The title of Tsypkin’s wonderful novel may not seem terribly seasonal, but then frankly nothing about this book is quite what you’d expect. Part of it is set in 1970s Russia, as our narrator takes a long train journey to freezing Leningrad. Ever present in his mind: on the train, at his friend’s apartment, while walking through the city, are thoughts of that most tormented and most Russian of tormented Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Adding to the contrasts of summer and winter, twentieth century and nineteenth century, is that of Russia against Europe; the main biographical event that haunts the novel is Dostoyevsky’s 1867 visit to the spa town of Baden Baden. Failing to manage his gambling addiction, the great writer’s time abroad is blackly comic as he fumbles his way around the ex-pat scene, trying to impress fellow celebrities, having tantrums and generally self-destructing. Hysterical, self-obsessed and prejudiced, the man who emerges is no hero, a fact of which our narrator is well aware; Tsypkin self-consciously highlights the contradiction of the anti-Semitic Dostoyevsky’s appeal for Russian readers of Jewish descent. One of the things I love about great Russian literature is the way it embraces complexity. With his sensitive but exposing biographical set-pieces, Tsypkin shows himself to be consciously working within this tradition.
Providing cohesion between the different timeframes and tones are long, flowing sentences that perfectly capture Dostoyevsky’s nervous energy and the narrator’s own literary obsession. A quotation on the cover of my edition (brilliantly translated by Roger and Angela Keys) compares it to W G Sebald’s prose, and those who like Sebald will certainly enjoy Tsypkin’s interweaving of biography and philosophy. This review should make my own feelings clear: as a Dostoyevsky fan, it was wonderful to learn more about his life and trials; as a lover of Russian literature who’s been on nearly a year’s break, reading ‘Summer in Baden Baden’ felt like coming home after being away for far too long.