JUDY KRAVIS

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Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin is the book for autumn in Inniscarra. It is, as so many commentators have said, extraordinary. At least two narratives overlap in the blur through a snowy train window.  Tsypkin is on the train to Leningrad, and the Dostoyevskys are travelling to Baden-Baden. Suddenly there is a clearing, or the train stops and people are buying beer and pies on the platform; meanwhile Dostoevsky arrives in Baden-Baden with his young wife Anna who needs a new hat, at the very least. 

Leonid Tsypkin never left Russia, but, as he travels from Moscow to Leningrad on the train, he also travels with Dostoevsky and Anna to Baden-Baden. A train journey can count for so much when you are constrained from leaving the country where you live. Dostoevsky went to Baden-Baden to try and win money at the casino. He was an inveterate gambler, an epileptic, an immensely irritated human being, hard to like, anti-semitic, ready to be degraded, humiliated. Tsypkin, who was jewish, was going to Leningrad because Dostoyevsky had lived there, and died there, when it was Petersburg, gateway to the west; and on the train he is reading Anna's Diary. What it is for a wild creature like Dostoyevsky to have a demure wife who keeps a diary. And a devout reader like Tsypkin, who somehow needs him.

As befits a train narrative, the sentences are long, often a page or more. Tsypkin moves towards Leningrad, and Dostoyevsky is staking on zero in Baden-Baden. Or Tsypkin is dreaming Dostoyevsky staking on zero and later walking with Anna by a lake.

Reflected upon the light-blue surface of the lake were gentle white clouds, and drifting slowly across it was a paddle-steamer, wheels cudgelling the water and splashing the deck where the Dostoyevskys stood together with their two children admiring the beautiful summer morning—

Later in the same sentence we understand that Anna bore one child, who died, and so between them, in memoriam or in hope or in despair, the Dostoyevskys had two children thenceforth, especially when they were walking by a lake or travelling quietly on a paddle-steamer; and particularly in their letters to each other. The Dostoyevskys, in reality, wherever that is, had two children, Lyuba and Fedya, the one with a profound lack of psychological balance, the other, diligent but rather dense, almost a malicious caricature of his father's skull, writes Tsypkin. 

The sentences at the end are even longer as Tsypkin reworks the end of Dostoyevsky's life in Petersburg and you start to wonder where the respite lies: every comma leads to the lurch of another clause, another complexity of human life and the russian soul, to the hard-won full stop a few pages on. 

Tsypkin tried for many years to leave Russia. He had one son who did leave, for America, but Tsypkin was refused an exit visa (and humiliated) several times. Humiliation is the crippling most likely to lead to creativity. 

I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation, and standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination.

Writes Wayne Koestenbaum.

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