Another eventful night at Aspinalls, and, somewhere between four in the morning and daybreak, for the thousandth time, I catch myself asking the same thing. How do I explain to a normal person, to a disinterested layman who has never walked down Curzon Street, what goes on in the gambler’s soul? Doubtless this can be done, but as with just about every difficult question worth pondering, it would be best to begin somewhere far afield. At any rate, it would be good to begin somewhere, which is always the toughest part for anybody who wants to tell the whole perplexing truth, especially when what he’s used to telling, for the most part, are the facile lies gangsters slip their molls in old movies.
There are people who spend their whole life in a state of agitation that they perceive as sexual, but which a detached onlooker regards as sad, mad, and manipulative. While a university student, I once had dinner with an inordinately plain woman whom her elderly mother, an internationally known scholar of Old English and among the few professors to give me the time of day, had implored me to meet. At the close of the evening, I had to throw the cunning madwoman out of my rooms by force and lead her across the road to her Volkswagen Beetle with her arms behind her back, like a prisoner. The car wouldn’t start, of course, and, for the rest of my life, I shall treasure the malodorous memory of the contest twixt virtue and dignity, as I pushed the bloody Beetle for a block and a half along the leafy, and mercifully level, avenue of the moonlit New England town.
I submit that, in order to begin to understand what goes on in the soul of the man born to play, a layman could do worse than to enter the mind of the woman I so cruelly turned out of doors. Typically, a person of this sort is distinguished by what I would call obsessive semiotic confusion, in that he has eyes only for the social, cultural, and biological signs that are either wholly imaginary or are there to project the very opposite of his mental constructions. The inner fool’s paradise of such an individual may be seen as a kind of Tower of Babel, where the gestures of all cultures and the words of all languages commingle to lend luxurious substance to images that would germinate and spring forth anyway, of their own accord and in utter silence.
In a typical scenario, which I reproduce here from real life, a woman thus afflicted meets a man and his wife, and, from the first, the wife appears distant; “she is disturbed by my presence,” observes the woman, “because she is desperate to go to bed with me”; then the husband, too, seems unfriendly; “he is jealous of me,” the woman decides; then the wife goes out of the room because she can no longer endure the guest’s tiresome presence; “she wants to leave the two of us alone,” reasons the woman, “so we can start an affair, and then she can be with me as much as she likes”; but the husband is still morose and keeps looking at his watch; “he does not accept his wife’s compromise,” thrills the woman, “he wants me all to himself; just look, now he’s yawning to show he isn’t afraid of the consequences!”
All this sounds perfectly nasty, and of course the gambler’s paradise is similarly open to derision. But let me tell it from another point of view. In 1928, a famous and pompous literary critic whose name, happily, is now mud, quoted a Pasternak stanza that I would render into English as follows:
What is it? The Cloister of Kiev
Cupolas sleep? Or the Eddas,
Revealed by the north and wreathed
With pearls of primordial madness?
“Here one simply does not know which to rejoice in first,” the critic ridiculed the poet, “the pearls, the primordial madness, or the revealing of them both. It may be, of course,” he went on, “that Pasternak does not rejoice in any of these words alone but only in their accumulation and disorder.” And finally:
He is bent on one thing: to combine, in the smallest possible space and by whatever means are at hand, the greatest possible number of heterogenous, unrelated, disparate words. For him, poetry means above all a confusion of tongues, the building of a Tower of Babel.
It is of small importance to the argument here that, in my view, Boris Pasternak is that culmination of genius by whose verse world culture will be reckoned for millennia to come. My point, rather, is that the obsessive semiotic confusion so easily diagnosed in self-condemned erotomaniacs—and which, I believe, is a requisite component of the largely unknown, or misunderstood, worldview of self-confessed gamblers—is so very near to the heart of what we know as the poetic sensibility, which is above all else the stubbornness to see things as one would see them anyway, all the while ransacking the phenomenal world for signs and gestures that deck out these preposterously subjective perceptions in a sort of magpie reality. The result is a phantom truth, though one as maddeningly logical as it is luxuriously tactile.
When we read serious poetry, we call this phantom truth beauty. When we look inside the gambler’s mind, we are not so sure what to call it, and straightaway we dismiss it as stupidity, illusion, dreaming. Yet is not all poetry, in the eyes of a philistine moron, just as much stupidity, illusion, and dreaming? Oh, those heavenly numbers. Ah, those pretty phrases. Get a life! Or, failing that, get a job.
Here is Dostoevsky at 40, as ever unemployed, and more penniless than ever after the gaming tables of Wiesbaden, in a private letter that contains the first reference to the gestation of The Gambler and to the type of Russian expatriate that is to become its protagonist:
I take an original type, a man who is highly cultivated, yet in everything incomplete, one who is done believing yet dares not to disbelieve, one who rebels against authority yet fears it too. He reassures himself that there is nothing left for him in Russia. . . . This is a living personage—I see him as though he were standing before me now—and, once he has been written, he will have to be read. The main point is that all his life juices, energies, ferocity, courage have gone into roulette. He is a gambler, but not merely a gambler. . . . He is a kind of poet, one who is ashamed of his poetry because he deeply feels its baseness, despite his having been ennobled in his own eyes by his inner obligation to risk.
A long way away from the modern mass image of the gambler—the Atlantic City slot-machine queen, the Vegas loudmouth who got hold of a pay packet or two too many, the Azerbaijani money launderer at Monte Carlo—Dostoevsky’s protagonist exists to this day and can still be seen, sometimes in broad daylight, with his battered porte-monnaie of arrogance, faith, self-loathing, and occasionally cash, among the shadows of Curzon Street. Open the page of any edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica to “Roulette”; you will not find him there. Check the internet; you will only find “casino systems” and invitations to electronic raffles. Ask some of your closest friends; certainly they will think you’ve gone barkers and will be happy to tell you so.
But here, in these windowless tombs, these clockless wombs hung in emerald-green velvet and furnished with Empire bronzes deep in the belly of Mayfair, I watch with him nightly; I light my cigarettes as he lights his; I feel his triumphs, and I am downcast at his dejection. He is still alive, the deluded poet and self-made dreamer, with the ever-shrinking pile of marble-cool markers before him, like Balzac’s peau de chagrin, representing all his unearthly desire. He stirs, and a uniformed lackey arrives with a new ashtray; he looks up, and a comely maiden enters to refresh him with exotic fruit; and, mean–while, his desire, all the while that unearthly desire of his, is running through his neatly manicured fingers like arterial blood from a hopeless wound.
Like the erotomaniac, he is, of course, an obsessive neurotic, a parasitic figure of fun whom society—even civilized society—may easily frogmarch out the door to peals of derisive laughter, as I myself did that poor deluded woman all those years ago. Like the poet, however, he is a sacred anachronism, a living memorial to the world as it once was, and woe betide the blind-hearted, mean-spirited, hypocritical culture that should choose to pretend that his longings are calculable, that his dreams are absurd, and, besides, that he simply never existed.
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