Fyodor, Anna, Leonid

Dan Jacobson

The force and originality of Leonid Tsypkin’s writing can be conveyed only by way of sustained quotation. Thus:

I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time – late December, the very depths – and to add to it the train was heading north – to Leningrad – so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows – bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand – each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon – the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge – the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass – pierced even so by the station-lights forcefully etching their line of fire – and beyond, the sense of boundless snowy wastes – and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side – pitching and rolling – especially in the end corridor – and outside, once complete darkness had fallen and only the hazy whiteness of snow was visible and the suburban dachas had come to an end and in the window along with me was the reflection of the carriage with its ceiling-lights and seated passengers, I took from the suitcase in the rack above me a book I had already started to read in Moscow and which I had brought especially for the journey . . .

The non-stop rush of that passage (with the end of the paragraph still more than a dozen lines ahead) evokes not only the speed of the train but the mingled shock of succession and simultaneity, closeness and distance, presence and absence, that is familiar to all travellers. The book the narrator has brought with him ‘especially for the journey’ is the Diary of Anna Grigorevna, Dostoevsky’s second wife. After describing its appearance he gives an account of how it came into his possession, how he had its pages cut and bound, how his hands shook as he opened it for the first time. Then he asks himself why the acquisition of the book should have compelled him to make this journey. The only answer he is able to offer, ultimately, is a book of his own, the one now under review.

In effect Summer in Baden-Baden has three central characters: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anna and the first-person narrator whom I shall call ‘Tsypkin’. By turns (none of which is typographically demarcated in the text, except through the opening and closing of paragraphs), Tsypkin’s reminiscences and reflections are interleaved with his re-creation of the consciousness of the Dostoevskys. We see the couple walking down a street in Dresden or Baden-Baden and are made privy to what they are thinking, feeling and remembering, while sharing also the experience of this strange follower of theirs, this fan, this stalker, this person who loves Dostoevsky and pities him, who participates in his torments yet is tormented by him too. (More so, perhaps, than he himself is ever fully able to acknowledge: which adds something to the drama of the relationship between the two.) For Tsypkin is not only ‘I’, the narrator of ‘his’ sections of the book; he is also the omniscient mediator and, indeed, voyeur of all the scenes written in the third person.

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