In Search of Dostoevsky

Summer in Baden-Baden

by Leonid Tsypkin,translated from the Russian by Roger and Angela Keys, with an introduction by Susan Sontag
New Directions, 146 pp., $23.95

During his all-too-brief life (he died at the age of fifty-six), Dr. Leonid Tsypkin was indistinguishable from many other middle-class professionals in the Soviet Union. He was born in Minsk of Jewish parents, both of them doctors; part of the family was wiped out in the Stalin terror, part after Minsk fell to the Germans in 1941. His immediate family escaped because a grateful ex-patient made room for them in a truck. The young Leonid himself went on to become a research doctor, a pathologist, a member of the Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis, the author of a hundred medical articles on his specialties. But his scientific career suffered as a result of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign and the emigration of his son and daughter-in-law to the United States in 1977. His own efforts to emigrate proved in vain.

The picture of him on the back flap of the present volume shows a round-faced man with rather fleshy features sitting before a microscope, from which, one imagines, he has just lifted his head. The expression on his face is pensive, contemplative, the penetrating eyes turned away from the camera and looking beyond it, as if broodingly pondering what he has just seen.

We are concerned with Dr. Tsypkin here because, as well as pursuing his honorable if unfortunately hampered medical researches, he also had a passion for literature, particularly for Dostoevsky, and devoted whatever time he could to literary composition. Only one work of his, the present volume, written between 1977 and 1980, was published in his lifetime (he died seven days after it began to appear in a Russian-language journal in the United States); and though he wrote several others, they were only printed, along with the republication of Summer in Baden-Baden, in a very small Russian edition financed by his son.

Luckily, however, the version of the brief novel published in a Russian-language newspaper in New York led to its excellent translation by a small English publisher, and Susan Sontag accidentally found the English edition while browsing among bookstalls in London. It turned out to be so striking and unusual that she got in touch with the author’s American family and arranged for its publication here—for which we can all be grateful.

The title refers to the five weeks spent in Baden-Baden by Dostoevsky, then forty-six years old, and his recent wife Anna Grigoryevna, twenty years younger, during July and August of 1867. These were the years when, whenever he went abroad and was within reach or easy traveling distance of a roulette table, he was overcome by an irresistible gambling fever (though after 1871 he never gambled again, despite several trips to Europe). While in Baden-Baden he also had a rancorous encounter with Turgenev, one that has left its traces in Russian cultural history. His relations with Turgenev until that time, though strained and touchy, had still been tolerably friendly, and just before the quarrel Dostoevsky had even been mulling over asking him for …

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