Summer in Baden-Baden
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Jan-31-2003
In this novel the narrator travels by train from the present into the past and back again. The narrator boards a train in Soviet Moscow; travels to Leningrad in a compartment with some not too friendly people; stays overnight in a relative's run-down, crowded apartment; and rambles through the streets of Leningrad, stopping to visit Dostoyevsky's last place of residence, which is now a museum.
However, this framing story occupies very little of the book. During the train ride, the narrator re-imagines a much earlier trip in April 1867, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his young wife, Anna Grigoryevna, travel by train to Baden-Baden in Germany. They will remain abroad for four years, as Dostoyevsky indulges in his passion (and later obsession) for gambling.
In Baden-Baden he loses all their money; he pawns their belongings and loses; he begs and borrows money from friends and publishers, and loses. Each time he loses, he comes home to their rented apartment and throws himself at Anna's feet. He protests his love, berates himself, and promises to do better in the future; and Anna forgives him.
In this dream-like story, repentance and forgiveness, memory and desire, hope and despair revolve like electrons around Dostoevsky's addiction to gambling. Fyodor and Anna recall earlier events in their lives; for example, Anna remembers herself as a hesitant young secretary arriving for the first time to take dictation from the famous man; and Fyodor, the former convict, Slavophile author of Crime and Punishment, remembers being scornfully dismissed by the smooth and sophisticated Turgenev.
Within the 1867 framework, the story seems to be stuck, unable to move forward, although we know from our late 20th century perspective--as Tsypkin recalls (and invents) the events while on his train trip to Leningrad--they are part of a larger story which moves inexorably forward through time and ends at the Dostoevsky house in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), with the moving scene of Fyodor's last days. And the two stories converge as Tsypkin visits the Dostoevsky museum where those last days took place.
This is a literary pilgrimage through time and space. Tsypkin, the late 20th century Soviet physician, travels to visit the city of his idol, the 19th century novelist. But the "story" of the story is Dostoevsky's, recounting his historical retreat to Germany, presenting the "real" events of his life during that time with an imaginary texture.
From a medical perspective, we focus on the great novelist's addiction to gambling; his epileptic fits and bouts of melancholia hover in the background. On Anna's side we see her all-forgiving tenderness and devotion, attributes that today we might medicalize (and trivialize) by calling her a "facilitator" of her husband's addictive behavior.
One of the most interesting dynamics of this book arises from Dostoevsky's hatred of Jews. This is highlighted in Susan Sontag's fascinating introduction to the current edition. In his writing Dostoevsky consistently depicted Jews as negative characters and stereotypes, which reflect the profound anti-Semitism expressed in his letters and personal life. Yet, Tsypkin, his disciple, is a Jew. He writes that Dostoevsky did not "come up with even a single word in the defense or justification of a people persecuted over several thousand years . . . and he did not even refer to the Jews as a people, but as a tribe . . ." (p. 115-116) How does this Jewish doctor, who even today was still persecuted in the Soviet Union because of his ethnicity, reconcile his love of Dostoevsky with the latter's virulent hatred of Jews?
Leonid Tsypkin was a distinguished medical scientist whose literary activities were, for the most part, entirely clandestine. After his son and daughter-in-law immigrated to the United States in 1977, he applied for an exit visa, which was denied. He wrote a number of poems and novels, but none were published in the Soviet Union during his lifetime, nor were they circulated in manuscript form. The manuscript of Summer in Baden-Baden, his last novel, was smuggled out of Russia, and the first installment of its serialization in a Russian publication in New York appeared in early 1982, one week before Tsypkin died in Moscow at the age of 56 of a heart attack.