Leonid Tsypkin - the biographical-critical novel. What is extraordinary about it is the mode of its telling. It is written in paragraph-long, frequently run-on sentences, which are interrupted for breathing only by dashes, commas, and "ands"
Leonid Tsypkin, The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works, Trans. by Jamey Gambrell. New Directions, 2013.
Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden was hailed as an undiscovered masterpiece of 20th-century Russian literature. The Washington Post claimed it “a chronicle of fevered genius,” and The New York Review of Books described it as “gripping, mysterious and profoundly moving.” In her introduction, Susan Sontag said: “If you want from one book an experience of the depth and authority of Russian literature, read this book.”
At long last, here are the remaining writings of Leonid Tsypkin: in the powerful novella The Bridge Over the Neroch, the history of four generations of a Russian-Jewish family is vividly portrayed by a doctor living in Moscow. In Norartakir, a vacationing doctor takes revenge on an anti-Semitic hotel manager by telling her she has cancer, only to be shocked when he finds out that she actually does. The remaining stories offer incredible windows into Soviet urban life, depicting fear and uncertainty, yet ultimately radiating quiet and unforgettable beauty.
I am sitting in the Café Louvre glaring at the formally dressed waitstaff as one after another they pass by with blank stares and trays of empty glasses. For a time Kafka was a regular at this somewhat elegant Prague coffee house and pool hall, and I imagine its waiters' studied unresponsiveness, legendary even back then, playing a role in literary history by undermining his already low self-esteem and compounding the sense of insignificance that was such a vital ingredient in his writing. The book I'm attempting to read when not trying to catch a waiter's attention is Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden Baden, a novel finished in 1981 and rescued from obscurity when Susan Sontag happened upon its English translation in the early 1990s. I'm at the very beginning, when the narration shifts from modern-day Leningrad to the stressed life of gambling fever and poverty led by Dostoevsky and his young wife in Germany to escape his creditors back home. The scene in which the reader enters Dostoevsky's life and times is set in a restaurant in Dresden, where the writer goes into a frothing rage at being ignored by an arrogant waiter.
While the continuity of bad café service in Central Europe is an issue that could certainly use addressing, the more consequential tradition to be invoked here has to do with humiliation–and how a writer uses it. After all, humiliation, with its many offshoots—degradation, self-debasement, shame—is one window through which a writer can examine the often absurd human condition. In the work of Leonid Tsypkin the literature of humiliation reaches its most exalted pitch, with the newly translated collection of novellas and short stories The Bridge Over The Neroch: And Other Works being his most eloquent testament to "the insulted and the injured."
Dostoevsky and Kafka are frequently credited with prophesying the dark, totalitarian excesses of the 20th century, but Russian-Jewish Tsypkin, born in Minsk in 1926, was forced to live through those nightmares. First, during his boyhood, came Stalin's Terror. There followed the interrogation that led to his father's attempted suicide, alluded to glancingly in this new collection's title novella. The beginning of this highly unconventional family saga is taken up with the German invasion in 1941, which Tsypkin together with his parents was barely able to escape. (The extended family was less fortunate. After losing three of his siblings in the Terror, Tsypkin's father had to endure the death of his mother and another sister in the Holocaust.) Though the German invasion—and the frantic retreat of Jewish families like Tsypkin's—looms large here, it seems in danger of slipping through the cracks of the narrative. From beginning to end, Tsypkin keeps the reader unmoored. Main characters are unnamed—they are known as "the boy", "father", and "grandmother" until we move to a later decade in which "the boy" becomes "the man". Shifts in place and time are barely signaled, as are jumps between dream and reality. Even more disconcertingly, Tsypkin smuggles the most horrifying information into the narrative as surreptitious asides.
The following passage would be an ordinary teenage boy's memory of visiting a girlfriend were it not for the brief reference to her mother's tragic fate:
The girl's mother, a dark-haired, talkative woman, usually opened the door for the boy—in the boy's family they called her an unpleasant sort, probably because she loved to dress up and she always smelled of perfume—the Germans killed her because she was a Jew. She would take the boy along the brightly lit rooms with red carpets on the floors and on the walls, too, and he tried to pass through rooms as quickly as possible so as not to run in to the girl's father—even when he wasn't home, his spirit was present, he was probably born a member of the academy—a large man, with a large, pedigreed face thrown back, his chin buttressed by his stiff, starched collar.
There is an early chapter describing the boy's town burning. Before we are told where the flames come from, though, we are presented with descriptions of his emphatic, curious gazing at the fire, and even of the origins of the binoculars through which he is watching. A stream of associations follows, none of them to do with the war; some touch on other recent dark events then move quickly on to stamp albums and bullying at school. It isn't until the chapter's final sentence that the verbal onslaught halts abruptly and the reader gets a hint that this is taking place at the close of the third day of the German army's rapid advance into what is now Belarus.
After the war, Tsypkin followed his parents into the medical profession but then had Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign to contend with, obliging him to lay low, working at a provincial psychiatric hospital before moving to Moscow in 1957 and beginning a distinguished medical research career. It was only in the early 1960s that he began writing more seriously: first poetry, followed by the short stories presented here. Tsypkin neither published nor circulated his work in samizdat, partly out of fear of the repercussions he might face, but also due to a deep insecurity at the reception his work would receive; he was very much an outsider in Russia's dissident literary life. In the short story "Ave Maria," the funeral of a famous Russian pianist and friend of the autobiographical narrator puts him in contact with the Moscow intelligentsia, who treat him with a disdainful condescension that seems to spring from Tsypkin's own experience.
With the novella Norartakir, written in 1976, Tsypkin offers his most anguished and masterful treatment of the "insulted and the injured", though with explicit deference to a people for whom Dostoevsky would not have reserved the term. Then again, Dostoevsky didn't live to see the Holocaust, as a crucified Christ does in one memorable sequence here, being able to see inside the gas chambers of the future as the guards outside celebrate his birthday with Christmas carols and a decorated fir branch in place of a tree.
Centered on a couple on vacation in an unnamed Soviet Republic bordering Turkey, Norartakir is a veritable survey of indignities and humiliations suffered by the autobiographical character of Boris Lvovich. It begins with petty marital bickering and communist-era inefficiency and ethnic slights, written in an almost maddeningly mundane prose. Then, Tsypkin's strategy reveals itself in a sudden burst of lyricism without any apparent connection to the plot. The first of these departures takes place in Boris Lvovich's thoughts during a taxi ride and hinges on Judaism, as in many ways all Tsypkin's major writing does. This stylistic shuffling is a pattern that repeats itself throughout with increasing forcefulness. As when a boxer peppers his opponent with one feeble jab after another only to lull him into inattention, then levels him with a brutal shot to the head, Tsypkin sets the reader up to assault him with sudden visionary flights that take in everything from ancient Armenian battles to Russian fairy tales and hallucinatory images.
Tsypkin's ultimate target in the book is anti-Semitism, and especially the Russian anti-Semitism that was such a painful and pointless obstacle in his life. Considering his biography, one could imagine it would have sufficed simply to write down his own and his family's experience, but he does nothing of the kind. He treats the issue from varying perspectives and in differing literary styles: looking at anti-Semitism's effect on the powerless, impotent Boris Lvovich as he becomes increasingly consumed by suppressed rage, at the grotesque forms this hatred has taken throughout history, and at its impact on Boris Lvovich's son Andrei, who finally feels compelled to emigrate from this place where he is so unwelcome.
It is during a seemingly undramatic scene of Boris Lvovich and his wife visiting a local museum where the novella reaches its peak. The sight of a rusty spear blade from antiquity draws the reader into the scene of the crucifixion itself, from which Tsypkin launches into a historical panorama of anti-Semitism. Then, in some of the most searing, visionary prose in modern literature, he recreates in miniature the alternating settings of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, but whereas the latter goes back and forth between the scene of Christ at Golgotha and present-day scenes of sometimes comic and romantic relief, in Norartakir it is between a history of Christian violence against Jews—rampaging crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, death camps—and then back again without transition to the dying Christ, who sees all this brutality passing before his gradually closing eyes:
Those who carried the banners sang something in a low voice and a language that the dying man on the cross didn't understand, and behind, someone in the crowd threw rocks at the windows of the houses—the panes of glass were smashed to smithereens on the cobblestones, and when the priests with the banners and the crosses on their chests turned the corner, the stone throwers broke into the houses and dragged out old people with the same mournful eyes as the people depicted on the banners, with the same curly beards, only gray-haired and knotted because they were dragged out by their beards, and others got hold of the children and women; and black-eyed women with disheveled hair, pressing their screaming children to their breasts, fell to their knees and begged of the ones who had dragged them out, the ones who reeked of alcohol; and from the broken windows up above, white tufts of cotton and down fell, covering the sidewalks and the cobblestones like snow—now even the hovering horseflies didn't cut through the film covering the eyes of the dying man, but through that veil the dying man suddenly saw clearly the black smoke emitted by chimneys so tall as not to foul the air.
A Russian pogrom, the crucified Christ on the verge of dying, Auschwitz—all in a single sentence.
And then, as abruptly as he has plunged you into these dark chapters of history, Tsypkin settles you back into Boris Lvovich's humiliated self as he and Tanya deal with being kicked out of their hotel. When Boris Lvovich's petty, futile revenge on the hotel director backfires, this is Tsypkin's way of saying: Being a victim isn't a virtue in itself.
The novella ends with Boris and Tanya's son Andrei and the hopeless sense that in Russia the unpunished attacks and petty vindictiveness against "people who look like Boris Lvovich and Andrei" will go on indefinitely. In the final scene, Boris Lvovich, his mother, and Tanya tearfully watch Andrei walk down the stairs of their apartment building, off into emigration and out of their lives; an evocation of the departure of the Tsypkins' son Mikhail, who had left the Soviet Union in 1977, settling in the U.S. Tsypkin faced harsh repercussions for his son's emigration, which effectively ended his medical career. His final exertion for the art and values he believed in was getting his novel manuscript smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in a Russian émigré publication in New York. Days after the weekly Novaya Gazeta began serializing Summer in Baden Baden, Tsypkin died of a heart attack. It was his fifty-sixth birthday.
In the annals of writers who explore the limits of human endurance and the painful questions and answers that linger there, Leonid Tsypkin deserves a special place. Not only for the Job-like patience he showed in pursuing his calling as a writer, in spite of all the obstacles and lack of encouragement, but also for his winding, twisting, poetic sentences of almost unsurpassable beauty; sentences he wove out of often far from beautiful material. They compose a small body of work that stands with the very best of world literature.
- Michael Stein
Leonid Tsypkin, Summer in Baden Baden, Trans. by Roger Keys and Angela Keys. New Directions, 2001.
read it at Google Books
A lost masterpiece and one of the major achievements of Russian literature in the second half of the 20th century. Summer in Baden-Baden was acclaimed by The New York Review of Books as "a short poetic masterpiece" and by Donald Fanger in The Los Angeles Times as "gripping, mysterious and profoundly moving." Its author, Leonid Tsypkin, never saw a single page of his literary work published during his lifetime. A complex, highly original novel, Summer in Baden-Baden has a double narrative. It is wintertime, late December, no date given: a species of "now." A narrator––Tsypkin––is on a train going to Leningrad (once and future St. Petersburg). And it is mid-April 1867. The newly married Dostoyevsky, Fyodor and his wife Anna Grigoryevna, are on their way to Germany, for a four-year trip. This is not, like J.M. Coetzee's The Master of St. Petersburg, a Dostoyevsky fantasy. Neither is it a docu-novel, although its author was obsessed with getting everything "right." Nothing is invented. Everything is invented. Dostoyevsky's reckless passions for gambling, for his literary vocation, for his wife, are matched by her all-forgiving love, which in turn rhymes with the love of literature's disciple, Leonid Tsypkin, for Dostoyevsky. In her remarkable introductory essay, Susan Sontag explains why it is something of a miracle that Summer in Baden-Baden has survived, and offers an account of Tsypkin's beleaguered life and the important pleasures of his marvelous novel.
“If you want from one book an experience of the depth and authority of Russian literature, read this book. If you want a novel that can fortify your soul and give you a larger idea of feeling, and of breathing, read this book. ”— Susan Sontag
“Although its publication comes almost 20 years after the death of its author, and although his name continues to go unrecognized in Russia, this slender volume stands to change the way we think of 20th-century Russian fiction. It is, in more ways than one, a chronicle of fevered genius.”
— Marie Arana
There is a famous scene in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground when the narrator has an encounter with a cavalry officer in a tavern. The officer, blocked by the narrator, casually picks him up and moves him out of the way. The narrator is humiliated, and can't sleep for his dreams of revenge. He knows that this same officer walks every day down the Nevsky Prospect. The narrator follows him, "admiring" him from a distance. He determines that he will walk in the opposite direction and that when the two men meet, he, the narrator, will not budge an inch. But whenever the encounter arrives, he panics, and moves out of the way just as the officer strides past. At night he wakes, obsessively turning over the question: "Why is it invariably I who swerves first? Why precisely me and not him?" Eventually he holds his ground, the two men brush shoulders, and the narrator is overjoyed. But the satisfaction lasts only a few days.
Dostoevsky was the great analyst - indeed, in a sense, almost the inventor - of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and that hate is very close to a kind of sick love. He shared many of the psychological abysses and swervings of his characters, veering between rational doubt and violently irrational (and highly anti-semitic) Christianity; he was subject to extraordinary mood-swings, only accentuated by his epilepsy and what was almost certainly manic-depression. He could be coldly proud and tearfully self-abasing, ranking himself no better than the meanest peasant.
Above all, Dostoevsky was addicted, until the last decade of his life, to gambling - and particularly to losing. He would return from the gaming tables having lost, and sink to his knees to beg his wife for forgiveness and more money so that he could return to the scene of his humiliation and lose again. Freud thought this compulsion had to do with Dostoevsky's guilt at having witnessed the killing of his father (a detail modern biographers doubt, anyway).
Summer in Baden Baden is an amazing and beautiful little book that effectively invents its own genre: the biographical-critical novel. A Russian intellectual is travelling from Moscow to Leningrad on a train (some time in the 1960s or 70s), and begins to read a book he has taken from his aunt's large library. The book is Anna Dostoevsky's reminiscences of her husband. And as the Russian intellectual - who narrates this novel - reads on, he begins to tell us the story of how Dostoevsky and his wife Anna left Petersburg for Baden Baden in 1867. It becomes clear that the narrator is obsessed, as Tsypkin was in real life, with every aspect of Dostoevsky's work and life.
But this summary is barren, for what is extraordinary about the novel is the mode of its telling. It is written in paragraph-long, frequently run-on sentences, which are interrupted for breathing only by dashes, commas, and "ands". Using this unbroken onrush of prose the narrator blends his story (his train journey from Moscow to Leningrad to stay with an old friend) seamlessly with Dostoevsky's, braiding the contemporary tale with the biographical one. There are not two stories here, but one, and the prose, running continuously on a hundred little feet, forces us to experience the delirious merger.
The only way to transmit the strange flavour of the book is to let the reader taste a long quote. Here, for instance, the narrator is describing the Dostoevskys as they leave Baden Baden: "The carriage was hot, but when the train finally got underway, it became a little cooler - and sailing past the windows were the red-brick buildings with their tiled roofs, and in the distance the green-covered mountains, one of them with the Altes and Neues Schloss and the rock-faces jutting over them - and now that they were leaving this place - never to return - she could see the beauty of it, as she had when they approached it for the first time, this city surrounded by mountains with the Rhine gleaming blue somewhere in the distance, and for a moment she felt sad - 'Parting, everywhere, is death,' wrote Marina Tsvetayeva, describing the feeling of sorrow which I, for example, experience when leaving even the most unpleasant habitation, probably because I know that I shall never return again."
Isn't it beautiful, in the quoted passage, the way the narrator turns at the end, and without pausing to breathe bends the long sentence, via the anachronistic quotation from Tsvetayeva, back to himself? There is, as the late Susan Sontag claims in her introduction, a sound - a kind of muttering, eloquent, refined pedantry - that we now associate with the work of WG Sebald, though Tsypkin, who died in 1981, could not of course have known Sebald's work. Other readers will hear the note of Thomas Bernhard, another writer fond of run-on sentences.
But Tsypkin was an original, an avant-garde writer who worked by day as a medical researcher in Moscow, and at night wrote a painstaking prose that he never saw published in Russia. His book first appeared in an American émigré journal in 1981, just a week before Tsypkin died, and it has shuffled in and out of print in English since 1987, recently relaunched thanks in part to the efforts of Sontag. His book is a kind of reverse metempsychosis, with Tsypkin burrowing so deeply and imaginatively into Dostoevsky's mind that he seems to become him. We see Dostoevsky walking every day to the roulette table, transfixed by the yellow chandelier and the piles of golden money. At first, he wins, and then he begins to lose. He feels that everyone is laughing at him, and walks home in a vengeful fury. He begs Anna to give him more money; and when he is not cadging from his wife, he is touching up the writer Goncharov for some cash, or insulting Turgenev (also resident in Baden Baden). His spirits are up one day, climbing in his fantasy to a mental Palace of Crystal (Tsypkin cleverly uses one of Dostoevky's most frequent fictional allusions) and then crashing down to Earth the next.
The book, which is not so much an historical novel as a kind of intense biographical fantasia, is saturated with references to many of the writer's works. There is surely nothing like it anywhere, though perhaps Bernhard's intense elegy, Wittgenstein's Nephew, comes close in tone. Sontag overstates her large claims for it in her introduction, but it is a singular and moving novel, rightly plucked from the oubliette of literary history. · James Wood
Back when I was in my salad years, Dostoyevsky was required reading for our "Humanities" classes. We dreaded these assignments, because it would mean a week of plowing our way through Constance Garnet's translations of Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot. No weekend partying when Dostoyevsky was on the agenda. At the same time, there was a fascination with the low-lifes and angels he was portraying. One would find one swept up not only in a dynamite murder mystery, but in the wonder that one writer could pull out of his head the wildly divergent characters like lusty Karamazov père, the intellectual madman Ivan, the peasant-like Dmitri, the sinister Smerdyakov, the angelic Alyosha.
Tsypkin has chosen to follow in the footsteps of Dostoyevsky during the summers he spent in Baden-Baden. Not only was he gambling away every last sou on roulette, he would go into his occasional fits (he was subject to gran mal seizures), and be subject to the usual paranoic lunacies of a top-drawer writer. Tsypkin calls Summer in Baden-Baden fiction --- but from everything we've gleaned about Dostoyevsky over the years (plus the fact of suffering through his novels and vicious short stories like Notes from the Underground), the book appears to us to be a fine representation of a genuine nut case, especially when he got to the gambling table:
Nothing was visible except the piles of coins before him and the tiny ball, rolling round and finishing in the sector he had divined --- and he was betting over and over again, raking in with his hands the coins he had won and adding them to the pile which shone with a reddish-gold gleam --- and the peak of the mountain had suddenly emerged from the clouds, which remained somewhere below --- he was not so high he could not even see the earth --- all was covered with white cloud, and he strode across the cloud and, strangely , it supported him and even lifted him up towards the reddish-gold, unconquered peak which until quite recently had seemed unattainable.
Or there is the fine conceit of Fyodor and Anna when they are "swimming" in bed together,
He came to kiss her goodnight and they swam so far that the coast disappeared from view as though it had never existed --- on they swam, breathing rhythmically, plunging into the water, now thrusting themselves slightly out again to gulp air into their lungs --- and when it seemed that the swimming would never end and that they would break free at any moment, no longer swimming but soaring lightly and easily over the water like seagulls...
Both of these are excellent examples of Tsypkin's breathless, sweeping style, and it takes the reader into the peaks until Dostoyevsky starts losing it, then we descend into the putrescent underground, falling in despair with him, and then out into the street, we start pushing against people, thinking, no, knowing that everyone is pointing at him, laughing at him, and he begins to contemplate suicide and when he gets to the rental apartment to find Anna (they are always late on the rent --- they have to creep past the door of the landlady) he begins to yell at her or kiss the hem of her dress or beat on the wall or abase himself on her worn shoes or fall into a fit.
It is hard not to get swept away by all this, the delight and despair that pulls the writer every which-away, such that --- for this reader --- makes one have to lay aside Summer in Baden-Baden for awhile because of the overly-involving nature of racing up and down, going from such highs and lows with the writer --- no, with both writers.
Obviously, Tsypkin has done his homework; but, more ominously, during the course of writing this, he seems to have become Dostoyevsky. One does that with the novels: who of us haven't felt a kinship, too much of a kinship, with Raskolnikov or Dmitri or Ivan? We would imagine it's a scary process for Tsypkin. It certainly is for the reader. - Ignacio Schwartz
The force and originality of Leonid Tsypkin’s writing can be conveyed only by way of sustained quotation. Thus:
I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time – late December, the very depths – and to add to it the train was heading north – to Leningrad – so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows – bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand – each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon – the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge – the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass – pierced even so by the station-lights forcefully etching their line of fire – and beyond, the sense of boundless snowy wastes – and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side – pitching and rolling – especially in the end corridor – and outside, once complete darkness had fallen and only the hazy whiteness of snow was visible and the suburban dachas had come to an end and in the window along with me was the reflection of the carriage with its ceiling-lights and seated passengers, I took from the suitcase in the rack above me a book I had already started to read in Moscow and which I had brought especially for the journey . . .
The non-stop rush of that passage (with the end of the paragraph still more than a dozen lines ahead) evokes not only the speed of the train but the mingled shock of succession and simultaneity, closeness and distance, presence and absence, that is familiar to all travellers. The book the narrator has brought with him ‘especially for the journey’ is the Diary of Anna Grigorevna, Dostoevsky’s second wife. After describing its appearance he gives an account of how it came into his possession, how he had its pages cut and bound, how his hands shook as he opened it for the first time. Then he asks himself why the acquisition of the book should have compelled him to make this journey. The only answer he is able to offer, ultimately, is a book of his own, the one now under review.
In effect Summer in Baden-Baden has three central characters: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anna and the first-person narrator whom I shall call ‘Tsypkin’. By turns (none of which is typographically demarcated in the text, except through the opening and closing of paragraphs), Tsypkin’s reminiscences and reflections are interleaved with his re-creation of the consciousness of the Dostoevskys. We see the couple walking down a street in Dresden or Baden-Baden and are made privy to what they are thinking, feeling and remembering, while sharing also the experience of this strange follower of theirs, this fan, this stalker, this person who loves Dostoevsky and pities him, who participates in his torments yet is tormented by him too. (More so, perhaps, than he himself is ever fully able to acknowledge: which adds something to the drama of the relationship between the two.) For Tsypkin is not only ‘I’, the narrator of ‘his’ sections of the book; he is also the omniscient mediator and, indeed, voyeur of all the scenes written in the third person. - Dan Jacobson
There are some books that are so good, that are so in tune with the reader’s current obsessions, that they create a conflict in the reader, a conflict between awe for the achievement of the author, and a kind of burning jealousy and sullen disheartenment that the author had the idea and executed it first. This is the book that I should have written, dammit! This slim novel has two intertwined narratives and worlds. In the first, the narrator ‘Tsypkin’ is on a train journey from Moscow to Leningrad at some point during the late Soviet period. Day is waning, and it is deep winter. He is reading on his journey the Diaries of Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevsky, the writer’s second wife. He arrives in Leningrad, stays with an old friend, and in the morning goes to visit the Dostoevsky museum in Kuznechny Street. His impressions of his journey and his visit to Leningrad are interwoven with the impressions which arise in his mind engendered by the book he is reading, which form the second narrative.
In this narrative, the Dostoevskys are on their way to Baden Baden in the summer of 1867 to escape from the writer’s creditors. They stay in the spa town for a few months, where Dostoevsky is consumed with his passion for gambling and plagued by terrible fits of epilepsy, Anna is pregnant with their first child, they are harassed by money worries and ill treated by the natives of the town, and continuously insulted and humiliated.
This brief synopsis does little to convey the great power of this book, however, which lies chiefly in its prose style, and in its method.
Tsypkin (or his translators) has invented a new kind of sentence, one that meanders for pages and pages, but is broken by dashes, a kind of stream of consciousness monologue compounded of impressions of the journey- impressions of the book he is reading on the journey- ideas that spin out from these impressions- memories of what he has read of Dostoevsky’ life- mini narratives that flesh out- as only fiction can- the known details of that life - the relationship between the writer and his wife- mini narratives that vivify the quotidian texture of Dostoevsky’s life as he experienced it- the sweat- the eternally patched and darned clothes – wearing the wrong kind of hat - the subtle grades of humiliation encountered on visits to pawnshops- memories of the novels and other Dostoevskyana- it’s a perfect representation of a mind thoroughly immersed in the work of another writer- a representation of the process of reading itself- of a mind in the grip of a lifelong obsession.
Particularly powerful and subtle is Tsypkin’s method of incorporating details from Dostoevsky’s novels into the narratives about the Dostoevskys in Baden Baden. Dostoevsky is accused by his neighbour at the roulette wheel of having scooped up some of his neighbour’s chips after a particularly big win. Dostoevsky of course had no idea he had done this, he is so wrapped up in his obsession with winning, the inner sensations of it; but the other man is convinced he has done it on purpose. For a moment, the whole crowd around the table regards Dostoevsky with disdain; he is a thief in their eyes, a scoundrel, and he savours this humiliation, bracing himself against it with mad fantasies of revenge, just as the underground man does in his novel. This incident comes from The Adolescent, written in the mid 1870s, after D had already returned to Russia from his European exile. Tsypkin in this way uses material from the fiction to flesh out his imagined rendering of Dostoevsky life. At the same time this suggests how such fictional incidents may have had their roots in Dostoevsky’s biography, where they were to lie dormant for many years until mined by the writer.
This is a hugely successful way of circumventing the biographical fallacy, that bugbear of biographers, by incorporating it into the fabric of an artistic narrative, one that is personal, imaginative, sensitive and utterly convincing. Much of the strange essentials of Dostoevsky’s biography are here, through the power of art, made perfectly lucid and understandable, notably his fraught relationship with Turgenev; his humiliating fall from grace after the huge success of his first novel; his self-defeating loyalty towards his terrible, grasping relatives; his anti-Semitism, which is particularly worrying for Tsypkin, himself a jew; his imprisonment and exile.
Chief among these is the role played in the novel by Anna Grigorievna herself. She forms the chief focus of the second narrative; and indeed the novel is as much about Anna Grigorievna as it is about Dostoevsky and ‘Tsypkin’. The text is larded with incidents and observations from her Diary. This brings her inner life and relationship with the writer into focus in a much more powerful way than most standard biographies of Dostoevsky do, where she is more often than not relegated to the status of helpmeet. Here, her central role in the novel reflects much more her central role in Dostoevsky’s life, and allows the reader to arrive at a more nuanced, more sympathetic, human understanding of Dostoevsky’s whole world. Through this, the reader comes to regard Dostoevsky as Anna herself does, with a mixture of awe, exasperation, pity and love.
An unforgettable book. - Murr at thelectern.blogspot.com/
I recently finished rereading Leonid Tsypkin's extraordinary novel, Summer in Baden-Baden.
The novel weaves together the life of the narrator, who is very close to being Tsypkin himself, and the life of his literary hero, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Most of the book concerns Dostoyevsky's summer in Baden-Baden with his wife, Anna Grigor'yevna: a time of poverty, gambling, arguments, and increasing desperation. Tsypkin's mesmerizing style is characterized by paragraph-long sentences. He often connects clauses with dashes, and drops a subject to hurry on to the next, reflecting the nervous energy of his protagonist and the structure of Dostoyevsky's gambling addiction, which seems destined to rupture itself, yet rolls mercilessly on.
The publication history of Summer in Baden-Baden is almost as extraordinary as the novel itself. It's one of those books that almost failed to see the light of day--books that seem more precious for having so nearly disappeared. Leonid Tsypkin was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Minsk in 1926. He survived Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign (several family members did not), and went on to work as a medical researcher. He also wrote both poetry and prose, but--aside from some early and unsuccessful attempts to publish his poetry--he did not try to make his work public. "He did not send his manuscripts to publishers," explained his son, Mikhail, "and did not want to circulate his prose in samizdat because he was afraid of problems with the KGB and of losing his job."
Summer in Baden-Baden was written between 1977 and 1980. During this time, Tsypkin and his wife and mother applied for exit visas (Mikhail and his wife had already emigrated to the U.S.). They were denied. A copy of Tsypkin's manuscript, along with the photographs that accompany it, was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and appeared in serial form in a Russian-émigré weekly in New York. The novel also came out briefly as an English-language book in 1987, but apparently it sank without a trace. Susan Sontag's introduction to my 2005 edition begins with her discovery of an old paperback copy at a bookshop on Charing Cross Road.
The moment of Sontag's discovery is exciting, but it's not part of this story that sticks in my head. What I keep thinking about is that when Tsypkin died of a heart attack in 1982, he had been a published fiction writer for exactly one week.
Many people quote the haunting opening of this novel, but they always trail off without finishing the sentence. The sentence is two pages long, and it would be illegal to quote the whole thing. I am going to give you as much as I can.
I was on a train, traveling by day, but it was winter-time--late December, the very depths--and to add to it the train was heading north--to Leningrad--so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows--bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand--each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon--the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge--the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass--pierced even so by the station-lights forcefully etching their line of fire--and beyond, the sense of boundless snowy wastes--and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side--pitching and rolling... - Sofia Samatar
Everything about this book is out of the ordinary – its author, its history, its form, and the dimensions of its achievement.
The author, Leonid Tsypkin (1926-1982), was a pathologist by profession. Living in Moscow and deeply drawn to literature, he nonetheless shunned literary circles and only late in his too-short life began to write, secretly, for himself alone. Summer in Baden-Baden took form over a four year period between 1977 and 1981. Convinced that it was unpublishable in Soviet Russia, he had a friend smuggle it abroad, and in 1982 a New York émigré weekly printed it in instalments. Tsypkin died of a heart attack a week after the first instalment appeared.
No critical notice was taken of the book. But one reader, an émigré who worked as a commentator for Radio Liberty and owned a tiny publishing house in Germany, secured the rights to it from Tsypkin’s son and published the book in German. It received some respectful reviews but did not sell. Soon after, someone from Quartet Publishers in England, noticing the German edition, commissioned Roger and Angela Keys to produce their (brilliant) translation, and brought it out in 1987 – once more, apparently, to no significant response.
Susan Sontag, whom we have to thank for finally rescuing this astonishing book from obscurity (after happening on a used copy in a London bookstore), calls it in her introduction a masterpiece that deserves to stand “among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction.” She does not exaggerate.
In conception and form, Summer in Baden-Baden is like no other book I can think of – or at least not enough like even its nearest relatives to make comparison useful. For this and other reasons, summary characterization is bound to be misleading. You could say that it is a dense and imaginative re-creation of (mostly disastrous) episodes from a trip the forty-six year-old Dostoevsky made through Germany with his young bride, Anna Grigorievna, in the spring of 1867; of their respective characters and psyches, presented both from without and within; and of their marriage. You could add that it is at the same time (like more than one earlier Russian masterpiece) a meditation on itself, a book about its own writing – and so about writing in general. You could mention the suggestive light it casts on Dostoevsky’s creation. All those things are true, but they are incidental to the fact that this is a finished work of art in its own right, gripping, mysterious, and profoundly moving.
There are two major continuities. One is the fragmentary account of the Dostoevskys in Germany and, later, back in St. Petersburg in the final days of the writer’s life. This account draws its details directly from Anna Grigorievna’s diary, and from the volume of reminiscences she composed after her husband’s death. The other is the framing (but similarly fragmentary) report of the author-narrator’s journey by train from Moscow to Leningrad, Anna Grigorievna’s published diary in hand, in pursuit of his obsessive and never-explained fascination with Dostoevsky (whom he refers to, following her, as Fedya).
“Why,” he asks, “had I rushed around Moscow shaking with emotion (I am not ashamed to admit it) with the Diary in my hands until I found someone to bind it? – Why, in public on a tram, had I avidly leafed through its flimsy pages, looking for places which I seemed to have glimpsed before, and then why, after seeing it bound, had I carefully placed the book, which had now become heavy, on my desk like the Bible, keeping it there day and night? – Why was I now on my way to Petersburg – yes, not to Leningrad, but precisely to Petersburg whose streets had been walked by this short-legged, rather small individual (no more so, probably, than most other inhabitants of the nineteenth century) with the face of a church-warden or a retired soldier?
Why was I reading this book now, in a railway-carriage, beneath a wavering, flickering electric light-bulb, glaring brightly at one moment, almost extinguished the next according to the speed of the train and the performance of the diesel locomotives, amid the slamming of doors at either end of the carriage by people constantly coming through balancing glasses full of water for children or for washing fruit, leaving for a smoke, or simply to go to the toilet, whose door would bang shut immediately afterwards? – amid the banging and slamming of all these doors, with the rolling motion jogging my book now to one side, now to the other, and the smell of coal and steam engines which somehow still lingered although they had stopped running long ago.”
These two narratives advance, interrupting each other, without chapters or subdivisions, toward no resolution. At the end the narrator raises once again the question of why he is “so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind” – and once again is forced to leave the question unanswered. What is clear is that the strange attraction has eventuated in a genuine poetry whose meaning comes not from either of these narrative strands, or from the sum of both, but precisely from the enigma of their juxtaposition.
I say they are juxtaposed, but reading the book gives the sensation of travelling along a Moebius strip, whose two sides turn out to be, uncannily, a single thing. What unites all the disparate material is, first of all, Tsypkin’s amazing style, operating through page-long sentences that grow by association, extending themselves in breadth and depth, full of intelligence and surprises. The book throbs with felt life. As in Dostoevsky’s own writing, its most prosaic details, freighted as they are with drama and implication, have a way of turning suddenly luminous.
Inevitably, Tsypkin’s book is saturated with allusions to the Russian cultural tradition. Scenes as well as characters evoke it. There is a magical description of the narrator’s walk down Nevsky Prospect, the main artery of Petersburg/Leningrad, that will inspire a sense of déjà vu in anyone who has seen it in winter, or read any of the great writers – Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Blok, Zamiatin, Mandelstam – who shaped it into an enduring cultural myth. At one point the narrator walks “at random, led by a kind of instinct” until he reaches “exactly the right spot” to find his heart “pounding with joy and some other vaguely sensed feeling” – which might well be the recollection of how this sombre city seems to guide the footsteps of its denizens in Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” or Crime and Punishment, or Andrei Biely’s Petersburg. In this case he has arrived via a labyrinth of back streets at the apartment, now the Dostoevsky Museum, in which the writer died, and he goes on to recreate that dying with exceptional power.
Here as elsewhere, the facts come directly from Anna Grigorievna’s accounts, and they are scrupulously adhered to. But now her consciousness (and Dostoevsky’s) are refracted (and so objectified) through a third, that of a twentieth-century Russian Jew, capable (as Susan Sontag notes in her introduction) of “prodigious, uncanny acts of empathy”. By the same token, Tsypkin builds into his quasi-fiction the familiar feel of the Dostoevsky world with its pervasive shabbiness and psychological disarray, its openness to the transcendent, its feverish vitality.
Tsypkin’s Dostoevsky is a not only a strongly etched character (“already getting on in years, not very tall and with such short legs that it seemed, if he were to get up from the chair on which he was sitting, he would not appear very much taller – he had the face of a man of the common people, and it was obvious that he liked to have his photograph taken and that he was a fervent man of prayer”) but a plausible one – passionate, given to bizarre impulsive behavior, driven. Readers who have missed in Joseph Frank’s magisterial biography of Dostoevsky a complex enough sense of what the man himself was like will find it supplied here.
Frank, for example, treats Dostoevsky’s crisis in a Siberian prison – the exchanging of youthful radicalism for religious and political conservatism – as an entirely positive thing: the writer’s suffering leads him, via a classic William Jamesian conversion experience, to a radically altered sense of the world and of himself in relation to it, which opens the way to the great novels of his maturity. Tsypkin, though his view does not rule out such a reading, conjectures something darker:
“Could his morbid pride ever have become reconciled with the humiliations to which he was subjected there? – no, he had only one way out: to consider these humiliations as his just deserts – ‘I bear a cross, and I have deserved it’, he wrote in one of his letters – but in order to bring this about he had to represent all those earlier views of his, for which he had suffered, as erroneous and even criminal – and this he did.”
Tsypkin suggests that in all his subsequent dealings – with other writers, with officials, with strangers – Dostoevsky’s main efforts were “subconsciously to preserve his self-esteem” against “the visions and images of his trampled pride [which] never left his side” – and which this book presents as crippling even his sexual relations with the wife he loved and trusted.
Why are we so interested in reading about the lives of writers? One reason, surely, is the intrinsic fascination of bad behavior, and writers’ lives seem to show more of it than most people’s. But mainly, I think, we keep hoping that a knowledge of their experience will bring us closer to understanding the creative process. It is usually a vain hope. At best we can get only a little closer, and Tsypkin, combining the obligations of a biographer and memoirist with the liberties of a novelist, seems to assume this from the start. What he does instead, while concentrating on the purely human Dostoevsky, is to remind us of the miracle, mystery and authority of art – and to do it doubly by resting the demonstration on the evidence of his own.- Donald Fanger
Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind…Written between 1977 and 1980, Leonid Tsypkin’s remarkable novel Summer in Baden-Baden is a strange and exhilarating reading experience. Slightly reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, Summer in Baden-Baden is largely about Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Tsypkin’s unnamed narrator is traveling by train to Leningrad probably during the 1970s, with the intention of walking streets that Dostoevsky walked, visiting the buildings mentioned in some of his books, and spending time in the museum dedicated to the writer. On the train he reads a book borrowed from his aunt’s library (and which he has no intention of ever returning): the diary of Anna Grigor’yevna Dostoyevskaya, Dostoyevsky’s wife. As the reader quickly learns, the boundary between the narrator and Dostoyevsky is porous; Tsypkin simply moves without warning between the two men and the century that separates them. In fact, the narrator’s identification with Dostoyevsky is so complete at times that he seems to struggle to awaken from a deep dream in order to return to his own time and place.
Tsypkin leads us in and out of the fields of consciousness of the three main characters – the narrator, Fyodor and Anna – in long intoxicating, cinematic sentences that drive the reader breathlessly across time and space using long tracking shots followed by sudden shifts in focus. The narrator’s train trip and his own memories of post-Second World War Soviet Union frame the story of the recently-wed Dostoyevsky’s own train trip to Germany and their short intense stay in Baden-Baden in 1867, primarily so that Dostoyevsky can indulge in his compulsion for gambling.
The train was speeding along a narrow track twisting capriciously between round-topped hills covered by dark-green forests of beech, elm and other native trees of the plains and the uplands of central Germany – Schwarzwald, Thuringer Wald and all the other mountain areas – a toy train made up of tiny little carriages and a miniature steam-engine with red spokes on its wheels and a tall chimney, the sort you see nowadays on special stamps depicting the history of locomotives – and in one of the carriages of this doll’s train, in a second class compartment, was seated a man no longer young, in a dark suit obviously made in Berlin, with plain Russian face, receding temples and greying brown beard – and next to him was a youngish woman, not unlike a student but with heavy, glowering gaze, wearing a hat and travelling shawl and with a cardboard box on her lap – and sometimes she would begin to doze off leaning her head against her husband’s shoulder while he, squinting his eyes, would carefully and suspiciously inspect her face, as if trying to read something.Dostoyevsky is paranoid, superstitious, jealous, impulsive, argumentative, constantly afraid of being cheated, prejudiced against foreigners and Jews, and haunted by recollections of his own harsh imprisonment and exile some fifteen years earlier. Each gambling episode takes him through a cycle of optimism, ecstasy, despair and abasement, as he pawns nearly everything they own in order to continue losing.
Is this not the explanation of the so-called crisis that Dostoyevsky went through during his penal servitude? – could his morbid pride ever have become reconciled with the humiliations to which he was subjected there? – no: he only had one way out: to consider these humiliations as his just desserts.Toward the end of the book, as Dostoyevsky and his wife make their way by a series of trains back to St. Petersburg, the narrator’s train arrives in the same town, renamed Leningrad. He makes his way through the snow-filled streets to the apartment where will stay, a tiny flat occupied by an assortment of women of several generations, one of whom is his elderly friend. In passages of Vermeer-like delicacy, Tsypkin describes the apartment and the women, painting a haunting miniature of life at the tail end of the Soviet era.
…then, getting out my towel and walking on tip-toe so as not to wake up the neighbors, I would go into the bathroom – a large room with doors on either side, crammed with old furniture and wash-tubs, with the bath itself taking up only part of the space and partitioned off by screens hung with washing to dry, as were the numerous pieces of rope strung out across the room, so that it resembled the backstage of a theatre more than anything else.In an episode reminiscent of several from Sebald’s books, the narrator visits Dostoyevky’s apartment, which has been made into a museum filled with memorabilia of the writer’s life – the old photographs, furniture, clippings, books, the writer’s hat and umbrella, and, of course, the same views out the window that Dostoyevsky stared at as he wrote.
Reading Dostoyevsky on the apartment’s small couch, the narrator muses at length on what is probably the real core of the book: Dostoyevsky’s vehement anti-Semitism,
hoping to discover…at least some ray of hope, at least some movement in the other direction, at least some effort to view the whole problem from a new angle…and it struck me as strange to the point of implausibility that a man so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured who fervently and even frenetically preached the right to exist of every earthly creature and sang a passionate hymn to each little leaf and every blade of grass – that this man should not have come up with even a simple word in the defense or justification of a people persecuted over several thousands of years…
The literature of the second half of the twentieth century is a much traversed field and it seems unlikely that there are still masterpieces in major, intently patrolled languages waiting to be discovered. Yet some ten years ago I came across just such a book, Summer in Baden-Baden, which I would include among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction. Susan SontagSusan Sontag’s Introduction to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden tells us that Tsypkin (1926-1982) wrote this remarkable novel while he worked as a scientist at Moscow’s Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis. It appears that he started writing in earnest in 1977 after being demoted as punishment for the fact that his son and daughter-in-law had just emigrated to the United States. Tsypkin conducted archival research on Dostoyevsky and, Sontag tells us, made many photographs of “places associated with Dostoyevsky’s life as well as ones frequented by Dostoyevsky’s characters during the seasons and at the times of day mentioned in the novels.” Faced with the realization that he would never receive his own exit visa Tsypkin decided in 1981 to ask a friend to smuggle the completed manuscript and some related photographs out of the Soviet Union. The following year Tsypkin’s novel, illustrated with his photographs, began to appear in the weekly New York-based Russian-émigré periodical Novaya Gazeta. Tsypkin never lived to see it.
In 1987, Summer in Baden-Baden was finally translated into English and published – without any photographs – in London by Quartet Books, and presumably this is the book that Sontag read. Its romantic cover design suggests a marketing scheme more appropriate to a title like E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View than a frenetic book about Dostoyevsky’s summer in the gambling halls of Germany.
In 2001, New Directions took a chance on an American edition with a cover that more appropriately represents the intensity of the fiction within. (It’s is a great example of the power of typography.) This edition also included the newly-commissioned Introduction by Susan Sontag, but only one of Tsypkin’s photographs, which was placed opposite the title page.
The New Directions volume is the edition that I bought and read when it first came out, and then subsequently shelved for another eight years – until a reader of Vertigo asked me if I’d ever seen the photographically-illustrated version of Summer in Baden-Baden issued in London by Penguin in 2006. Needless to say, I ordered a used copy immediately.
The Publisher’s Note in the Penguin edition explains “This edition is the first to be published in book form with the author’s original photographs.” Full captions for each photograph are located at the end of the book. Unfortunately, the reader is left not knowing if the author had a hand in placing the photographs within the text. I tend to doubt it. Tsypkin never traveled outside the Soviet Union and his photographs were restricted to Leningrad (Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg). A main point of Tsypkin’s book is the suggestion that an authentic bridge can be erected between past and present, that we can temporarily comprehend some other time and become someone else through an act of the imagination. Tsypkin, like W.G. Sebald, believed that the power of the imagination is strengthened – if not dependent upon – visiting the actual locations where events happened. “In front of me was the Kuznechny Market, and to the right and behind me the Vladimir Church – I had reached exactly the right spot, and my heart was pounding with joy and some other vaguely sensed feeling…” And he talks about making sure that the locations for his photographs were accurate: “I was anxious not to mistake the street or the number of the building supposed to appear before my camera lens.” This does not sound like the kind of author who would shift images from Russia to Germany just for the sake of having photographs more or less equally spaced throughout his book.
Nevertheless, in the Penguin edition a number of photographs of St. Petersburg can be found in the areas of text relating to Baden-Baden. While these images vaguely add to the atmosphere of Baden-Baden, this ambient use strikes me as inimical to Tsypkin’s methodical research methods. For example, in the first example shown below, Tsypkin’s photograph of the the dark stairway leading to the location that Dostoyevsky used for Raskolnikov’s apartment is inexplicably dropped in the midst of a gambling scene in Baden-Baden. On the other hand, the second example – a St. Petersburg street image appearing in the midst of a discussion of the streets of that city – is at least contextualized a little more closely.
“The steps leading up to the room where Raskolnikov lived. These steps no longer exist as the building has been renovated.”
“Gorokhavaya Street, which frequently features in Dostoyevsky’s novels.”Even though the Penguin edition has the advantage of being the first English edition to include some of Tsypkin’s photographs, Penguin didn’t seem to have really understood what kind of book it was dealing with. Their disastrous cover design suggests a fin-de-siècle farce or light romance. Innocent purchasers were probably more than a little surprised at the powerful – and heavy – work of art behind this loopy image . Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Summer in Baden-Baden has completely disappeared from Penguin’s website as if it had never been published. What we need now is a new edition of Summer in Baden-Baden that answers questions about Tsypkin’s photographs and their placement. - sebald.wordpress.com/