by Andrew D. Kaufman
This is the second of a three-part blog series (if you missed part 1, click here), in which scholar and author Andrew D. Kaufman introduces readers to his celebrated new book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, published by Riverhead. You can read a review of the book published in The New York Times here. To learn more about the book or to order a copy, please visit this site.
One of the joys of writing my newest book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, was an extremely fruitful research trip to Europe I took in the summer of 2018. During this trip I retraced the Dostoyevskys’ footsteps through Germany and Switzerland during their extended honeymoon. I visited not only Dresden, where they spent nearly a year and a half, and Geneva, the setting for “Life and Fate,” chapter 9 in part two of The Gambler Wife, but also the casinos in Wiesbaden, Bad Homburg, and Baden-Baden, where the book’s major gambling scenes take place. In Baden-Baden, I visited the very gaming hall where Dostoyevsky most often gambled; it is still in use today and has been preserved to look almost identical to the way it did in the 1860s. In Bad Homburg, I was given access to rare archival documents that provided me with historical detail about the culture of gambling in that town— down to the nationalities and even names of other guests at Dostoyevsky’s hotel. In Wiesbaden, I visited the famed casino where Dostoyevsky played roulette, and the former site of the synagogue that figured in his final gambling spree and cessation of his addiction. And in Geneva I spent an afternoon at the gravesite of the Dostoyevskys’ first child, Sonya, who was born in February 1868 and died three months later. As I breathed the fresh air of Lake Geneva, I understood— more powerfully than any document could have conveyed—why this town seemed to offer the couple a respite from their persistent troubles.
Indeed, troubles seemed to batter them at every turn in the first years of their marriage. Even before they left for Europe, a few months after their marriage in the spring of 1867, they were hampered by an untenable situation at home. Dostoyevsky was living with his 19-year-old stepson, Pasha, who was determined to make life as difficult as possible for the new lady of the house. Dostoyevsky was also supporting the family of his brother, Mikhail, who’d died the same year as his former wife. Though on the brink of bankruptcy himself, Dostoyevsky was committed to these obligations. The money he earned from the success of Crime and Punishment, which was published serially in 1866, was enough to avoid bankruptcy, but not enough to pay off all his creditors.
An advance for his next novel, The Idiot, however, looked to be enough to allow the newlyweds to move ahead with a honeymoon abroad. The relatives he was supporting had other plans. Both his stepson and his brother’s widow refused to allow him to leave without extravagant payments to them in advance. The writer had a hard time saying no to them, and initially sided with them in canceling the trip.
“Fate is against us, my darling Anyechka,” he said to Anna. “If only you knew how badly I feel that this cannot happen now! How I’ve dreamed of this trip, how necessary I felt it was for both of us!”
But Anna wasn’t one to let her new relatives control the destiny of her marriage. After much thought, she decided this trip was important enough that she should sell her dowry to raise the money herself. Dostoyevsky rejected the idea, refusing to allow her to sacrifice her possessions. They argued, with her “begging him to let me have at least two or three months of a calm and happy life,” and he refusing to give an inch.
Anna recalled how she “burst into such violent sobbing that poor Fyodor Mikhailovich was at last taken aback.” Which, as I write in the book, must have been exactly what she intended: she needed him to hear the violence of her frustration, to understand what might happen if he didn’t agree to her plan. With a kind of composed ferocity, she choked out how hard these weeks had been for her, and pleaded with him to give them the few months of calm they needed. For under the present conditions, she made clear, “we not only would never become friends, as we used to dream, but would perhaps separate forever. I implored him to save our love, our happiness.”
The dramatic gambit worked. Dostoyevsky relented and agreed to the trip.
Of course, little did she know what awaited her. The planned three-month honeymoon in which they could escape their intrusive family, let Dostoyevsky work on the next book, and get to know each other better, would turn into a four-year odyssey. Anna would quickly discover that her husband had a crippling gambling addiction, a possible a secret lover, and so much debt that it threatened their ability to ever return home. Anna brought him back from the brink time and again. She rescued him from bouts of despair, salvaged his career, and saved his life on more than one occasion, cupping his head in her hands during his epileptic seizures, taking care to place her body between him and the floor to protect him from injury. She soothed her husband’s crushing agony after the tragic death of their beloved newborn baby in Geneva. As he acknowledged, “you have pawned everything of yours for me in these four years and roamed after me, homesick for your native land,” losing their beloved child, and jeopardizing her own health along the way.
The couple bore their lot nobly, even managing to find humor in their dire circumstances. Together they composed limericks on the subject of their poverty, and Dostoyevsky enjoyed likening himself to Dickens’s cheerfully insolvent Mr. Micawber and Anna to his long-suffering yet good-natured wife. Anna did resemble Mrs. Micawber somewhat, pawning their belongings to keep them afloat while working overtime to find the silver linings in their cloudy skies. Yet Anna’s voice in these exercises could be frank, even confrontational, as demonstrated in one previously untranslated poem from 1868—a bracing assessment of her husband and his poor business decisions in which she called him “a numbskull”:
For two years we’ve been living in poverty.
The only clean thing we have is our conscience.
And we wait for money from Katkov for an unsuccessful novel. [The Idiot]
Have you any decency, my friend?
You undertook a tale for Dawn,
you took money from Katkov,
promised to send him a work.
Your last money
you blew at roulette,
and now you don’t have
a three-kopeck piece, you numbskull.
By the spring of 1871, they had been in exile for nearly four years, and things were desperate. Anna was dying of homesickness, and Dostoyevsky was dying creatively. He had the worst time gaining traction on his new novel, The Possessed, which was causing him greater creative torment than anything he had yet written. To make matters worse, epileptic attacks waylaid him for weeks at a time.
Anna realized she had to do something to jump-start his work on The Possessed, so essential to her husband creatively and to both of them financially. And suddenly her increasingly sharp survivor’s instinct kicked in. “In order to soothe his anxiety and dispel the somber thoughts which prevented him from concentrating on his work,” she recalled, “I resorted to the device which always amused and distracted him.”
One day in mid-April she found an opportunity to bring the conversation around to one of Dostoyevsky’s favorite topics—roulette—and asked if he might want to try his luck once more at the tables in Wiesbaden. “Of course, I did not believe for a moment that he would win,” Anna recalled many years later, “and I very much regretted the hundred thalers which would have to be sacrificed. But I knew from my experience of his previous visits to the roulette table that after going through some intense emotions and satisfying his craving for risks, for gambling, he would return assuaged. And . . . he would settle down to his novel with new energy and make up for all the lost time and work in two or three weeks.”
It was an enormous gamble, but the sacrifice was, Anna knew, essential. Where an outside observer might have considered her gambit reckless for a couple in their situation, it was in fact an extension of Anna’s talent for calculated risk. A few years earlier, she had engaged in her own gambling adventure out of an instinctive need to confront her husband’s demons on his own turf. Now she followed another intuition: that the only way to save her husband, and their family, was to thrust him right back into the inferno of his gambling addiction. That same fire had nearly ruined them before, of course, but she also accepted her husband’s belief that gambling fueled his creative spirit—which in turn was essential to their financial survival.
After nearly a week of the all-too-familiar torment in Wiesbaden, he had lost everything he’d brought with him, as well as the additional money Anna had sent for the train fare home. But when he finally returned to Dresden, he was calm and in good spirits, and settled right back down to writing The Possessed. Given this burst of productivity, he managed to persuade Mikhail Katkov, editor of The Russian Messenger, where the work had started to be published, to speed up remittance of the thousand rubles the magazine had promised. It was enough for the couple to return to Russia.
Anna’s gamble had paid off—in more ways than one. Dostoyevsky’s gambling spree in Wiesbaden that spring would turn out to be his very last. Nothing would come between them again—no more no roulette, no more secret mistress, no illicit passions of any kind. “His fantasy of winning,” Anna reflected a quarter century after his death, “was a kind of obsession or disease from which he recovered suddenly and forever.” In her modesty, she failed to add that it was her bold gamble that once again that saved him—and them.
While filled with undeniably tragic elements, the first five years of the Dostoyevskys’ marriage also cemented their relationship, and in the end, helped the two build on each other’s strengths to overcome the staggering obstacles in their way. Dostoyevsky often needed to teeter on the edge of destruction in order to tap into his deepest emotional and creative instincts, while Anna was most resourceful in moments of extreme urgency, or when helping Dostoyevsky channel his frenetic creative energy.
From the beginning, this volatile combination—of persistence, ambition, and daring on Anna’s part, and a cycle of self-destruction and mad productivity on Dostoyevsky’s—had been a central dynamic of their relationship. It was what gave a twenty-year-old stenography student the courage to show up in Dostoyevsky’s life in the first place, and to rescue him from the brink of professional and personal collapse. And this powerful alchemy of personality traits on both of their parts is what allowed the structure of their marriage, and their joint professional undertaking, to grow through the decades.
Their marriage on the cusp of a new phase, Anna and Dostoyevsky would soon learn to recalibrate the feverish rhythms of their first five years together. To be sure, the personal characteristics that had brought them together—Anna’s fortitude, compassion, and tolerance for risk, and Dostoyevsky’s intense creative hunger, bouts of depression, and attraction to extreme behavior—remained at play. But Anna would soon begin to channel her personal energies into managing a business while raising a family, even as Dostoyevsky discovered fresh sources of artistic inspiration in the joys and tribulations of the new life they would build together against the backdrop of a darkening political landscape.
To learn more about The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew D. Kaufman. To order a copy, please visit this site.
Andrew D. Kaufman is an associate professor, General Faculty, lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. A PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Stanford University, Kaufman is the author of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times and Understanding Tolstoy. His work has been featured on Today, NPR, and PBS, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he has served as a Russian literature expert for Oprah’s Book Club. Kaufman is the creator of Books Behind Bars, introducing incarcerated youth to the writings of Dostoyevsky and other Russian authors.