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dostoevsky, leonid tsypkin

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Old 24th Jun 2009, 11:15   #1
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Default Leonid Tsypkin: Summer in Baden-Baden

Since I brought this up in the Celine thread and happened to have a review handy...

Leonid Tsypkin: Summer In Baden-Baden

Leonid Tsypkin sits on a train between Moscow and Leningrad (for this takes place in the days when Russia was still the Soviet Union.) He’s travelling in Dostoevsky’s footprints, following his favourite writer's travels, except of course that Tsypkin has to stop in Leningrad rather than follow Dostoevsky out into Europe (for this takes place in the days when Russia was still the Soviet Union.) Barred from leaving his own country, he has to settle for journeying inwards in his thoughts, with a well-worn copy of Mrs Dostoyevskaya’s diary in his hands to help him imagine the title's German holiday resort he'll never get to see himself.

It’s winter in the 20th-century Russia where Tsypkin is forced to live, it’s summer in 19th-century Europe where Dostoevsky runs from casino to casino, losing everything he owns (as described in his own The Gambler.) Tsypkin weaves together his own life, both as a human being and as a reader, with the life and writings of the Dostoevskys as well as Russian literature from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn, and comes up with an almost seamless story where everything exists at the same time. He’s hunting both for the wisdom of Dostoevsky and for his flaws, constantly asking questions; who was this man admired by so many, where did he get his ideas, why does he still matter so much... and how can Tsypkin, a Jew, justify admiring a writer who was not ashamed of being an outspoken anti-Semite? How can one writer capture human suffering so well, yet think a particular group deserves to suffer? He can’t find any answers, but he can get close, he can meditate, relate. The fact that the aspects of Dostoevsky that Tsypkin focuses on shows a man with no control of his own fate, driven by compulsions and anxiety, might be related to Tsypkin’s own life; he grew up in an age that saw him persecuted by both Nazis and Stalinists, and died unknown and unpublished in a country that didn’t want him there, yet refused to let him leave.

Tsypkin was a doctor, not a professional – let alone an officially recognized – novelist. He only wrote for his own desk drawer. But he did so in a prose that dances with exuberance despite the subject matter, a homegrown stream-of-consciousness of black bread and rough cloth where sentences can twist and turn over 20 pages and several centuries in one sweep, while the biographical, the autobiographical and the stories that tie them together blend into one double-exposed whole. It’s not a book to be read in 5-minute bursts, it’s one long train journey where you can relax into the text and travel in space and time to the sounds of the rails and the steam engine.

Tsypkin arrives in Leningrad and visits Dostoevsky’s home – a museum – almost exactly 100 years after Dostoevsky lays himself down to die. Shortly afterwards Tsypkin was dead too. Summer In Baden-Baden was published in a Russian-American magazine the same week that he died, and he never got to see it printed. There’s a certain irony to that; Tsypkin’s almost shamanic hunt for a dead author ends up being published posthumously, but just like Dostoevsky, he managed to create something that’s both a joy to read and a poetic head-on crash with what it means to live in this world, an emigration novel for those who never get to emigrate, with relevance that carries on beyond the author’s own life.

See the cat? See the cradle?

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