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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 a loan (although an earlier one had not yet been repaid).

The novel is by no means confined only to this period of Dostoevsky’s life, and the author does himself a slight injustice by this choice of title. The book roams over Dostoevsky’s career, ranging from his literary debut in the 1840s to the very last days of his life in 1881. Indeed, if one wished to characterize the book more accurately, it might be called, perhaps, a rhapsody on Dostoevskian themes, or a series of variations on Dostoevskian motifs.

The book consists in large part of the uninterrupted flow of the author’s strikingly imaginative reconstruction of Dostoevsky’s life, based on a thorough knowledge of the original biographical sources as well as of Dostoevsky’s works. There is no division into chapters, and the unusual prose proceeds with an impetus that rarely relinquishes its grip on the reader. Tsypkin hardly pauses to complete sentences, which roll on with one clause succeeding another connected only by an “and” or separated with a dash. The pause for new paragraphs lasts only for a moment, as if the writer had just stopped to catch his breath.

The fadings in and out familiar from the movies also come to mind because transitions, often involving a change of time and place, are usually made through links of memory that evoke one another. This is not unlike what occurs in the stream-of-consciousness novels of Joyce and Woolf, but here the stream-of-consciousness is entirely dominated both by imaginative accounts of incidents from Dostoevsky’s life, which become fused with those of the characters in his novels, and to a lesser extent with the lives of other Russian writers and their works—Pushkin, Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Tsvetaeva, Solzhenitsyn. As third-person narrator, the author enters freely into and out of the consciousness of the characters he is creating (in this case, Dostoevsky, his wife, and the various people, particularly Turgenev, who play an important part in Dostoevsky’s life) and at times he tends to merge with the figures about whom he is writing.*

Another narrative, first-person and autobiographical, is interwoven with the episodes devoted to Dostoevsky. Here Dr. Tsypkin himself speaks, and the book begins with a description of his departure from Moscow on a journey to Leningrad to visit the Dostoevsky Museum there and take photographs of the surrounding neighbor-hood. From time to time the author thus emerges from Dostoevsky’s world and brings his own twentieth-century Russia into relation with it, sometimes with a bitterly ironic comment on the total indifference of most of its inhabitants to the moral and cultural issues that so preoccupied Russians in the past. As for himself, this consuming interest in Dostoevsky provides a motive not only for his musings and reshapings of the Dostoevskian world, but also for a self-probing that gives his writing a particular poignancy.

Early in the novel we find Tsypkin sitting in a swaying railroad carriage at the start of his journey—superficially only from one city to another, but more deeply into the world of Dostoevsky as well as into himself:

…Bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand—each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon—the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge—the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass….

Impressions of Dostoevsky’s life appear and vanish with a similar kaleidoscopic rapidity. The narrator is trying to read a book in the railroad car, one filched from the library of an aunt and which he has had rebound to prevent its falling apart. It is, he says,

the Diary of Anna Grigor’yevna Dostoyevskaya produced by some liberal publishing-house still possible at that time…—with dates given in both Old Style and New Style and words and whole phrases in German or French and without translation…a transliteration of the shorthand notes which she had taken during the summer following her marriage abroad.

Susan Sontag in her introduction seems to confuse this book with Anna Dostoevsky’s Reminiscences (“aboard a train bound for Leningrad, the narrator…opens a book…the Reminiscences of Dostoevsky’s second wife”) but these two works are not the same. The Diary, containing the unaltered shorthand notes made by Anna Dostoevsky in compliance with her mother’s request that she keep some account of her journey, was first published in 1923. The Reminiscences, partly written on the basis of Anna Dostoevsky’s diary at the very end of her life, were put together from her manuscripts in 1925, seven years after her death, by Leonid Grossman, one of the first Jewish specialists on Dostoevsky. This latter volume covers Dostoevsky’s entire life and draws very selectively on the Diary, whose entries, often showing Dostoevsky in a far from favorable light, were later revised and bowdlerized.

It is this first book that the narrator is holding so carefully (it was only republished in 1993). “Why was I now on my way to Petersburg—yes, not to Leningrad, but precisely to Petersburg?” he asks as he emotionally prepares to plunge into the world of Dostoevsky’s own life and time. “Why was I reading this book now, in a railway-carriage, beneath a wavering, flickering, electric light-bulb, glaring brightly at one moment, almost extinguished the next…?” The entire book provides, if not an unequivocal answer to this question, at least an understanding of why it troubles his conscience and confronts him with a moral dilemma.

Reading about the journey of the Dostoevskys while engaged on his own, the narrator describes their departure for Dresden, passing through Vilna, “where they were constantly pestered by loathsome little Jews thrusting their services upon them.” (The contrast between the Reminiscences and the Diary is brought out by Dr. Tsypkin’s own remark that in the former, “perhaps even after she [Anna Grigoryevna] got to know Leonid Grossman, there is no mention at all of loathsome little Jews on stairs” who show up in the Diary.) In Dresden, the couple go to the art gallery every day “as people in Kislovodsk drop in at the kursaal to take the waters,” and this causes the narrator to recall a long queue for a show at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow where “the Sistine Madonna” was once displayed—the same Madonna whose photograph, “in a wooden frame, hangs in the Dostoevsky Museum in Leningrad above the leather couch on which the writer died.”

Shifting back to Dresden again, and following the Diary, the narrator observes that, for the couple, the Germans are “a dim-witted bunch” who cheat all the time and barely treat them with minimal courtesy. Dostoevsky becomes infuriated when “some Saxon officer with fleshy red nose and yellowish eyes, his whole appearance that of a drinker,” is attentively served in a hotel restaurant while they are insultingly neglected. In a rage, Dostoevsky pounds the table with his fist, “and he even began to shout at [Anna] as if it were her fault that the two of them had gone there together.” The Diary itself is filled with incidents in which Dostoevsky turns on the wholly innocent and inexperienced Anna to vent his frustration; and the narrator makes clear the resentment Anna could express in the Diary (whose shorthand Dostoevsky was unable to read), but had to keep under careful control for the sake of her marriage.

Another recollection occurs at this point, however, as the narrator shifts from the Diary to Dostoevsky’s fictionalized memoir, House of the Dead: “Had he himself [Dostoevsky] not stared sycophantically into the yellow-lynx eyes of that drunk, red-nosed swine of a commandant in the con-vict prison?—yes! that was the one brought to mind by the Saxon officer just now.” The narrator then evokes a day in the prison camp, when Dostoevsky was feeling ill and lying on the bunk, and this officer shouted at him “with all the strength of his bullish throat” to get back to work. In another image from the prison-camp years Dostoevsky witnesses a punishment: “the victim lying motionless as he was beaten with birch-rods, leaving bloody weals on his back and buttocks,” and then getting to his feet with dignity and leaving without so much as a glance at Major Krivtsov, the sadistic prison-camp commandant.

  1. *

    The critic Dorrit Cohn used the word “psycho-narration” to describe the technique of a third-person narrator fusing with and conveying the consciousness of a character in her excellent book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton University Press, 1978), Chapter One.

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