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High Stakes of Identity

An NU Press Title

6 1/8 x 9 1/4, 211 pp.
Cloth Text

ISBN 978-0-8101-1863-8 / $79.95

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High Stakes of Identity
Gambling in the Life and Literature of Nineteenth-Century Russia
Ian Helfant

Russian life and literature of the nineteenth century abounded with scenes of gambling--nowhere more prominently than in the lives and work of three of Russia's greatest writers: Pushkin, Tolstoi, and Dostoevskii. Focusing on the intersection of gambling performances in society and in literature, this book reveals the significance of gambling as an index of character in nineteenth-century Russia and traces its role in the fate of the gentry over the course of the century. During the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I, Ian Helfant argues, gambling became an essential proving-ground and symbolic locus for noble identity in Russia--a way for the nobility to assert its values (fearlessness, disdain for money, implacable self-possession, deification of whim and will, and stylish performance) against nineteenth-century economics and bourgeois sentimentality. In The High Stakes of Identity Helfant's twin concerns are to analyze the structural components of the myth of the noble "beau joueur" and to show how gambling performances in society and in literature reciprocally reinforced, complicated, and eventually disintegrated its mystique. Using a broad variety of sources--memoiristic, epistolary, journalistic, legal, fictional, theatrical--Helfant reconstructs both the prevalence and the particular codes of gambling's cultural system in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. These codes allow him to interpret the iconoclastic performances of truly legendary gamblers and to assess the importance and purpose of gambling in works ranging from Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" to Lermontov's "Masquerade." Throughout, Helfant gives voice to the rich variety of discourses, from tsarist laws to moralistic tracts, that came to bear on the culture of gambling in the 1830s and eventually led to its displacement as the key marker of nobility.

"Helfant's book belongs in the group of first-rate cultural studies which have redefined the Russian nineteenth century in the past two decades. It bridges literary criticism, social theory, social history, myth analysis, and identity studies; and it reunites high art and ideas with economics and social practices." --Monika Greenleaf, Stanford University

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