The House of the Dead / The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Constance Garnett with an introduction by Anthony Briggs.
Dostoevsky's fascination for mental breakdown and violence (20 murders in his four main novels) was based on his own life, and these two unmistakably autobiographical works bear this out.
The House of the Dead is fiction, but based on his four years in a Siberian prison. An educated upper-class man is condemned to live among criminals and brutal guards, with arbitrary punishments, lousy food, disgusting living conditions, hard toil and many floggings. Somehow he avoids bitterness and recrimination; faith in humanity survives. With its breadth of characterisation, acute sense of detail and strong narrative interest, this work can still shock, entertain and inspire.
In The Gambler we see the Russian community in a German spa town. Drawn to the casino, Alexey becomes obsessed with roulette. In a gripping story, full of psychological interest, his growing mania eclipses even his interest in Polina, a heroine of demonic and vibrant sexuality. Dostoevsky himself was rescued from a similar gambling obsession by the young stenographer who took down this work at his dictation and married him soon afterwards.