finished it minutes ago and I liked it a lot. On one side, it reminded me of Julian Barnes's "Flaubert's Parrot". On the other side, I was much reminded of Sebald's "Austerlitz", which we have read in our club and which I also enjoyed very much.
Posted by Lale on 18/7/2006, 8:32:45
: was much reminded of Sebald's "Austerlitz"
The style is very much like Austerlitz. I immediately made the connection too.
Then I read Susan Sontag's introduction and she likens the two books to one another from a completely different aspect. She says Tsypkin wanted to have photos (that he took himself) illustrate the book - like Sebald has later done with his book. For some reason SiBB doesn't have photos, except for the one at the very beginning (Dostoyevsky's house), I wonder why he abandoned that idea.
Posted by Steven on 18/7/2006, 8:48:23
I enjoyed it very much as well. The style is surprisingly readable; the long, pulsing sentences move the reader forward at a breathless, reckless pace that evokes Dostoevsky's frantic and compulsive behaviour.
Here is a link to a site I just found that has a very nice biography as well as a gallery of photos of Dostoevsky, his family, and the couch where he died with the Sistine Madonna on the wall.
Posted by LadyPurple on 19/7/2006, 10:54:20
I agree with everybody's assessment here. The style was relatively easy to get used to and then the story just flowed, following the ups and downs of the moods of D in particular.
The parallels in writing style and the approach of the subject are intriguing. Two authors coming up with these unusual techniques independently. I wonder whether Tsypkin knew German - where long roaming sentences are more common than in other European languages. I was tempted to imagine what SiBB would have sounded and read like in Russian but I did not get very far, unfortunately.
We don't know whether the Russian version had more photos. Although, it might not have done, given the cost involved. A publisher would not want to fork out money for an unknown author that was not "essential" in his view.
Posted by Steven on 20/7/2006, 8:28:45
So what does everyone think of Tsypkin's depiction of Dostoevsky?
Reading in a capsule biography a statement like "Dostoevsky was an epileptic and a compulsive gambler who spent four years abroad to escape from his creditors" is a far cry from the intense experience that Tsypkin gives us. Dostoevsky's gambling was every bit as self-destructive as a narcotics addition.
It's difficult to find anything likeable in Dostoevsky's personality - he oscillates between insufferable rudeness and abject contrition. Had he not been a great writer, would his wife, or anyone else, have stood by him? We can also speculate on cause and effect relationships between his prison experience, his writing, and his personal traits.
I was surprised that the theme of Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism wasn't developed any further than it was. I suppose that Tsypkin - to his credit - took it only as far as his source material went.
Has anyone else finished The Gambler yet? It's incredible that Dostoevsky could write a book such as this BEFORE his self-imposed exile and gambling spree in Germany - almost as though he were living out a role from his own book.
Posted by Lale on 20/7/2006, 8:48:47
: It's difficult to find anything likeable in
: Dostoevsky's personality - he oscillates between
: insufferable rudeness and abject contrition. Had he
: not been a great writer, would his wife, or anyone
: else, have stood by him?
I was wondering how this woman stayed in love with him. It is understandable for young women to fall in love with an older man even if he is not exactly the looker, as long as he demonstrates some greatness and/or a teacher/doctor/father figure. And we also know that talent attracts women (Paganini once said that women thought he was the most handsome, the most sexy guy in the world, when he was up on the stage and playing). I am not surprised to see a young, pretty woman fall in love with Dostoyevsky. But how did she stay in love with him? He was the worst husband ever!
Posted by Steven on 20/7/2006, 10:49:11
: I was wondering how this woman stayed in love with him.
Before judging Dostoevsky too harshly, perhaps we should remember that, in Summer in Baden Baden, Tsypkin is reading Anna's memoirs and visualizing what he reads. We are seeing only her side of the story. All the same, she undoubtedly had it very rough and is to be admired for her devotion.
Does her situation remind you of Dorothea in Middlemarch? A modest woman marries a "great" man, expecting to become a partner in his life's work, and instead becomes his nurse and a target for acts of small-mindedness and abuse.
: He was the worst husband ever!
My wife might argue that point.
Posted by LadyPurple on 23/7/2006, 8:39:19
From what I have been reading over the years about D. Tsypkin characterized him very well in that later phase of his life. Without doubt, D. was a ver complex character and in those days the knowledge of epilepsy was probably limited so that the moodswings and other indicators were not recognized as a part of the illness.
Didn't D finish The Gambler while in Baden Baden? I read this somewhere that he needed to finish it so that he could get some urgently needed funds. Also, I think he had previous experiences with Gambling. Did he not?
One aspect that comes out also really well, I thought, is D. soft side for the family. Probably very typical Russian at the time, but he was under constant pressure for money from his extended family. I think we should not underestimate a gentle side in him. How often, after being insufferable in his behaviour, does he make up to Anna with small gifts and emotional depth. Anna may have had traits of what we would call today "battered wife syndrom" - she clings from each loving episode to the next. She also is conscious of his litarary genius that has to be supported and that he is sick and she shows her motherly feelings of nurturing for him. She was more independent minded than many young women in Russia at the time, I would think. At least that is the way that Tsypkin presents her - based on her diaries.
Anitsemitism - may be that was more subdued given Tsypkin was Jewish background and also, at the time he wrote the novel antisemitism was pushed somewhat into the background, I think. The anti-German position remained as strong as ever.
Posted by Steven on 23/7/2006, 9:30:57
: Didn't D finish The Gambler while in Baden Baden? I
: read this somewhere that he needed to finish it so
: that he could get some urgently needed funds. Also, I
: think he had previous experiences with Gambling. Did he not?
According to the introductory material in my copy, Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in 26 days in November 1866. He had an agreement with his publisher to deliver a finished novel at the end of that period or default something like all his future proceeds for the rest of his life. He had procrastinated until he had no choice but to hire a stenographer to have any hope of finishing the novel by the deadline. That stenographer was, of course, Anna Grigoryevna. It was 1867 when he married Anna and left for Germany.
The Idiot was published in 1868, so that may have been the novel he was working on in Germany.
Yes, he had gambled before he wrote The Gambler. He had gambled away the proceeds from the novel before he even wrote it, which is why he was still broke after he finished it.
Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 23/7/2006, 11:24:24
I have read several books by D., which I think is good to have done before reading SiBB. The first book I read by him was precisely "The Gambler". It left me with no wishes to have gambling as one of my vices, and in fact it's never captured me, although I have placed my bets (small ones) in places like Atlantic City. It seems to me to be one of the worst ways to go broke (there are other more pleasing ways to be left in the street). Then I read a rare novel called "Stepantchikovo", about one Foma Fomitch who tyrannizes everybody at a large estate, a kind of satire of tyranny and moral extorsion. Then came "The Brothers Karamazov", a masterpiece, and another one, "Crime and Punishment".
SiBB was a captivating read, a painful depiction of an emotionally unstable man, a sick man, a literary genius subjected to a life of suffering, most of it self-inflicted. The character of Anna Grigoryevna is also painful to look at, although I did respect her as a brave and tolerant woman. Hers must have been a difficult life. Does anyone know what happened to her after D.'s death?
Posted by LadyPurple on 24/7/2006, 5:33:20
Anna Grigoryevna spent her time to look after D.'s estate. She brought his material in order and was doing quite well, also financially. I read this somewhere but need to check the source.
THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG - Posted by Steven on 20/7/2006, 22:50:35
I read J. M. Coetzee's short novel The Master of Petersburg to compare it with Summer in Baden Baden.
The story takes place in Petersburg in the autumn of 1869. All of the events are fictional, as are some of the characters.
The Plot: Dostoevsky's stepson, Pavel Isaev, has died of a fall under questionable circumstances. Dostoyevsky is currently living in Dresden with his second wife Anna (this is where he is at the beginning of Summer in Baden Baden as well). He has travelled in secret to Petersburg to visit his stepson's fresh grave and to try to understand, not only how Pavel died, but how he had lived in the time since they had parted in 1867.
The stepson was a real person, but he did not die in 1869, nor were he and Dostoevsky at all close. Instead, it is author Coetzee's 23-year-old son who has died. This is never alluded to in the novel, but knowing that the book is, in part, Coetzee's lament for his own son makes it painful at times to read.
As I noted earlier, some of the characters are fictional, but they are Dostoevsky's own - from a suppressed chapter of his novel The Possessed. But it takes some background reading to know this - Master of Petersburg is an entirely coherent and self-contained work.
In style, Master of Petersburg is straightforward, conventional, strictly chronological, and very easy to read - nothing like the experience of reading Summer in Baden Baden.
Compared to Summer, the themes in Master are more metaphysical and less psychological. There are elements of politics and sexuality. In Master we also are more aware that Dostoevsky is a writer, as the relationship between life and art is a significant element.
I like the two books equally and highly recommend them both, even though they are very different. Only one caveat: Master of Petersburg is a dark and somber story, not the sort of book to read when you're in need of cheering up.
THE GAMBLER - Posted by Steven on 23/7/2006, 9:16:31
There is an online version at Project Gutenberg that is a translation by C. J. Hogarth. Before I started reading The Gambler, I compared it to my print copy, which is a translation by Constance Garnett.
In the first paragraph, Hogarth's translation says that "a French lady" was expected for lunch. Garnett says "the little Frenchman." Quite a difference!
The French person who actually arrives for lunch is De Grieux, a major character in the novel and definitey male. I would certainly be wary of a translation that makes such an error in the opening paragraph. Even if the Russian diminutive and feminine are the same, the translator should have been familiar enough with the context to make the right choice.
Posted by LadyPurple on 24/7/2006, 5:29:42
I found two translations - have not really compared them, though.
Neither give the name of the tranlator.
Even if they are not the best translation, at least you can read it and in many parts it will be fine.
Posted by Lale on 8/8/2006, 10:33:20
I started this book last night. Luckily it is the "Little Frenchman" translation :-)
Posted by Lale on 11/8/2006, 21:47:33
I am loving The Gambler. Polina is very interesting. I can't wait to find out where she is coming from (I mean, what her problem is). No spoilers!
The narrator knows how gambling works, and yet, and yet... We all do it in one way or another. With abusive lovers and friends, with money, with food and alcohol, and with games of chance.
Posted by Lale on 13/8/2006, 10:09:38
The relationship between Polina and the narrator is so sick that it annoys me. It is so bizarre and undignified (for both parties) that I feel uncomfortable reading it. Are they displaying the usual abuser/enabler relationship we sometimes see around us, or, is that just a presentation of the surface and there is something more underneath?
Participate in this little game - Posted by Lale on 13/8/2006, 10:16:33
Those who have read the book and those who haven't read the book can both play this game. Just don't look it up in your books or on the internet. Come up with the answer on your own.
Here is the game: You are supposed to write the next sentence.
"I staked twenty friedrichs d'or on pair straight away, and won, staked again and again won, and so on two or three more times. I think about four hundred friedrichs d'or came into my possession in five minutes."
So, what do you think comes after this? Write the next sentence.
Posted by Steven on 13/8/2006, 12:40:31
: "I staked twenty friedrichs d'or on pair
: straight away, and won, staked again and again won,
: and so on two or three more times. I think about four
: hundred friedrichs d'or came into my possession in
: five minutes."
: So, what do you think comes after this? Write the next
If I were the one playing, the next sentence would read: "Too bad I wasn't playing with REAL money."
Posted by Christopher on 13/8/2006, 19:48:39
Then, I staked twenty friedrichs d'or on impair, and lost straight away, staked again and again lost, and so on two or three more times. I think about eight hundred friedrichs d'or left my possession in five minutes."
Posted by Lale on 16/8/2006, 9:12:54
: Then, I staked twenty friedrichs d'or on impair, and
: lost straight away, staked again and again lost, and
: so on two or three more times. I think about eight
: hundred friedrichs d'or left my possession in five minutes."
That is of course exactly what happens.
Dostoyevski continues thus:
"I ought to have left at that point ... I staked the permitted maximum - 4000 gulden - and lost. Then, getting excited, I pulled out all I had left, staked it in the same way, lost again, and after that left the table as if I had been stunned."
Posted by LadyPurple on 17/8/2006, 5:32:12
Well, and that is exactly what D does himself in SIBB - only in real life he had Anna to borrow money from...
Posted by Lale on 17/8/2006, 11:29:18
: Well, and that is exactly what D does himself in SIBB -
: only in real life he had Anna to borrow money from...
That's why these guys are geniuses (genii ??), Dostoyevsky, Nazim Hikmet, H.G. Wells ... They can predict the future.
Posted by Lale on 13/8/2006, 10:25:04
I decided to memorize and use in conversation, these phrases from The Gambler:
"Today has been funny, outrageous and absurd."
"And what a lot of clamour and uproar and talk and noise! And what a lot of confusion and disorder, stupidity and vulgarity it all comes to."
I finished it. Wow! - Posted by Lale on 18/8/2006, 10:49:37
I enjoyed The Gambler very much. Although, I must say, I didn't undersand many things. Polina! Where is she coming from? Is she a nutcase? Did she really love Alexis Ivanovich? Why did she move in with Mr. Astley? I could not feel any sympathy towards Polina. She was way too manipulative and instable for my taste. I didn't see anything positive in her, no redeeming quality.
Towards the ends of the story, Blanche amused me greatly. She was so straight forward with our narrator, it was hilarious.
At the back of my book, it says "... The Gambler conveys all the intensity and futility of an obsession." I agree. Not too long ago, I read Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda", a fabulously written, gripping story which I would recommend to all my friends. O&L was also about gambling and I loved the book, but it doesn't even come close to the "intensity" found in The Gambler, a story quarter the size of O&L.
Posted by Lale on 18/8/2006, 14:09:33
My copy has a portion of William Powell Frith's "The Salon D'Or" on the cover. It was painted in 1870 in Homburg. Since The Gambler was written in 1866 and also takes place partly in Homburg, this painting is, I think, a very close depiction of what Alexis Ivanovich was seeing when he went to the "tables".
The interesting thing is that the original of this painting is right here, in our good old Ottawa. Yes! It is in the National Gallery of Ottawa, Canada. I will go and see it in person at the very first opportunity (hopefully next week) and I will post a better photo of it here.
Posted by LadyPurple on 20/8/2006, 9:47:45
Homburg is a spa town - with a casino - not far from Frankfurt. It was probably as famous as Baden Baden at some time and attracted many famous gamblers. There is still today a small orthodox church in the central park.
My mother lives there so I know it quite well - not the casino of course. It is a weathly town - nothing was destroyed during WWII and there are stories why that was.
Re: Salon D'Or in Homburg
Posted by Lale on 20/8/2006, 10:19:23
: It is a weathly town - nothing was destroyed during WWII
: and there are stories why that was.
Or just wealth bought exemption from bombing?
Posted by Steven on 18/8/2006, 14:26:02
I liked it very much as well. It's also a novel that you appreciate much more for knowing it's background - that Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler himself, that he was dicating the book under a deadline, and that he was falling in love with the secretary to whom he was dictating.
: I enjoyed The Gambler very much. Although, I must say, I
: didn't undersand many things. Polina! Where is she
: coming from? Is she a nutcase? Did she really love
: Alexis Ivanovich? Why did she move in with Mr. Astley?
: I could not feel any sympathy towards Polina. She was
: way too manipulative and instable for my taste. I
: didn't see anything positive in her, no redeeming quality.
Yes, Polina is demanding, unpredictable and inscrutable. She is just the way a man in love perceives the object of his affections when she is ambiguous about returning those feelings. I think the portrayal was very realistic - at least as far as women often appear from a man's point of view. Dostoevsky leaves the mystery of her true feelings and motivation intact.
: Towards the ends of the story, Blanche amused me
: greatly. She was so straight forward with our narrator, it was hilarious.
She really rubs it in, doesn't she? And Alexey just meekly accepts what she's doing to him. She is somewhat like Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov. Evidently Dostoevsky had some life experience with brazen, ambitious, manipulative women.
: At the back of my book, it says "... The Gambler
: conveys all the intensity and futility of an obsession." I agree.
Intense, frenzied and loosely structured - I think these are all qualities that come from the book's being written the way it was, and it is the better for them. Its untidiness makes it more realistic to me - like a piece of real life, complete with unresolved conflicts and loose ends, rather than a deliberately crafted story.
Another theme to the novel (as with many Russian novels) is "what does it mean to be Russian?" I'm not sure which character it is who argues that risk-taking, impatience, and a fatalistic indifference to the future are all Russian characteristics. I think the very style of The Gambler reflects this. It rushes headlong into the plot without introduction and dares you to care about any of the characters.
What do you think about this book?
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