SUMMERING WITH THE DOSTOEVSKYS
Leonid Tsypkin’s first and final novel, the slimly elegant Summer in Baden-Baden, begins with an unnamed narrator, presumably Tsypkin himself, making a chilly pilgrimage to the house-turned-museum where his literary idol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, had died:
“I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time—late December, the very depths—and 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 …”
Like the train, Tsypkin’s prose chugs along, line after line, in an elegant, unshowy rhythm, without the interruption of a period—for Tsypkin, periods are like bullets through the brain—flashing us images and reflections of images, “the sense of boundless snowy wastes—and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side,” images that gradually miniaturize only to suddenly expand, a “bookmark decorated with Chinese characters and a delicate oriental drawing” marking place in an aunt’s book that “in my heart of hearts I had no intention of returning,” a book that turns out to be the diary of Dostoevsky’s wife Anna, “a transliteration of the shorthand notes which she had taken during the summer following her marriage abroad.”
Once this remarkable 39-line opening sentence finally pulls into station, the reader has been thrust unexpectedly into the troubled lives of the Dostoevskys, 1867.
Each paragraph, which is to say each sentence, of Summer in Baden-Badenundertakes similar twists and turns, routinely traveling between centuries while positioning keen character insights beside moments of grand political prescience. The book feels at once breathless and dense.
Tsypkin was a distinguished medical researcher, an amateur writer who rarely showed his work to others, and a Jew whose family suffered a long history of harassment and persecution. When he died in 1982, the manuscript for Summer in Baden-Baden had only weeks before been smuggled out of Russia and accepted for publication by a New York magazine. A new edition, with an introduction by Susan Sontag, has just been released in paperback.
With his medical degree, one might assume that Tsypkin (along with his fictional alter ego) would have been drawn more naturally to the brilliant Dr. Chekhov. Instead, his Jewishness drew him to Dostoevsky, allowing Summer in Baden-Badento pose its two most interesting questions: How could Dostoevsky, “a man so sensitive in his novels to the suffering of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and injured,” have been a virulent anti-Semite? And how does one explain the special attraction he has held for Jews in particular?
Academics have already tried and failed at such questions. In the fifth and final volume of his massive biography of Dostoevsky, published last year, Joseph Frank throws up his hands. Loath to play psychologist and tempted to exonerate his hero from charges of bigotry despite all the evidence he so ably marshals, Frank eventually offers this quote from one of Dostoevsky’s critics: “May you be forgiven, much-esteemed Feodor Mikhailovich, for this thoughtless paradox.”
Indeed. But the Dostoevsky portrayed by Tsypkin makes this all the more difficult (and yet, for the same reason, all the more reasonable) because he has been given flesh and bones.
In Summer in Baden-Baden, one can almost smell the hatred coming off him. He is an ill-kept, embittered man of little means, “constantly pestered by loathsome little Jews thrusting their services upon” him. He is obsessed with his poor reception in Russian literary society, even after the publication of Crime and Punishment—his great rival Turgenev insists on addressing him only as “the engineer”—and he is haunted by violent memories of his days as a political prisoner. The gambling fever that grabs hold of him that summer in Germany hardly improves his lot. In fact, it very nearly destroys him.
Dostoevsky is, in short, desperate. And it is precisely this desperation, felt so strongly in Tsypkin’s prose, that allows us to sympathize with him.
Forgiveness, though, may be going a step too far. With admirable candor, Tsypkin suggests that Jews’ rigorous attention to Dostoevsky’s novels may simply be “a kind of cannibalistic act performed on the leader of an enemy tribe.” Or, more shamefully, it may represent the “desire to hide behind his back, as if using him as a safe-conduct—something like adopting Christianity or daubing a cross on your door during a pogrom.”
There are times when Summer in Baden-Baden is operating on so many levels at once, that sentences can be read and read again with satisfaction. However, Tsypkin’s references to both his own and Dostoevsky’s time are, for the novice, nothing short of cryptic. (Is “the man with the hard and penetrating gaze and two melancholy creases furrowing his forehead … who arrived in a foreign country as an eternal visitor and settled beyond the ocean in one of America’s northern states” supposed to be Solzhenitsyn?)
That said, Summer in Baden-Baden is, as Sontag contends in her introduction, a rare find: in one of the world’s “major, intently patrolled languages,” a hitherto unknown masterpiece by a hitherto unknown writer. It more than simply does justice to its own ambitions, Tsypkin’s novel does justice to the towering character that is Dostoevsky, turning a “thoughtless paradox” into a singular achievement.
Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin (New Directions, 176 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, 2003