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.

In one sense, then, Summer in Baden-Baden can be seen as a fictionalised version of known, vouched-for episodes in the lives of the Dostoevskys, which relies for the facts it deploys on Anna’s Diary, on her later and more carefully composed Memoir, on the writings of Dostoevsky himself and those of his biographers. In another sense the book is Tsypkin’s account of his obsession with Dostoevsky and his struggle to come to terms with it. The title of the book notwithstanding, it does not confine itself to what Anna and her ‘Fedka’ contrived to do to themselves and to each other in the casino of the eponymous Black Forest resort, or in its streets, or in the wretched pair of rooms they rented there during the summer of 1867. (They had left Russia to get away both from their creditors and their respective families.) The scenes or ‘moments’ presented in the book range over Dostoevsky’s entire adult life, harking back to his time as a political prisoner in Siberia and reaching forward to his death – which is most affectingly rendered – 11 years after the couple’s return to St Petersburg.

But who was or is Leonid Tsypkin? And what is the story of his book – which is not to be confused with the stories told in the book? In her introduction to it, Susan Sontag passes on the information about the author which she has gleaned from his son and daughter-in-law, who now live in California. The facts are at once painful and inspiriting. Born in 1926 of Russian Jewish parents who had both been doctors, Tsypkin, too, was trained in medicine. Much of his career was spent in research on human and animal viruses. From his earliest years, however, he was also a writer, though an unpublished one. He chose not to send his prose or poetry out to the official Soviet publishers, who would not have been interested in anything so remote in manner and content from the canons of Socialist Realism. Nor did he have connections with people in the literary underground who might have been more sympathetic to what he was trying to do and could have circulated his work through their own channels. When the chance finally arose for him to show some of his poems to Andrey Sinyavsky, the KGB pre-empted it by arresting Sinyavsky five days before the two men had been due to meet. Tsypkin’s response to this disappointment was to go on writing, as before. In 1977 his only son, Mikhail, applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union, whereupon the father was demoted to the rank of ‘junior researcher’. Mikhail and his wife did eventually succeed in emigrating to the United States, presumably taking some of Leonid’s typescripts with them. In 1982 Summer in Baden-Baden was accepted for publication in weekly instalments by an emigré Russian publishing house. On his 56th birthday, five days after hearing this news – five days again! – the author died. He never lived to see in print anything he had written.

Sontag does not tell us whether or not his work has since been published in Russia; nor does she explain how she happened to ‘come across’ Summer in Baden-Baden in English translation. However, a publicity handout from New Directions fills in the story: the book was apparently sold by Tsypkin’s son to a German publisher, who in turn sold the English-language rights to Quartet Books in London. Their edition came out in the late 1980s, and is still in print. In response to my enquiries, Quartet Books have told me that it was well reviewed by Victoria Glendinning in the London Daily News (she is quoted on the jacket of the present edition) and briefly noticed in the Sunday Times and the Irish Times. And that was that. It will be interesting to see whether the book will have better fortune now that it carries Sontag’s imprimatur. (Plainly it has done so already as far as the London Review of Books is concerned.) My own view of the merits of Summer in Baden-Baden is less exalted than Sontag’s; but future readers of it – and I hope it will have many – are indebted to her for spotting it, promoting it, and writing about Tsypkin’s career as she has in her introduction.

Dostoevsky was later to describe his and Anna’s sojourn in Baden-Baden, which lasted for about seven weeks, as ‘sheer hell’ – a phrase that does not appear in Summer in Baden-Baden, but which the book does a great deal to explain. No doubt he would also have thought it hellish that someone like Tsypkin should write with such intimacy about him and his wife. Tsypkin was a scientist; Dostoevsky an irrationalist. (By that I do not mean that he was irrational but that he consciously and programmatically despised rationality – which no scientist can do, however irrational his attitudes and behaviour may be.) Worse still: Tsypkin was a Jew; Dostoevsky was a violent and unregenerate anti-semite. So, by and large, was Anna.

In Summer in Baden-Baden one obsessive, Tsypkin, writes about his obsession with Dostoevsky, while also re-creating imaginatively the multiple obsessions of his hero: among them gambling, literature, fame, suffering, salvation, Russia’s mission in the world, the Jews, the Poles, Turgenev and much else besides. His illnesses and epileptic seizures are included; as well as his knife-edge dependence on and resentment of Anna, and her stubborn devotion to him. All this is inextricably mingled with Dostoevsky’s hunger for power and humiliation, for prosperity and penury, for scaling ineffable heights and tumbling down into abjection – and what is more, for discovering in the second of each of these pairs a ‘feverish willingness’, an ‘exhilarating sensation of falling which made him feel superior to the surrounding world and even somewhat pitying of his fellow men’. The connection of passages like these to the manic bouts of gambling Dostoevsky went in for while in Baden-Baden is plain enough; they will also strike any reader of Dostoevsky’s fiction as both an enactment and an acute analysis of some of the major crises of consciousness to be found in the novels.

He is not the only victim of cyclothymia in the book, however. In his own fashion Tsypkin suffers from the same ailment. In his attempts to fathom why so many Jews like himself (he names a number of others) have been so infatuated with the novelist’s life and work, he, too, swings between aggression and submission. Between one dash and the next, as in the passage below, his passions move from an imagined self-assertion (as a cannibal, no less) to an imputed self-abasement (shame, deceit, cowardice).

– and there was something unnatural and at first glance even enigmatic in the passionate and almost reverential way in which they dissected and to this day continue to analyse the diaries, notebooks, rough drafts, letters and even the pettiest biographical details of this man who despised and hated their race – perhaps it was a kind of cannibalistic act performed on the leader of an enemy tribe – but it is possible, however, that this special attraction which Dostoevsky seems to possess for Jews reveals something else: the desire to hide behind his back, as if using him as a safe-conduct – something like adopting Christianity or daubing a cross on your door during a pogrom –

A few pages further on he wonders whether Dostoevsky’s hatred of the Jews might not spring from a fear that the vices he imputed to them – pushiness, furtiveness, an excessive preoccupation with money – were all his own. Later still, his anxieties unallayed, Tsypkin dismisses this conjecture as ‘a pathetic attempt’ on the part of his ‘subconscious mind to “legitimise”’ his ‘passion’ for Dostoevsky.

The truth, as Sontag writes in her introduction, is that there is ‘no resolution to the anguishing subject of Dostoevsky’s anti-semitism’. Yet on the same page she makes the sweeping assertion that ‘loving Dostoevsky means loving literature’ – as if ‘love’ and ‘literature’ might jointly serve as a quasi-sacramental agency capable of lifting readers (Jewish or gentile) out of the predicament into which a writer like Dostoevsky hurls them. It would be more plausible to say directly that to love Dostoevsky is to hate him too; and that such an impossible concatenation of feeling is an appropriately Dostoevskian response to the man and his work. He is hateful because of the malignity of his xenophobia (of which his anti-semitism is the most toxic instance); because of his hysterically reactionary views; because of the combination of perfunctoriness and verbosity which marks so much of his work; because of his prurient fixations on ‘fallen’ women; even, for that matter, because of the visions of Christ-like forgiveness, reconciliation and redemptive suffering he can sometimes be seen labouring too hard to produce. Yet there it is: in all this, out of it, through it, there emerges a host of piercingly dramatic scenes, insights that turn compellingly from individual motivation to shifts in historical consciousness, passages of unsurpassed pathos and (not least, and too often forgotten where Dostoevsky is concerned) hilarious comedy – grotesque, deadpan, slapstick or kindly, as the mood takes him.

Tsypkin’s passion for Dostoevsky’s work is such that he even imputes to it virtues it doesn’t have: for instance, he speaks of the novelist singing ‘a passionate hymn to each little leaf and every blade of grass’, whereas one has to look hard in the major novels to find any but the most offhand descriptions of natural phenomena. A more serious problem with Summer in Baden-Baden is the repetitive, see-saw movement of the tale, its brevity notwithstanding. Dostoevsky is up, Dostoevsky is down; he wins at the gaming table, he loses; he quarrels with his wife, or she with him, then they make up again. (No doubt those seven weeks in Baden-Baden were like that, but that is another matter.) The effect of stasis is made more obtrusive through the repeated use of a set of unchanging metaphors for certain crucial activities: ‘swimming’ is making love; a mast to cling to is Anna’s image for her marriage; a mountain peak or the apex of a triangle is Dostoevsky’s figure for triumph; a harlequinade – jugglers and suchlike – gyrating around him his vision of failure, of becoming the butt of society’s scorn. Repetition of this kind ‘fixes’ the metaphors; they lose the figurative quality that makes them appealing in the first instance, and turn into tokens, counters, chips – to be pushed into play whenever the action demands it.

All that said, Summer in Baden-Baden remains a singular and impressive piece of work. Perhaps the most striking measure of Tsypkin’s achievement is the access he gives his readers to the inner life of someone whose genius has been rendered wholly credible. There is nothing embarrassing or de trop in thinking of the man revealed in this book as the author of those other, incomparably more famous books – few of which are even named in the text. The portrait of Anna, in all her fidelity, vulnerability and toughness, is convincing too. And, first and last, there is Tsypkin’s pervasive presence within his own creation, which culminates in his visit to the flat in St Petersburg where the Dostoevskys lived during the last decade of his life. The entire building, which stands on what was once Yamskaya Street, and is now Dostoevsky Street, is a museum dedicated to the writer’s memory, which Tsypkin enters like any other visitor, though his heart is ‘pounding with joy and some other vaguely sensed feeling’. Inside the museum are female attendants busy with their knitting, parties of giggling schoolchildren, a lone, pimply youth making notes, members of the research staff at their labours, displays of documents and photographs in glass cases and revolving stands. After going through these rooms Tsypkin enters the flat itself, on the second floor, and what has been a visit to a public institution modulates, as if in time with his own steps, into the account of Dostoevsky’s death I mentioned earlier: a 16-page passage which ends with the departure of the coffin from the flat and is followed – with no break, no discordance whatever – by the departure of Tsypkin into the darkened, snow-bound roadway below.