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Posts from the ‘Leonid Tsypkin’ Category

Summer in Baden-Baden, Part II

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 Sontag

Susan 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.

Baden-Baden Quartet

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.

Baden-Baden New Directions

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.

Baden-Baden 1

“The steps leading up to the room where Raskolnikov lived.  These steps no longer exist as the building has been renovated.”

Baden-Baden 2“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.

My post Summer in Baden-Baden, Part I is here.

Summer in Baden-Baden, Part I

Baden-Baden New Directions

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.