Summer in Baden-Baden
The Dostoyevyskys spend the summer of 1867 at the German Kurort of Baden-Baden. Fedya, the great writer, suffers from epilepsy, the scorn of Turgenev, the effects of a Siberian imprisonment, and a mania for gambling that drives him to pawn his own wedding ring and all but the clothes off the back of his young and long-suffering wife, pregnant with “their future Misha or their future Sonya.” This tale, however, is but the center doll of a matryoshka set of stories, the inner treasure the writer’s discovery of the vivid characters of his great opus, and the outer one a “present day” pilgrimage by a vague “I” to the scene of Dostoyevsky’s death.
Leonid Tsypkin follows Fedya’s descent—or ascent, as the book sometimes describes it, to the pinnacle of a sharp triangle—with the stolid grimness the Russians have perfected. The prose is highly literate, on the verge of poetry as images reassert themselves like the words of a chorus, and flows in chapterless, maniacal, stream-of-consciousness sentences, one per paragraph in paragraphs several pages long.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel, however, is the story of its author told in the introduction. A Jewish refusenik with the terrors of both Hitler and Stalin in his past, Leonid Tsypkin toiled his life away at a job degrading to his intelligence and medical education. Writing at night, in secret, he never saw his fiction published until seven days before his death when the first part of this manuscript, secreted out of Soviet Russia, appeared in an expatriate magazine. The very apex of this novel’s triangle is that of a Jew trying to come to terms with his passion for one of the world’s greatest authors, sympathetic on paper to the down-trodden, but who was, in fact, an anti-Semite of the first order. The Jewish pawnbrokers who took the pathetic bundle of clothes were somehow to blame for Fedya’s own mania.