Possessed / Enthralled

by Yule Heibel on May 12, 2003

I just finished reading Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden. Tsypkin’s novel focusses on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s season of gambling in Baden-Baden, a narrative thread interrupted by accounts of Tsypkin’s own life as he journeys by train from Moscow to Leningrad, a scholarly fan on the writer’s trail. Compared to his probing of the frenzied, impassioned, and disturbing life of Dostoyesky and his wife Anna Grigorievna, Tsypkin manages somehow to make his own bleakish and ordinary life in Soviet Russia seem almost normal. But the two lives frame each other: Tsypkin, who reveres Dostoyevsky completely, lives in 1970s Soviet Russia and, as a Jew, suffers real, objective persecution. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, generates anti-Semitic ideology as part of his belief system and suffers persecutions that appear to be largely subjective. Although I’m unfamiliar with Dostoyevsky’s novels (that is, I’m not a Dostoyevsky fan), I continued reading Tsypkin because he employs such a brilliant technique. Peter Weiss, in The Aesthetics of Resistance, did something similar: Both writers use sentences that run on for an entire paragraph, and paragraphs that run on for entire pages, paradoxically to convey an emotional sense which their descriptions in turn play down. As Tsypkin’s reader, you’re pulled along by this torrent, which in its form — seemingly uncontrolled, run-on, endless — is highly emotional even as it lays out in very clinical and objective language the facts of the story, in this case Dostoyevsky’s psychic and economic and physical degradation. Tsypkin was certainly a brilliant writer. He succeeds, for example, in capturing simultaneously the possibility of freedom and of oppression in the act of sexual intercourse: imagine swimming as a metaphor for sex, and imagine all the things that can be liberating about being in the water, and, if the goal is that two people swim together, all the things that can go wrong.

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