By Leonid Tsypkin
Five To-Be-Read Piles =
Add This One to Your To-Be-Read Pile!
Reviewer: Sage Webb
If you love literature as art, read Summer in Baden-Baden. If you love Russian literature, read it . . . and (of course) read it if you love (or even just like) Dostoyevsky. Leonid Tsypkin’s novel (available from New Directions, with translation by Roger and Angela Keys) offers its readers long (no, really: long), dreamy sentences that give the book something of a fantasia quality in places; it rings with love, inadequacy, wounds and scars, fear, hope, and failure. And the nostalgia at the end smacks of that winning sunset sweep at the close of Death in the Afternoon. (Papa did tell Arnold Gingrich of Esquire: “Am glad you liked the last chapter in the last book [Death in the Afternoon]—it is what the book is about . . . .” The end of Baden-Baden perhaps shares something like that truth, if it is indeed truth at the end of all that bullfighting.) It’s transcendent and disorienting.
Tsypkin (1926–1982) was born in Minsk to Russian-Jewish parents and practiced as a physician and medical researcher. He never saw his work published. It achieved no notice in the U.S.S.R., either officially or in samizdat. Maybe, as Susan Sontag suggested in her introduction to Baden-Baden, Tsypkin wrote “[f]or literature itself.” Just fifty-seven days before Tsypkin’s death in 1982 (two years after he finished the work), the American Russian-émigré weekly Novaya Gazeta began serializing the novel, after a Russian journalist friend of Tsypkin’s smuggled the manuscript out of the U.S.S.R. and brought it to the attention of the weekly.
The novel explores the lives of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his young wife Anna Grigoryevna as they travel in Germany, blending this narrative with a first-person account of the narrator (Tsypkin) traveling to Leningrad/Petersburg in search of the great writer’s legacy. It delves into Dostoyevsky’s gambling issues, the volatility of the couple’s relationship, and Grigoryevna’s devotion to her husband. Touching on themes of xenophobia, trauma, masculinity, anti-Semitism, and the inexorable power of personal history, Tsypkin stiches everything together with original metaphors and creative (and ample) punctuation, his sentences running on for pages, creating a sometimes drumming, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes disorienting rhythm.
Turning the last page, a feeling arises that the book was just long enough. Too much longer and its unique structure might have swamped it. (One probably wouldn’t want every book one reads to flow like Baden-Baden.) But for the few days it takes to read of these roulette tables and pawned wedding rings, one can sink into this rhythm of that something truly different and truly beautiful.