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