The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Leonid Tsypkin's SUMMER IN BADEN-BADEN appeared from New Directions Books several years ago and was received with rapture by none less than Susan Sontag, who gushed about it in her introduction. "One of the lost masterpieces of Russian literature," she called it. (The NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS also loved it; the article is here but you have to pay to read it.) It's a very brief book (barely 150 pages) and its narrative switches between a first-person description of the author's train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg/Leningrad sometime in the 1970s and a third-person narrative of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Grigoryevna's vacation in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, where Dos spent most of his time losing money at roulette. Tsypkin was a pulmonologist by day but was a passionate lover of Russian literature and his book is steeped in Russian literary history. The book's narration is relatively experimental: it's structured in long paragraphs that consist of one sentence each. The sentences are not as periodic as Henry James'; they're more like Faulkner's, but with bunches of clauses set apart by dashes. The reader gets lost in each paragraph, because like Virginia Woolf's (or Faulkner's) they wander around and spiral and take you far away from where they started. Not much really happens in the book, and the connections and parallels between Tsypkin's contemporary first-person sections and the Dostoevsky pieces are at times not at all clear. It's a tough book to read; it requires real concentration. I might not be enough of an expert in Russian lit to really understand what Tsypkin is doing, but I did like the book.


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