Dostoyevsky’s Gambler on the French and the Russians

Dostoyevsky‘s The Gambler, contains, like some of his other works, sweeping portraits of character types; in this quasi-autobiographical work, among others, those of a particular nationality.

First, then, the gambler, Alexey Ivanovitch, on the French:

De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over. A Frenchman is not often naturally polite. He is always polite, as it were, to order, a little out of the ordinary, then his freakishness is most stupid and unnatural, and is made up of long accepted and long-vulgarized traditions. The natural Frenchman is composed of the most plebeian, petty, ordinary practical sense–in fact, he is one of the most wearisome creatures in the world. In my opinion, only the most innocent and experienced–especially Russian young ladies–are fascinated by Frenchmen. To every decent person, the conventionalism of the established traditions of drawing-room politeness, ease and gaiety are at once evident and intolerable.

Then, by way of contrast, on the French and the Russians :

You simply take for granted that I don’t know how to behave with dignity, that is, perhaps I am a man of moral dignity, but that I don’t know how to behave with dignity….Yes, all Russians are like that; and do you know why? Because Russians are too richly endowed and many-sided to be able readily to evolve a code of manners. It is a question of good form. For the most part we Russians are so richly endowed that we need genius to evolve our code of manners. And genius is most often absent, for, indeed, it is a rarity at all times. It’s only among the French, and perhaps some other Europeans, that the code of manners is so well defined that one may have an air of the utmost dignity and yet be a man of no moral dignity whatsoever.

And finally, in a revealing passage, given Dostoyevsky’s own troubles with gambling, on the Russians again:

Hearing what I had lost, the Frenchman observed bitingly, even spitefully, that one ought to have more sense. He added–I don’t know why–that though a great many Russians gamble, Russians were not, in his opinion, well qualified even for gambling.

“In my mind,” said I, “roulette is simply made for Russians.”

And when at my challenge the Frenchman laughed contemptuously, I observed that I was, of course, right, for to speak of the Russians as gamblers was abusing them far more than praising them, and so I might be believed.

“On what do you base your opinion?” asked the Frenchman.

“On the fact that the faculty of amassing capital has, with the progress of history taken a place–and almost the foremost place–among the virtues and the merits of the civilized man of the West. The Russian is not only incapable of amassing capital, but disputes it in a reckless and unseemly way. Nevertheless we Russians need money, too,” I added, “and consequently, we are very glad and very eager to make use of such means as roulette, for instance, in which one can grow rich all at once, in two hours, without work. That’s very fascinating to us, and since we play badly, recklessly, without taking trouble, we usually lose!”

Is it just me or does it seem like novelists these days don’t offer–as often at least–such sweeping generalizations of nationalities and ethnic types?

Note: Excerpts from 1996 Dover edition of The Gambler; translation by Constance Garnett.

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