September 2, 2009
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 (NY: New Directions, 2001) 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…
Part II of my post on Summer in Baden-Baden is here.