Saturday 11 January 2020


Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Nothing drives an obsession to unsustainable extremes more than the unnameable terror that a more moderate degree of love would be overwhelmed by its complementary revulsion. Our so-called cultural artefacts and so-called social institutions are, likewise, mechanisms for privileging one pole of an ambivalence, mechanisms for giving a (usually) positive cast to what we think of as our individual or communal selves. For some individuals, including, seemingly, Leonid Tsypkin and, especially, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the ostensible subject of Tsypkin’s novel), whatever it is that separates the existential extremes is either exceptionally rigid and brittle or unusually permeable when unattended or in some way unreliable or, possibly, sporadically assailable, which enables, for those individuals, transports both of remarkable insight and of psychological risk. In Tsypkin’s novel, the narrator Tsypkin (or ‘Tsypkin’) is travelling by train from Moscow to Petersburg to visit the Dostoyevsky museum. As he travels, he reads the diary of Dostoyevsky’s young second wife Anna concerning their time spent in Europe, mainly staying in various German towns and suffering, often, from the financial consequences of Fyodor’s gambling addiction (which he had written about in The Gambler and practiced thereafter). Tsypkin’s astounding book, in which each paragraph is a single virtuoso sentence building, often, to hysterical length, dissolves the distinctions between the author (or ‘author’) and his subject, slipping, unnoticed and often within a few clauses, over a century in time and deep into the inner life of Dostoyevsky, revealing the sufferings, tensions and passions that both caused hardship for Dostoyevsky and his wife and enabled Dostoyevsky to write novels of such psychological penetration. The uncommon access that the past has to the present and to cause harm there, what we might call memory, repeatedly damages Dostoyevsky — for instance the humiliations visited upon him during his imprisonment lead him to repeatedly set himself up for humiliations that replay that he had received at the hands of the commandant — but also provide him and us with an intimacy with aspects of human experience that might otherwise be inaccessible. Dostoyevsky’s cycles of enthusiasm and despair are described with great sympathy, both for him and for Anna, and Tsypkin’s unsparing portrayal of the faults of his literary hero produce a suitably ambivalent effect, often within a single sentence, moving at once towards both ridicule and sympathy (readers of Thomas Bernhard will appreciate the mastery here). How is it possible to love another (as Tsypkin loves Dostoyevsky, as Anna loves Fyodor) despite their faults, despite, even, their unforgivable faults? “Why was I so strongly attracted and enticed by the life of this man?” asks Tsypkin, who, like many other Jews, has found that Dostoyevksy and his novels possess a “special attraction” despite Dostoyevsky’s antisemitism. “It strikes me as strange to the point of implausibility that a man so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured … despised me and my kind.” While keeping strictly to biographical fact, Tsypkin has written a novel that provides the sort of psychological insight that is only available through fiction.    

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