Though largely famous for long novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a number of notable novellas, of which Notes from Underground is the first major example and The Gambler last. This collection includes both, which is not only convenient but a positive bargain. It is an ideal place to start for those curious about Dostoevsky but intimidated by his thick masterpieces and also has a wealth of supplemental material to attract the more dedicated.
A vivid depiction of the dark side of human nature, Notes is a great classic that perfectly evokes the feelings of isolation, despair, narcissism, and paranoia that continue to afflict the masses. Though very short, one feels on completing it that one has read a very profound book. It is one of the best and most essential short novels ever. Dostoevsky is known for stunning penetration into human nature, and his mastery showed here for the first time. Notes touches on many profoundly important issues: philosophical, religious, social, political, etc. Indeed, it was right at the heart of the era's prevalent intellectual modes and remains relevant today. It also works as a springboard for Dostoevsky's later, more ambitious novels. Part of the reason it works so well is that the narrator is so recognizably, touchingly, and pathetically human. Anyone who considers him or herself an outcast, who feels as if he or she has never been able to fit in, who is uncomfortable in social situations, feels morally or intellectually superior for unknown reasons, is overly emotional and susceptible to constant depression - or any such thing - will undoubtedly identify and sympathize. Another reason it works so well is the writing style. Far from traditional novel or documentary style, it gives the impression that one is reading a record of a person's private thoughts. We see the thoughts as they come to the character, not in any linear form. He may well be neurotic, psychotic, manic depressive, bi-polar, or egocentric - but is human nonetheless. This is a singular, profound, and important literary work of unique value that sticks a penetrating and insightful knife straight through human nature's heart.
The Gambler is quite different and significantly less great but still very worthwhile. Dostoevsky is world renowned for psychological insight, and this is a consummate example. The first-person narrative gives a fascinating peek into a gambling addict's mind; we learn much about what causes such behavior and, more importantly, what perpetuates it, often against better judgment. A large part of Dostoevsky's greatness is that his character studies have great verisimilitude no matter what the subject, but something extra here makes it even more piercing. This is doubtless to a great extent because it has the kind of realism that only experience can bring; Dostoevsky certainly knew a lot about gambling addicts, being one himself. In fact, the story was written at near-superhuman speed to pay off gambling debts - a process so legendary that it was even made into a film. Many gambling addicts have said this is the most realistic and compelling portrayal that exists, and it certainly brings their world vividly to life. However, there is also more to it. Gambling may be the focus, but the insight holds for all addiction forms and, by extension, all types of self-destructive behavior. This last is a particular Dostoevsky specialty, especially in regard to the Russian character, which all of his work in a sense tried to define and analyze. Here he zeroes in on its self-abnegating impulse as symbolized by Alexei's passionate love. Many lovers in literature and reality have claimed they would do anything for their beloved, but few have gone to such literal extremes. This and the gambling show him on the verge not only of self-destruction but of madness, which may make him seem too extreme to be identifiable even as his actions lead to much of Dostoevsky's characteristic black humor. However, the fact that he loses love, wealth, and thus happiness because of an inability to overcome his dark forces makes him a truly tragic figure - widely sympathetic and unfortunately widely relatable. It also unflinchingly shows the futility Dostoevsky saw as central to the Russian character; as an English character unforgettably says to Alexei at the end, "your life is now over. I am not blaming you for this--in my view all Russians resemble you, or are inclined to do so. If it is not roulette, then it is something else. The exceptions are very rare." This shows a very dark view of humanity, particularly Russians - all the more so in that, unlike some of Dostoevsky's more famous works, there is no hint of spiritual redemption at the end. Some may cringe, but the realism and perspicuity ensure we cannot ignore the very important point.
The Gambler is also notable for bringing late nineteenth century European resort towns to life. Most Dostoevsky works are of course set in Russia, but he spent much time in Europe - including Germany, where this is set -, and uses his wide knowledge and experience to make the casinos, healing waters, and other aspects seem real. This makes the book of some historical interest to those interested in the time or place, but the sociological value is even more important. The Gambler is in many ways a comedy of manners showing how Russians behaved - and were supposed to behave, often a very different thing - abroad among themselves and with other groups. This unsurprisingly leads to much conflict, which Dostoevsky plays up for all its psychological, dramatic, and comedic worth. As all this suggests, the story is not quite as serious as his major works, lacking their epic sweep, unparalleled dramatization of dense philosophical themes, and heavy dialogue. This may disappoint those looking for a masterpiece but may even be a relief to some. It must also be noted that while even the best Dostoevsky is rough around the edges of finer artistic points - he was never a prose stylist or perfectionist, his greatness being unmatched psychological and philosophical dramatization -, this is unsurprisingly even more so because of its composition's circumstances.
In the end, those not fond of more characteristic Dostoevsky may well be pleasantly surprised, and anyone who likes him should of course read this, whether early or late. Anyone looking to do so might as well do it here, as it comes with an even greater companion.