Almost claustrophobic in its intensity, Tsypkin's recreation of the frustration, and even paranoia, of Dostoevsky during one summer in Baden-Baden, in which he attempts to gamble his way out of debt, is a masterpiece, newly published twenty years after its author's death. With sensitivity and a feeling for suffering which may have come from similar frustration, Tsypkin reveals Dostoevsky's inner life, showing us a sensitive but driven man who is also insecure, rude, and arrogant, a man who dominates his wife, a man who suffers from the aftereffects of his imprisonment and his epilepsy, a man virulently anti-Jewish and anti-German and in the grip of compulsive gambling--and a man with whom every reader will ultimately feel empathy, if not complete sympathy.
The story line is deceptively simple. An unidentified narrator, a great admirer of Dostoevsky, is traveling by train to various sites associated with Dostoevsky. As he travels, he reads a Dostoevsky novel, musing about characters in Dostoevsky's novels and events in his life, his honeymoon and marriage, his remarkably supportive second wife, and his associations or wished-for associations with other Russian authors, such as Turgenev. The narrator's additional musings on the forces which eventually impel some later authors, like Solzhenitsyn, to seek exile, while other authors remain behind, bring Russian literary history up to date, expanding the novel's scope beyond that of Dostoevsky and his contemporaries and giving some historical context to Tsypkin's own writing.
Contributing to the dark and intense moodiness of the novel is its style. Single sentences, full of unique images but sometimes two pages long, drive the narrative and the reader along, with the insistence of the train ride which opens the novel. Because each of these sentences is often a single, extended paragraph, there are almost no visual breaks to provide respite from solid type, which completely fills each page and compels the reader to read every word. The writing is so strong, so energetic, and so fresh, however, that most readers will find themselves speeding to keep up with the narrative, the grayness of the text disappearing as Tsypkin's lively images emerge and his characters come to life. This is a challenging and utterly fascinating novel, a startling new work which has earned a place in Russian literary history. Mary Whipple
on 25 April 2005
Leonid Tsypkin was a distinguished Russian doctor and medical researcher and a man, you feel, who was imprisoned by his situation and his exposure to history. Several of his relatives would die in the concentration camps, Tsypkin himself would be a virtual prisoner in the Soviet Union. He was denied exit from the country; after his own son left, Tsypkin would be demoted as punishment.
His novel, "Summer in Baden-Baden" is a complex narrative. Written 1977-80, it presents an anonymous narrator, travelling by rail, contemplating his role and his life, paralleling this with a similar journey by Dostoievsky and his wife, leaving Russia to tour the West. This is a journey through time and space, a grand tour of Russian literature.
Tsypkin undoubtedly saw language as a liberating medium: it gave Dostoievsky the freedom to travel the world - it gave Tsypkin the freedom to think, to imagine, but to escape the Soviet Union only in his mind. Language and writing are liberating, but governments can view writing as cause for imprisonment! Dostoievsky, let us not forget, was exiled to a Siberian prison because of his use of language.
Language, however, can be its own prison. Tsypkin presents the celebrated Russian novelist, an icon for writers the world over, and contrasts him with the anonymous narrator, a would-be novelist plagued with doubts and fragile confidence. This is an exploration of the loneliness and egg shell self-confidence of the writer. But the third character, the third dimension in the novel remains Tsypkin himself - demoted, denied the opportunity to continue his medical research, physically trapped within the Soviet state, censored and intellectually neutered, he researches Dostoievsky's life with passion and consummate skill, weaving together an epic novel of depth and complexity.
Tsypkin does tackle the contradictions in Dostoievsky's status - Susan Sontag brings this out in her superb introduction to the 2005 edition. Dostoievsky has a legion of Jewish admirers, yet his writing was often virulently anti-Semitic. Tsypkin can love the man's words without understanding his values; he has too many good qualities to be damned for one failing.
Dostoievsky was also a man capable of such insight into the human condition, yet he was a slave to gambling, could not see into his own life enough to plot an escape from addiction. But this is the ironic theme to "Summer in Baden-Baden" - value the whole person, see the complete picture, don't define and despise a person because of one aspect, one failing.
Tsypkin writes a humanitarian novel with passion and genuine insight. It is a complex piece of work - the many allusions to Russian literature can set your head spinning - and from place to place it is difficult to follow. Is this a weakness? Well, yes, but it would be hard not to press that this is a novel which should be enjoyed in total rather than in parts, even if it may take a second or third reading to fully comprehend Tsypkin's tale.
Leonid Tsypkin (1926-82) was unknown until this miraculous, unclassifiable book - not quite the novel it proclaims it is, though novelistic in form - was finally published in 1987, then more recently in 2005 with his own moody photographs included and a superb 20-page introduction by Susan Sontag, some of whose words are worth reproducing here:
One emerges from reading Summer in Baden-Baden purged, shaken, fortified, breathing a little deeper, grateful to literature for what it can harbor and exemplify. Leonid Tsypkin did not write a long book. But he made a great journey.
She's not wrong. He never saw it published, worked clandestinely on it (this was still the overbearing Soviet era) and it was his only book. But what a book. Though superficially like similarly offbeat works by Sebald or even Geoff Dyer, J. M. Coetzee's own Dostoyevsky homage The Master of Petersburg, or maybe Michael Ondaatje at his most non-fictitious, this is a book I breezed through, despite its eternal Proustian sentences and intricate burrowings into the byways of his fellow Russian's later life, travelling with his second wife - and something of a saint she proves to have been! - Anna Grigor'yevna, not only to the spa town of the title but to other places, including Petersburg, where the exhausted, irascible genius gives up the ghost.
Fedya, as he calls Dostoyevsky much of the time (and the diminutive which Anya would have used) is hard to like, let alone love. But we are not asked or invited to like him, or even admire him. He was even, as Tsypkin makes very clear, a fervent, conscious anti-Semite - though how the Holocaust might have affected him had he been born a hundred years later is open to question.
He was also an inveterate, hopelessly addicted gambler, and his relentless visits to the local gambling den in Baden-Baden are related as unsparingly as are Fedya's pitiful pleas to Anya for more money, invariably on his knees. As a writer Dostoyevsky was a titan, as a man he could be a pain in the neck, to say the least. When he did have any money (which was all too seldom) he tended to 'play Christ' by giving it away to beggars, almost as if he couldn't stand having it about his person - unless he was gambling it away of course.
However, as Sontag rightly points out in her introduction - which also tells us much about Tsypkin's rather sad life, I'm glad to say - "Loving Dostoyevsky means loving literature". Tsypkin gives us the sensitive, mercurial, troubled, solicitous Dostoyevsky too, not to mention portraits of some of his contemporaries, such as the wordly Turgenev and others.
This book has been translated heroically and brilliantly by Roger and Angela Keys, and the shade of Tsypkin should be happy his solitary masterpiece has found an audience at last. His writing manages to be both dreamlike and precise, mildly surreal and matter-of-fact.
It is quite simply - sorry for the cliche - a tour-de-force.
Leonid Tsypkin, who died in 1982, was a great admirer of Dostoyevsky's work, and one winter he set out for a train journey from Moscow to what was then still Leningrad to visit the Dostoyevsky Museum there, a building which also includes the flat in which Dostoyevsky died. And we embark on two interwoven `streams of consciousness', the author's and the great writer's. The sentences are enormously long, often running for pages at a time, but we are never lost, and their powerful rhythm carries us along (which, incidentally, is a great tribute to the translators, Roger and Angela Keys.)
It must be admitted that, if one did not know that Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest and most profound writers of the 19th century, one could not guess it from the description of the very unpleasant figure who emerges from these pages, gripped, as he was, by what the blurb describes as `the destructive demons that beset him late in life'. He is unattractive in voice and appearance; he is clumsy; he is foul-tempered and shouts when angry, even in public places; he is paranoid, always suspecting that people - even those who love or admire him - are laughing at him (and indeed sometimes they do, so gross is his behaviour); his literary success notwithstanding, he is deeply insecure and unsure of himself; he alternates between arrogance and obsequiousness; he bullies his timid second wife, Anna Grigorievna (and then abjectly pleads for forgiveness); he is a compulsive, frenetic and largely unsuccessful gambler, demanding money for this obsession from his wife and pawning even her clothes (and towards the end of his life will be equally incontinent in the alms he gives to beggars); and this man, who was `so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured' was a rabid anti-Semite (which troubled Tsypkin who, like so many of the ardent admirers of Dostoyevsky, was himself Jewish).
What, then, makes reading a book about such a person so rewarding an experience? In the first place, Tsypkin has a Dostoyevskian compassion for his hero's suffering (and for that of his young wife). The story is set for the most part in the gambling resort of Baden-Baden in the summer of 1867. Dostoyevsky was still deeply marked by the appalling experience of his exile in Siberia from 1849 to 1859, and especially by a humiliating flogging that had been inflicted upon him there. In moments of stress, he identifies those around him with the ghoulish and mocking faces that had witnessed the flogging. And of course he suffers terribly from his addictions, from his sensitivities, from his own obsequiousness, from his epileptic fits, and finally from the lung haemorrhage that killed him. (While most of the book is set in Baden-Baden, the last part of it describes his death 13 years later).
And because this is a stream of consciousness book, we enter into both Dostoyevsky's and Tsypkin's dreams and flights of imagination, which are beautiful and poetic, and often surrealistic. Equally wonderful are the descriptions of the Russian winter - the frozen landscape Tsypkin can see through the misted windows of his railway carriage, and the crispness of the snow in Leningrad.
If you know Dostoyevsky's novels, then the allusions to them will further enrich your appreciation of this gripping book. You will then realize how much of Dostoyevsky's own life-experience is mirrored in them. If you don't know the novels, it may lead you to read some of them, and to understand why this deeply flawed man was nevertheless one of the towering figures in European literature.
on 23 April 2005
I have just finished Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden-Baden and, as at the end of every great novel, feel somewhat overawed by its profundity.
Whoever it was that rated this book as only meriting two stars must have completely missed the point of both Tyspkin and Dostoevsky because it is an undoubted masterpiece. (This is not withstanding the crudeness of 'marking' literature as if it were a school pupil's homework)
It is true that the book will appeal in large part to readers with at least a working knowledge of Dostoevsky's major works, in particular, if anyone is thinking of reading any before they read this work, Crime and Punishment and The Idiot.
The majority of the book takes place in Baden-Baden on a trip Dostoevsky took with his second wife Anna Grigor'yevna after his return from the prison camp. Shattered and traumatised by his internment Dostoevsky has become a passionate neurotic, seeing the face of his gloating Gaolers in every slight or dropped comment and reliving his tortures and his ruined pride with every Franc lost on the roulette tables he gambles his and his wife's money away on.
The novel is written by an unnamed Jewish doctor, a passionate lover of Dostoevsky's who is trying to come to terms with both his works and his profound anti-Semitism. At one point puzzling, "Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind."
He (the narrator) is making a train journey from Moscow to St Petersburg in the opposite direction to the journey Dostoevsky will make with his wife on their way to Baden-Baden. Both making physical and spiritual journeys of discovery, like Ahab hunting his whale. Both existing in a splintered 'present' which belongs to the same narrative voice, both at odds, in literature, as well as life, with the country they both love and hate, Dostoevsky having been exiled and Tsypkin told he could never leave. (Tsypkin, a medical researcher in post-war Russia applied for exit visas twice and was turned down and hounded from his post.)
The novel's style both pre-empts and resembles that of W.G Sebald, who could not have known of Tsypkin who was only published seven days before he died from a heart attack in a Russian periodical published in America. There is the obsession with the workings of memory, the long tortuous sentences lasting whole paragraphs and even the use of pictures taken by the author which seem to displace or add-to the narrative rather than illuminate it.
Summer in Baden-Baden deserves a wide readership, rescued from anonymity by the critic Susan Sontag only a short time before her own sad demise from breast cancer, it will fascinate all lovers of classic literature, anyone interested in the psychology of gambling, Dostoevsky lovers or readers of Russian literature.
In Sontag's own words in her excellent introduction, "The principal intensity depicted....is not gambling, not writing, not Christing. It is the searing, generous absoluteness of conjugal love...Anna's all-forgiving but always dignified love for Fedya rhymes with the love literature's disciple, Tsypkin, for Dostoevsky."
on 9 December 2009
One of the 1001 books you need to read before you die (international edition), this is highly unusual and very memorable. Tsypkin has developed a prose style based on inordinately long sentences - a bit like that of Jose Saramago (though in the introduction Susan Sontag says he couldn't possibly have read Saramago) - they take work but are worth the effort.
As to the content, it's a mix of the author's journey from Moscow to St Petersburg and imaginative recreations of episodes in the life of Dostoyevsky. Most notably of a summer gambling in Baden Baden - his compulsions themselves compelling, of his courtship of his second wife, of his death, and of his emotional life and its earlier shapings through his time in prison.
I would strongly recommend this.
I was so looking forward to this re-issued novel after reading Sontag's recommendation - one of the last pieces she wrote before her death. The rediscovery of a Russian masterpiece SUMMER IN BADEN-BADEN. Sadly though, I think were I to have submitted this to a publisher I would have received a rejection with 'promising, but you are trying to be too clever'. I found its interweaving more tiresome and disorienting than enlightening. Am I in the mind of the narrator or in the mind of Dostoyevsky via the narrator? I think I would have liked to learn more of the narrator as well.
What comes across is what the novelist imagines is the man - and not a very pleasant man at all. I think if this description were accurate - and it very likely is - I would admire the work and loath the man. It has perhaps added to my curiosity (after having also read J M Coetzee's "The Master of Petersburg") to find out who the writer (Dostoyevsky) may have been and perhaps why he was inspired to write what he did.
Is it worth the time and effort to read this novel? It depends how interested you are in things Russian I would think. As a piece to some degree it is a novelty. And perhaps at a second reading the it might seem more lucid.
on 21 August 2005
I was waiting with immense excitement for the republication of this, which I was assured by several reviews in literary magazines to be a 'lost Russian masterpiece', etc, etc. As soon as it came through my door, I began reading it voraciously, waiting for the moment when I would be slapped in the face by its pure brilliance. I am still waiting, and, three months later, have not been able to bring myself to finish reading it. The other reviews on amazon are almost breathless in their enthusiasm, but I fail to see the amazingness in Summer in Baden Baden that merits such passion. The book I read was certainly ambitious, but also amateurish, pretentious and rather lacking in the attributes usually applied to works described as masterpieces, such as developed, likeable characters. As a previous reviewer noted, I would have liked to have known a little more about the narrator himself. Plus, I was left wondering, if Dostoevsky was such an unattractive man (the description of him in this book is more than a little unflattering), then what merits the obsession the narrator has for him??? I hope that I will be able to finish this at some point, because I want to see if it gets any better. However, at the moment, I am rather disenchanted by this so called Russian 'masterpiece'. I am inclined to say that it wouldn't have been so much of a tragedy if Summer in Baden-Baden had remained undiscovered.