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The Triumph of an Underground Man

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Mikhail Tsypkin
Leonid Tsypkin at his lab at the Institute of Poliomyelitis near Moscow, early 1970s

Leonid Tsypkin was the authentic underground man of the Soviet “era of stagnation,” leading a hidden life as a writer during Leonid Brezhnev’s years as Party leader. He died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1982 at the age of fifty-six, professionally humiliated and socially isolated, a brokenhearted Jewish refusenik, denied permission to join his only son, who had emigrated. Not a word of his small body of literary work was printed anywhere until just a few days before his death, when a fragment of his novel Summer in Baden-Baden appeared in a small-circulation New York émigré journal, Novaya Gazeta. The news of his publication in America was a last comfort, his son Mikhail Tsypkin says.1

His novella The Bridge Over the Neroch was written in the 1970s. “I fire up my imagination with images of revenge—each more refined than the last,” the narrator writes, as he remembers how he was slapped in the face by another boy as a teenager and called a “dirty Jew.” Tsypkin’s writing is full of the revenge fantasies of an outsider for a lifetime’s humiliations and slights. How satisfying, then, that when Summer in Baden-Baden finally appeared as a separate edition in Russia in 2003,2 it was introduced with a translation of Susan Sontag’s essay “Loving Dostoevsky,” in which she described Tsypkin’s work as one of the most “beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction.”

Sontag had chanced upon an obscure English translation of Summer in Baden-Baden in a bin of used books on London’s Charing Cross Road; her high opinion led directly to its republication in New York and translation into several languages.3 Fittingly, The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works, Jamey Gambrell’s excellent translations of Tsypkin’s autobiographical earlier prose writings,4 involves a converse form of reciprocity between Russia and the West; its publication by New Directions was supported by a grant from the cultural foundation of the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

The stories of Tsypkin’s near misses as a writer are as piquant in their detail as the story of his reputation’s eventual elevation by Sontag. A medical research scientist by profession, he began writing lyric poetry in the early 1960s, when he was in his late thirties. An aunt, Lydia Polyak, who worked at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, had cultivated his love of literature, introducing him to the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak (to whom he was especially devoted). In 1965, Polyak arranged for Tsypkin to show some of his verse to the literary scholar Andrei Sinyavsky. Just a few days before they were to meet, Sinyavsky was arrested. He had been smuggling work to the West for publication under the pseudonym Abram Tertz.

After a show trial, Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in prison for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” The previous year, the Leningrad poet Joseph Brodsky had been sentenced to hard labor in the far north for “social parasitism.” This was no time for a diligent Jewish doctor to change his vocation to writing.

During these years, Tsypkin’s interest in the life and writings of Dostoevsky became obsessive. He would spend many hours in the Professors’ Hall of Moscow’s Lenin Library, studying materials on the writer’s life and work. “Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind?,” he would ask in Summer in Baden-Baden. After he had finished a second dissertation and been awarded the degree of Doctor of Science in 1969, Tsypkin began his own experiments with prose, working every evening and weekend, craving “every opportunity,” his son recalls. “Phrases just came to him,” as the narrator of the novella Norartakir notes, “and he barely had time to get to the desk to jot them down….”

As Sontag writes, Tsypkin remained “wholly outside the independent or underground literary circles that flourished in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s…writing ‘for the drawer.’” His aunt Lydia now looked down on his writing, his son recalls, which gravely hurt his pride. Outside any circle of writers, Tsypkin created an underground of his own in the space hollowed out by the narrator’s singular rhetoric in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: a “corner,” or “hole,” into which the humiliated writer could retreat, setting aside any expectation of a readership. “I write only for myself…. I shall never have readers,” Dostoevsky’s “paradoxalist” underground man declared. “If I write as though I were addressing readers, that is simply because it is easier for me to write in that form. It is a form, an empty form.” Unhampered by formal restrictions, the underground man compiled his “notes,” refusing to “attempt any system or method,” choosing to “jot things down as I remember them.”

Tsypkin’s early story “Ave Maria” (1972), the most accomplished of the short pieces in the New Directions collection, presents a self-portrait of the writer as outsider, lurking on the edge of Moscow’s cultural circles, watchful but staying out of view. It is a kind of study for Summer in Baden-Baden, foreshadowing Tsypkin’s masterpiece both thematically and stylistically, mapping out a vantage point, both internal and external, from which to study the dominant Russian culture, which simultaneously enticed and excluded him.

“Ave Maria” describes the funeral of the great pianist Maria Yudina, a neighbor in Tsypkin’s Moscow apartment building in her final years (she died in 1970).5 An uncompromising artist and a friend of the downtrodden, Yudina embodied the ethical code of the semi-dissident Moscow intelligentsia. Her radio performance of a Mozart piano concerto had famously reduced Stalin to tears in 1944; in the 1960s she was fired from her teaching position at the Gnesin School of Music for championing the work of contemporary Western composers, including the émigré Stravinsky, whom she had once known; after reciting the disgraced Pasternak’s verse from a concert stage in place of an encore, she was banned from performing for five years. Jewish by birth, Yudina was a convert to Orthodoxy, and a fearless witness of her beliefs in the face of official atheism.

In “Ave Maria,” the physical, historical, and spiritual aspects of life and death jostle for dominance. The story is arranged as a triptych. First comes the funeral service of Maria Yakovlevna (as she is called in the story), a chiaroscuro scene of ecclesiastical gold and gems, incense and plainchant, in which the congregation is transfigured into a tableau of age-old Muscovite types: “clerks, master builders, grain merchants, tax collectors, artisans, moonlighting seamstresses—where did they all come from?” Inserted into the midst of this is the spectacle of the pianist’s final collapse at home before she is taken to the hospital to die, her pitiful indignity partially witnessed by the narrator. The story ends with her burial. In a final detail, evoked by the narrator with exquisite disdain, a famous literary critic pats his pockets, looking for a light, and asks the narrator, as they leave, how many times exhumation is allowed.

Though he always positions himself away from those whom he calls the “near and dear,” and remains awkward or unnoticed at the edges of the liturgical and medical action, the narrator’s consciousness is all-devouring. As the sensory richness of the funeral rites sweeps him into a visionary transport, his sentences swell into associative cascades before coming to rest in a “dull, heavy thud” as Maria Yakovlevna’s massive body falls, in its coffin, “to the bottom of the grave.” In his homily, the priest invokes the Dostoevskian theme of Russia’s messianic historical destiny. When Dostoevsky’s words are spoken, the narrator (who cannot even cross himself without feeling a fool) is overcome by a sense of communion. To quote just part of a sentence almost two hundred words long:

I understood for the first time what church acoustics mean, although perhaps that was just the way [the priest] talked, and although he spoke about abstract things, it seemed to me that I grasped the secret meaning of his words, and everyone else also understood, and once again I felt I was just a part of them—I now imagined the road we had traveled together in the form of a triangle: the base of it lay somewhere in the depths of the centuries, then, as history progressed, it narrowed, until now only the summit remained, the sharp tip, and we were this pointed tip—an island in the middle of the raging sea, which had by some miracle survived world catastrophe, but with every passing day this island sank further and further, it was already covered by water, the water reached up to our chins, but we were all alive and could move ahead, holding hands, and we had to appreciate this, and when Father Nikon, referring to Dostoevsky, said that “beauty will save the world,” I felt a lump rising in my throat again and tears filling my eyes….

There is little beauty to save the world in which Tsypkin’s stories are set. Death and mass transport, a daily feature of Soviet experience, are major themes in the other short pieces in the collection—“Ten Minutes of Waiting,” “Fellow Traveler,” “The Last Few Kilometers,” and “The Cockroaches.” Tsypkin’s first medical specialty was anatomical pathology. He was familiar with the look and smell of death. In his autobiographical family story The Bridge Over the Neroch, the themes of death and transport are juxtaposed. A journey on the Moscow subway in 1972 is a stimulus for a visionary experience that reverses the movement of time toward decay and death. The smell of the Moscow metro in 1972 is identical to its smell in 1936 when he first rode on it as a small boy, and this provokes an involuntary memory of the rush of joy he experienced as he came to the surface in blinding July sunshine, and then the “burning, cold” taste of an Eskimo ice cream, and his first sight of the tall new buildings of Stalin’s reconstructed socialist capital.

The sharpness of these memories is immediately overwhelmed by his realization of the scale of human forgetting. “What is it—my forgetfulness or the forgetfulness of history?” he asks. His memory’s inability to retrieve the faces of the people who shared the metro car with him all those years ago brings on a vision of his present fellow passengers as already dead:

I imagine all of them lying in identical poses: their arms crossed on their chests, their heads arched back, their faces yellow, wax-like. All of them, as though on command—some sooner, others later—will disappear, leaving nothing behind….

This challenge to his forgetfulness, and history’s, sends him back to his family past. The narrator’s “I” becomes “he”: “boy,” “man,” “son.”

Tsypkin was born into a family with a long line of doctors in Minsk, a city whose population before World War II was over half Jewish. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, Tsypkin’s immediate family fled to Ufa in the Urals. The relatives who stayed behind were murdered in the ghetto after the city fell. In The Bridge Over the Neroch he rediscovers this lost territory, picking out its minutiae (a “hunchbacked road of lustrous cobblestones”) and the narrator’s past self (“a pudgy, short-legged adolescent boy with unhealthy circles under his eyes”), searching out his own dead, recalling their faces as he writes. First of these is his childhood hero, the courageous older boy Tusik: thrillingly half Cossack, half Jew. He remembers Tusik’s dark hair that “easily strayed over his forehead, and calm, deep-set gray eyes in which something reckless occasionally appeared.”

What he cannot picture is what Tusik’s last expression must have been after he was taken away to be shot as “a communist, and a Jew.” Again and again, accidental sense memories carried along in Tsypkin’s rarely abating sentences stop short at the fact of genocidal murder. The “dark-haired, talkative” mother of the girl who arouses his first erotic interest was killed “because she was a Jew”; the “tall, old, bald man with the aquiline nose, his wife, an intelligent woman…whose features I can’t recall, and their daughter, an overly developed girl with a narrow face like her father’s…were all murdered in the ghetto.” Professor Oizerman was made to clean the toilets with his bare hands, “and then they did things with him that no one even talked about out loud, and only then did they kill him.”

The “boy” who fled Minsk in the long evacuation procession becomes “the man…with a Jewish face,” “merged into the stream” on the metro. Remembered images of the burning city are folded into the long years of postwar Soviet life, lived in multigenerational family groups in cramped apartments cluttered with fading photographs and stifled longings.

The narrator attends his father’s long-drawn-out dying and then his mother’s decline. Tsypkin’s sentences interweave past and present, memory and desire, tenderness and disgust. As he listens to the “rhythm of his father’s heart,” he recalls the wayward passions of his parents and his own raging quarrels with his wife. He fantasizes about kissing the dark-haired visiting nurse as she holds a bedpan of his father’s urine, or injects the dying man’s “emaciated, needle-punctured hips.”

Did writing “for the drawer” allow Tsypkin a freedom to record this kind of detail about those close to him? Just as in “Ave Maria,” with its image of the great pianist moaning on the toilet, naked, fat, and collapsing in the corridor of her squalid Moscow apartment, there is a distinct note of vengeance, even violence, in the way that Tsypkin writes about the people who share his claustrophobic domestic world. He is repelled by the sound of his father’s pneumonial cough, embarrassed by the sight of his “yellow legs”; his mother’s buttocks are “too narrow to accommodate so many shots”; he hates the smell of his wife’s face cream; during a row, he looks at her naked, “bending slightly, covering her breasts with her arms as naked women do,” and thinks that “they probably stood exactly that way in Auschwitz or Maidanek before they were shot.” Was writing—every evening and weekend—a form of revenge, not just against the dominant Russian culture that alienated him as a Jew, but also against his own kin for their part in the inescapable “feeling of his own inferiority”?

In Summer in Baden-Baden the narrator reads on the train the diary of Dostoevsky’s young wife Anna Grigoryevna. For him, it is a precious text. Anna Grigoryevna was a stenographer who wrote her diary in shorthand that her husband could not read, which she deciphered only after his death. The Dostoevsky (“Fedya”) who appears in its pages is not Tsypkin’s cultural superior, the great prophet of Russian nationhood. He is instead a kind of double: “sick,” “spiteful,” and “unattractive,” a scurrying “short-legged” underground man, alternating between visionary highs and abject self-abasement. Anna Grigoryevna’s diary becomes an instrument of Tsypkin’s own revenge against Dostoevsky, against the great writer who “enticed and attracted him,” but who hated Jews.

Though Dostoevsky is only briefly mentioned in the novella Norartakir, the work is permeated with his unnamed presence in its two quite different aspects: the humiliated underground man nursing his spite and the prophet of Russian national destiny invoked by Father Nikon at Maria Yakovlevna’s funeral, proclaiming that “beauty will save the world.” In this work, Tsypkin (or rather his alter ego, Boris Lvovich) diagnoses the anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky (“a resentful man with a high forehead, who felt an unhealthy hatred for people of the same blood as Boris Lvovich”) as “the almost internalized class hatred of such a guy for others like him.”

Norartakir recounts the summer vacation in Armenia of Boris Lvovich and his wife Tanya. The “small, stony country” in the Caucasus evokes biblical history (the novella’s epigraph is from Genesis). Flying over Turkey and traveling by train along its border evokes the unimaginable freedom of “over there,” the space beyond the Soviet border. The trip is fraught with anxiety and fuss about hotel reservations and Aeroflot tickets and insults from petty officials. Boris Lvovich worries about the green-tinged wart on his stomach, fearing malignancy. On their return from Armenia, he and Tanya confront their only son’s decision to apply for emigration. (Tsypkin’s son Mikhail left the USSR for America the year after Norartakir was written.)

Unlike Tsypkin’s other stories, Norartakir has chapter titles, which are loaded with the kind of irony that stands guard at the boundaries of all Tsypkin’s ecstatic writing, including “The Terrorist,” “The Mark of King David,” “God Is with Us,” “Exile,” “Revenge,” “Mirage,” and “A Minute of Silence.” The visionary heart of the novella is an extended meditation on Jewish history, prompted by a visit with a tour group to an ancient church. The chapter “God Is with Us,” an audacious single paragraph over thirty pages long, exercises to the full Tsypkin’s ability to extend the field of individual perception across vast tracts of history while never losing the skeptical perspective of the outsider. Reminiscent of the wartime paintings of Marc Chagall, in which the crucifixion hangs over scenes of burning Jewish shtetls, the vision in Norartakir is of Jesus on the cross, “the strange man who prophesied in the temple,” looking into a future of atrocities suffered by his own tribe: the fall of Jerusalem, the Crusades, pogroms, the gas chambers.

If the narrator’s ecstatic flight during the funeral homily in “Ave Maria” was a rehearsal, the vision in Norartakir is the realized performance. The narrator’s communion with the history of the Jewish people (rather than the mythologized history of the Russian nation) is not, however, the consummation of this story, which returns to the day-to-day insults and consolations in the life of a Soviet Jewish doctor. After the vision in Norartakir comes the chapter “Exile”: because of a mix-up with their paperwork Boris Lvovich and Tanya are thrown out of their hotel by a middle-aged female director who “looks past him,” reducing him to a “pitiful supplicant.” With her indifferent nyet, she is the type of the Brezhnev-era bureaucrat, thwarting all private hopes. In “Revenge,” Boris Lvovich pays the director back for the insult to his amour propre. Thrilling, like Dostoevsky’s underground man, to his own vengeful genius, he telephones her to inform her that she has cancer: “‘I’m an expert in forensic medicine,’ he began…‘and given the nature of my work I often have to deal with corpses…. So you see, I can make diagnoses just by looking at people….’”

In Dostoevsky, there is as much abasement and ugliness as exaltation and beauty. The narrator of Notes from Underground (who, like Tsypkin, experienced the “great vexation” of writing work that was not printed) refused, out of perversity, to see a doctor about his diseased liver. He described the “abominable half-despair, half-belief, in the conscious burying oneself alive….” A hundred years later, in his solitary underground in Brezhnev’s Moscow, Dostoevsky’s devoted reader, the good doctor Tsypkin, crafted his own small literary oeuvre of astonishing originality.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Tsypkin was interviewed in Tsypkin: A Russian Story, a documentary about the writer’s life by Saskia van Schaik, released in 2004 by the Dutch broadcasting company VPRO

  2. 2

    A collection of Tsypkin’s writing, including Summer in Baden-Baden, had been published in 1999 in Moscow in a small edition financed by his son. 

  3. 3

    The translation of Summer in Baden-Baden by Roger and Angela Keys, first published in 1987 by Quartet Books, was republished by New Directions, with an introduction by Susan Sontag, in 2001. 

  4. 4

    The story “The Cockroaches” was translated by Anne Frydman. 

  5. 5

    “Ave Maria” gave Tsypkin another of his near misses. His son Mikhail showed the story to Vladimir Turbin, a well-known professor of literature at Moscow State University. Turbin was so impressed that he called Tsypkin to say that he would show it to the great literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, a friend of Yudina. In the end, nothing came of Turbin’s promise. 

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