Language Hat has a post on the card game played by Grandma Lausch and her Hungarian friend Mr. Kreindl in The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It’s called klabyash in the book while clobyosh seems to be the more common spelling, and the present-day Russian names for similar games are deberts, klabor, and belot.

Which brings me to the old Russian, and probably pan-European, distinction between games of pure chance (азартные игры, les jeux de hasard pur) and “commercial” games, in which analysis, calculation and memorization play a role in addition to mere chance (les jeux de hasard raisonné). Dostoevsky despised the latter. In the milieu where I grew up, the former were despised as fools’ pastime, while there was a certain tolerance for games of chance that required a mental effort, as long as they did not involve large sums of money changing hands. However, I’ve heard of college students who developed an addiction to preferans (préférence) that got them expelled for failing grades.

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) wrote in his memoir of the Russian Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov (1873-1924):

Bryusov played games of chance – how shall I say? – not timidly but dully, scantily – revealing the lack of fantasy, the inability to guess, the insensitivity to that irrational element which players of games of chance should learn to master, in order to command it like a magician commands spirits. Before the spirits of the game, Bryusov yielded. Its mysticism was barred to him, like all other mysticism. There was no inspiration in his playing. He would always lose and get angry – not because of the money lost but precisely because he was walking as if in a wood where other were actually able to see something. He envied the lucky players the way he once envied the worshipers of the Fair Lady:

“They can see Her! They can hear Her!”

And he neither heard nor saw.

I inserted a link above to a 1926 article by the (soon-to-be) prominent Slavicist Clarence Manning. (JStor allows non-paying users to store up to three articles from its database at once.) It was published about two years after Khodasevich wrote the first version of this memoir, prompted by Brusov’s death in 1924.

On the other hand, he was excellent at commercial games – preferans, vint – playing them boldly, inventively, originally. He could be inspired in the element of calculation. The process of computing gave him pleasure. In 1916 he confided in me that sometimes, “for entertainment,” he solved algebraic and trigonometric problems from an old gymnasium textbook. He liked the logarithmic table. He delivered a speech praising the chapter in an algebra textbook dealing with permutations and combinations.

In poetry, he was fond of the same “permutations and combinations.”

Brysov was a grandmaster of Symbolist poetry, the founding father of the movement in Moscow. Khodasevich knew him well and was a friend of Bryusov’s younger brother and brother-in-law. This memoir reads, at times, like a piece of cut-and-dry realism but it’s hardly an impartial account.


    • Tsvetaeva is generous to Bryusov, on account of his granite-like grandeur. Khodasevich writes with a pretend objectivity, so when he accuses Bryusov of coldly driving a young woman to suicide, it reads like a well-founded indictment. But it is really?

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