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Friday
Jul272012

The Queen of Spades

Those who know me will attest that I am not a gambling man; in any case, not in the conventional sense.  Games of chance, while thrilling and often very complex, lack the profundity of other topics that have absorbed my hours, and their payoff is far less rich because games can be learned by practically anyone of sufficient volition.  They are ultimately apiary tasks writ large, the calculations of a grandmaster or master hustler made perfect through excessive practice but little thought or consideration.  Stories about gamblers and daredevils have enthralled generations for that same reason: anyone can do it, yet only few wish to risk everything for, in the end, nothing better than fifty-fifty odds.  Should we applaud these achievements or lament their pervasiveness?  In competitive societies which promote success through material acquisition, gambling is an easy way for the underprivileged to get a toe in the door (lotteries are the most egregious of these milkings).  Many win, but we all lose.  We lose because those who have less should not be cajoled into spending a portion of their earnings to buck the system; we lose because once a winner is announced he most often feels liberated from society, or liberated enough to pursue the same hollow activities that he has watched the moneyed perform hitherto; we lose because the only entity that consistently profits from these games is the government itself.  Once upon a time, however, the whole practice of gambling among the wealthy and frivolous exuded a certain gallantry and adventure that thankfully has since been shed.  Which brings us to this masterpiece on the mad chase of destiny, one of the great treasures of Western literature.

Our narrator is a certain Tomskii, a man without scruples or hobbies, but with everything that a simple money-loving mind might desire.  He welcomes us to the St. Petersburg social scene and then directs our attention to one quiet character, Germann.  Germann is the "son of a russified German" and content to watch the usual slew of dares and bankruptcies that this stratum of society thinks of as grand entertainment.  The tables fascinate the young engineer but he cannot bring himself to participate.  When asked about his curious restraint, Germann answers as we expect he might:

The game surely interests me; but I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in hope of acquiring the superfluous.

Tomskii’s platitudinous conclusion that Germann is "frugal" owing to his German provenance could be dismissed as a rather unfortunate national stereotype along the lines of Russians' being vodka-swilling bear hunters.  The reader is thus presented with the option of accepting Tomskii's assertion as the omniscient truth or as "idle gossip."  And the repetition of Germann's credo of "not sacrificing the necessary in hope of acquiring the superfluous" is somewhat belied by the narrator's observation that Germann is "in his soul a gambler."  Tomskii's generalization might now be interpreted as a selfish method to divert attention from Germann, who is far more complex and uncategorizable than his shallow mentor.  And here is where, in stories of this ilk, a woman must enter the picture.

The woman in question is Lizaveta Ivanovna, a plain name for a plain girl.  She has no suitors and few perspectives from escaping her dreary existence as the lady-in-waiting to a Countess who also happens to be Tomskii's grandmother.  Tomskii lets it slip that his grandmother, an despotic old bat, possesses a secret that will coax the gambler out of Germann.  From her youth in Paris, she knows of an unbeatable card combination that will ever remain as one of the classic lines in Russian literature.  Germann is hooked, and begins correspondence with Lizaveta, culling sweet nothings from the frothy, overwritten German romances on which he was raised.  He tells her everything a woman of her upbringing and ingenuousness has always dreamed of hearing, and given Germann's innate lack of charm, the effects are both predictable and amusing.  From what we know of him from the first two parts of the tale, we might be surprised that Germann would give in to greed; we are even less inclined to do so taking into consideration the judgment of a worthless cad like Tomskii.  Yet it is often the simpletons among us who see through to our very essence.  So Tomskii needn't be right or wrong when he observes early on:

That Germann is a true Romantic; he has the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles.  He has, I fear, at least three crimes on his conscience.

This old chestnut about how many crimes are committed in thought but not in deed is collated with the first line from the sixth and final part of the story: "two unmoving ideas cannot exist within the same moral nature just like two bodies cannot occupy the same space."  Those ideas are our two concepts of Germann.  He may be an engineer, a calculator, and a stingy bore, or he may have been until now, but is his soul indeed that of a rebel, one that obeys few rules and is devoid of sympathy for those who get in his way?  Or has a great calculator finally found a perfectly calculated risk?  Is it coincidence then that the number of his alleged misdeeds matches the number of cards he was promised by a dying Countess?  We may be moving, I fear, into the superfluous.

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