Perhaps the least helpful statement in Susan Sontag’s otherwise indispensable introduction to Summer in Baden-Baden is her peremptory opening declaration that she would include [it] among the most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction. Slow down. First let us see this unusual show for ourselves; the Century’s Greatest Hits game can wait.
Leonid Tsypkin (1926-82) was a Russian Jew, a literary-minded doctor and a distinguished research scientist at the Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis in Moscow. Having survived under Stalinunlike most of his familyhe was extremely cautious about publicizing either his poetry or his prose; and he didn’t even venture into the not usually life-threatening world of samizdat. In 1977 his son and daughter-in-law received exit visas and emigrated to America. That essentially ended Tyspkin’s career; he became a refusenik, but never got out of the U.S.S.R. and died of a heart attack on March 20, 1982, a week after the New York émigré journal Novaya Gazeta printed the first installment of his novel. It was his 56th birthday.
Summer in Baden-Baden begins (and concludes) in the first person, with an unnamed solitary train passenger approaching Leningrad by night in the dead of winter. He is reading the memoirs of Dostoyevsky’s secretary and second wife, Anna Grigoryevna (who outlived him by 36 years); and the story quickly segues to the Dostoyevskys’ departure from St. Petersburg for Germany, where they would spend a tumultuous summerFedya (Fyodor) was, among other things, a mentally unstable, debt-ridden, epileptic, compulsive gambler, and sometimes more than even Anna’s heroic devotion could handle. Despite his profligacy and bouts of hysteria, the couple managed to limp back months later to St. Petersburg, at which point the narrator arrives in Leningrad, where he stays with family friends, visits the homely Dostoyevsky museum and recounts the novelist’s death in 1881.
The book is written in a breathlessly reeling, feverish style, with sentence-paragraphs that hectically spin and swirl, sometimes for pages, without pausing for a period: a loving parody-tribute to the master and his logorrheic characters.
Tsypkin is perfectly aware of the bitter irony in such Jewish reverence for this ferocious, unrelenting anti-Semite: Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind (and deliberately so), a man awash in Christian sympathy for all the insulted and injuredexcept the Jews? And why was the cream of Dostoyevsky scholars composed of Jews? Perhaps they just refused to let anyone, even the obnoxious Fedya himself, spoil their appreciation of his soulful art.
But there is far more to this haunted tale than mere acknowledgement of Dostoyevsky’s intellectual-aesthetic stature: there is an encyclopedic passion for every line in his work, for every fragmentary episode in his life, for every hair in his scraggly beard. Tsypkin projects himself into the hallucinatory summer in Baden-Baden (a pleasant, charming, picturesque resort for anyone but crazy Russian exiles) so totally that Dostoyevsky’s frenzied assaults on the roulette table, his shameless begging, borrowing, stealing and pawning to feed his uncontrollable gambling habit, his tidal waves of guilt and self-abasement before Anna, their ecstatic love-making (described as swimming) and their embarrassing pettiness (Fedya’s groundless jealousy, Anna’s rage over a missing chignon) seem at once sublime, ridiculous and transcendent of either state.
Perhaps the most powerful moments in this quasi-identification come in Tsypkin’s exquisite depiction of Fedya’s death from a pulmonary hemorrhage, in which the most affecting reporter of the scene at the great man’s deathbed proves to be the one person he would never have let into the room:
At times he even thought that he was floating on invisible wings, and at the end of this path, on the very peak of the mountain, a bright sun shone, reflected in the crystal over which he was gliding and, when he reached the summit and the sun momentarily blinded him, he saw how low and insignificant those mountains were, where he had struggled upward beforenothing but tiny, wretched hills, and from the summit of this gigantic mountain was unveiled before him not only the earth with the vanity of its inhabitants, but the whole of the universe with its huge, bright stars, and for a moment there were revealed to him all the terrible secrets of those distant planets, but at that moment the sun was extinguished and he sank down into terrible, fathomless darkness.
Not the least of the mysteries about Summer in Baden-Baden is that it was translated back in 1987; but the pundits were asleep at the wheel, and it failed to create any real stir until now. Well, thanks in part to Sontag, Tsypkin’s time has come; and while her insistence on placing him in the 20th-century pantheon, alongside, presumably, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, et al., is more distracting than appropriate (Tsypkin does not offer us an entire world as they do), her final, emphatic exhortation is right on target: If you want a novel that can fortify your soul and give you a larger idea of feeling, and of breathing, read this book. Absolutely.