Thursday, January 13, 2022

Leonid Tsypkin

A friend gave me a copy recently of Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden-Baden. I'd not heard of the book -- nor of Tsypkin -- and so gave it a shot: I was curious. What I discovered was a gem. 

Tsypkin's novel proposes two -- often interwoven -- narratives: the first focuses on Fyodor Dostoevsky, the second on Tsypkin's pursuit of Dostoevsky. Summer in Baden-Baden was published before the novels of W. G. Sebald, but there is a lot here which is evocative of that master: Tsypkin infuses Summer with photographs, blurring the line between fiction and history. And more: he writes in a style entirely his own. As Susan Sontag notes in her introduction, there is an incessant quality to Tsypkin's prose: his use of dashes, as opposed to commas and periods, produces a sense of immediacy, of the past molding with the present. Each paragraph is a tidal wave of time.

Summer in Baden-Baden does not adhere to the rules: this is a novel which transitions between perspectives and narratives without recourse to page breaks or chapters. It is, instead, a book which seeks a universal present, one in which the present is defenseless against past personalities and events. Tsypkin's quest for Dostoevsky epitomizes this dynamic: as he searches for Dostoevsky, as he reconstructs the novelist's life, Tsypkin's own existence becomes infused with memory and commemoration. There are extended passages from Summer in Baden-Baden which transition back and forth -- and back and forth again -- from past to present. But they do so without artifice; the shift is seamless.

It would be hyperbolic, perhaps, to claim Summer in Baden-Baden as a lost masterpiece, or even as an undiscovered great. It seems that Tsypkin's work is slowly being recognized. But I must say: it's not everyday that you happen upon a novel with the power to both entertain and affect. Summer in Baden-Baden, despite its obscurity, is just such a book: I thoroughly recommend it to those with an interest in Dostoevsky, but equally, to those with an appreciation for European history. This is a special work of literature.

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