September may be the most ephemeral of months. Coming off the bitter doldrums, something more of a happy harvest begins to set in for people. October, of course, is a tricky month and a time for contemplating the cold touch of our faintly spiritual world, and November is the time to bunker down, give thanks, and prepare, but September is the month with promise and better suited for contemplation. It’s the first hint of change in the color of the leaves and leads the mind to contemplate what will be next, and what should be.
I could *probably* write another 2500 word post that delves into one of the many niche subjects that my obsessive and monomaniacal brain has a tendency to latch onto, but as many of the people who have followed me for some time can probably tell you, I have tendency to burn myself out for no reason other than to prove I could do something. There’s a type of man so riddled with mental chaos that the only satisfaction he feels is when he’s exhausted every piece of himself, and even then he may feel there’s still more of himself to give. It’s not a healthy way to live, but it does call to mind the adage “art from adversity”.
The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of those writers who was given over to addicting elements of gambling. For writers who let their hearts weigh heavy over the necessity of anything worth writing having real stakes to them, gambling becomes a very alluring surrogate activity. Dostoevsky’s problem with casino gambling is well-known, but his propensity to gamble was an all-encompassing element to his character. The Modern Library Classics edition of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler relates this story about this loveless time in his life:
In the 1860s, Dostoevsky was living the life of a widower. His wife had died in 1864, he was supporting his step-son and his nieces and nephews. He had assumed the debts of all those were were close to him. This is the time period that would kick off the writing of his most celebrated works (Crime and Punishment, the first of these, was being serialized in this time period of 1866). He was also a deeply unhappy and miserable man, attracted to the wrong kind of women for a religious and traditional man like him. He was attracted to the Scott Pilgrim girls of his day. To quote Gary Morson:
“Unfortunately, in the Russia of that day, the sort of women he preferred–strong, intellectual, independent, untraditional–tended to be radical, nihilistic, socialist, and atheistic as well. Such women were unlikely to be attracted to this conservative Christian author who was, in addition, in his mid-forties, irritable, indebted, and epileptic. He proposed to, and was refused by, three women in two years.”
Same as it ever was.
Into this, the itch to gamble every which way enters Dostoevsky’s life. While casinos consume men like wildfire, there are other types of gambles that can absorb and own a man because of the stakes he believes he needs to play. There was a publisher, Fyodor Stellovsky, who let us just say may not have been entirely on the up and up. Sure, he was important to publishing writers and composers, but as anyone who has even had a handful of dealings in the industrial side of artistry can tell you, every pure artistic notion and thought is tainted by the hands of someone who has the wherewithal to make a buck off it. Dostoevsky accepted a three thousand ruble offer for publishing rights to all of his works and a brand new novel by November 1st, 1866. This was a deal struck at the end of September, granting him a single month to produce it. Failure to produce meant forfeiture of Dostoevsky’s publishing rights. Serfdom had been abolished in Russia five years previously, but as a writer Dosteovsky would be signing himself away as a serf to the pen for the next nine years.
It’s difficult to translate 3000 rubles in 1860s to what that would equate to now, but a cursory search would indicate that 3000 rubles in 1866 would have likely been the equivalent of a year’s middle class salary, say a low 40k USD. Quite the absurd gamble. But that was Dostoevsky’s character.
Writers are not a monolithic species of creatures. There are some writers who have a target set of words, they wake up and do their morning routine like they’re going to any other job, and they sit down and just crank it out until it’s quitting time and think nothing else of it for the rest of the day. And like any other profession, the quality of that varies to the writer and their level of skill. Brandon Sanderson comes to mind, for instance. He has published over 30 books that are at least the length of a novella, and the man is only 43. That is one type of writer.
Another kind is the one who frets and worries and nearly kills himself (or in some cases, actually kills himself) because writing isn’t a vocation, a profession, or a skill for him. Writing is the culmination of every wound he’s received in his life. Or it’s an extensive of his entire being and so even when he isn’t writing he’s eating it, breathing it, sleeping in it, and dwelling in it. Readers consume writing but for this kind of writer the writing consumes him. Some of the greatest works come from a character like this. Some of the worst works do too.
You can probably guess which of these types Dostoevsky leaned more towards being. He became quite difficult to deal with once the deal had been made. According to Morson:
“But by the end of September 1866, the most he managed to do with The Gambler [the novel that he was working on as part of the deal he made] was to formulate some ideas. A servant briefly assigned to look after Dostoevsky at night in case of an epileptic seizure soon refused to do so, complaining that the strange man “paced up and down in his room all night” talking aloud about some murder he must be planning to commit! “Stellovsky upsets me to the point of torture,” he confided, “and I even see him in my dreams.”
Just a short time into this deal and he was already having a nervous breakdown over what he’d gotten himself into. This obsessive character, unfortunately, is something I can relate to all too well. Before I had to finally find a way to manage my presence, I was possessed with the same spirit of a mad man with my usage of Twitter.
Despite such chaotic risks, it is the nature of these gambles that can turn a life on a dime. It is why people like writers gamble their lives so impulsively in this way. Everything can change in a moment. This is the high-risk, high-reward way of life that eschews the safe, beaten path that most people follow in their life script. It is no bad thing to have a conventional life, society just simply couldn’t function without conventional people, but one accepts that a conventional life may just mean a conventional job with a conventional wife with conventional kids and a conventional burial. You may not even get that, but your chances of something resembling happiness are probably much higher than the people who take the high stakes and never win a single thing from it all.
It was through this gamble that Dostoevsky took that he met his second wife, and the one who would be with him until the day he died, Anna Snitkina. He had gotten himself way in over his head and his only hope of beating Stellovsky was going to come from getting a stenographer to help him collect his thoughts so he could pound out this novel and avoid the impending fate of literary serfdom.
With the help of Anna, now his stenographer but in the future his wife, Dostoevsky was able to work around the memory problems his epilepsy caused him and get this work written in a feverish pitch. Through her there was a spot of hope that Dostoevsky could actually beat the deadline and avoid the fate that he had foolishly gambled on. But as I noted, Stellovsky wasn’t exactly the most scrupulous of Russian publishers. He may actually have been par for the course for all I know. But it’s the way of things that all Stellovsky would have needed to do to own Dostoevsky would have been to just simply dodge the man. Miss me with that manuscript, Fyodor. Even if Dostoevsky had actually hit his deadline, if Stellovsky did not have that manuscript in his hands on the agreed upon date because he intentionally made himself unavailable, he’d still win.
Writers of this sort are rarely practical people and it’s not uncommon for them to require practical people to manage those affairs. Again, Dostoevsky was blessed to have Anna Snitkina in his life. After getting some legal advice on their situation, they registered the manuscript with the police as proof of its completion by deadline.
He beat the deadline by two hours.
I had this story on my mind this September because of something that Dostoevsky said to Anna Snitkina on the Russian character during this time period. I read it in this introduction to The Gambler some fifteen years ago and it’s always stuck with me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m thinking about the Russians or whether that it’s that I’m thinking about writing or some such similar project:
“When [Anna Snitkina] told him that only a quarter of the students at the stenography school actually persisted to the end of the course, Dostoevsky remarked that is the way with us Russians. Russians “start at fever heat, then cool off fast and drop it altogether. They see that you have to work–and who wants to work nowadays!””
Summer is rarely a productive time for me. I’m one of those hypochondriac types overly sensitive to the effects temperature and weather have on the human body. Summer comes on too strong in June with the preparations everyone makes to enjoy the hot, hot heat, July strictly swelters and drives us all into the shade, and August is a month suitable for only sweating in the doldrums. It’s not a time that seems to lend itself well to much of anything, though I will note that the newest phase of my life always seems to begin sometime in August.
The same is true now as it was then, and here I am staring down another September with new notions in my head and thoughts towards what happens next. Another season wasted as I play around projects, uncertain where to take it all. This blog has been a shot in the arm, and that very thing that Dostoevsky warned about is now fresh in my mind. Will this be another fevered pitch, only to be forgotten and fallen by the wayside in just a few short weeks? Will something else distract me? Will I feel the need to take responsibility for someone else’s work that should remain their problem and theirs alone?
These are anxious thoughts for an an anxious harvest. Fall moves so swiftly and the cold sets in like a squatter in the city. One needs to work smart, hard, and quickly before the problems of winter slam against the door with its sharp winds. There’s so much to begin, so much to do, and so much to complete and the work is never truly done. I look at this new September with promise and trepidation, uncertain of what fruits will be born from the fact that I’ve removed myself from Twitter’s dopamine pit and have reorganized my priorities for the long and thorny path of writing and philosophical production.
I wasted so much time building a profile on Twitter, building that brand and navigating the minefield that is the non-Euclidian foundation of its social web. Not all of it was time wasted. These things never correspond neatly in a way where you can write it all off or declare definitive success and victories. In this modern life everything bend towards the Pyrrhic victory. But I do think of the time that was lost that I should have been writing.
What’s done is done. It’s September now. The gamble is can I throw myself into that harvest and produce something worthwhile or will it be another season of play for children in the field. My heavy, beating heart is very uncertain about the months to come. There’s so much one can worry about, so much that one shouldn’t worry about it. But it sits uneasy like a train on a century’s old tracks.
When’s all said and done all the remains is the work that’s been undone.