Translated from Russian by Roger and Angela Keys

Here’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, but it wasn’t until I got the opportunity to travel to Baden-Baden for a few days that I finally picked it up. It turned out to be a fascinating multi-faceted read, the major thread being the story of Dostoevsky’s time in Baden-Baden during the summer of 1867, which, unlike mine, can only be described as torrid …

… because Dostoevsky was at that time a gambling addict or in the words of my city tour guide, firmly convinced that if he gambled enough, he would eventually make his fortune. He snapped out of it, she said, when he realised it wasn’t true. Unfortunately that was some four years after his stay in Baden-Baden and not before he put his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna through a lot of grief.

My digs in Baden-Baden turned out to be just around the corner from the Dostoevsky House (not the actual house he lived in, but a new house built at the same location), and that house is only a 10 minute walk or 5-minute run – if you’re Dostoevsky sprinting to place your next bet – from the casino.

Book and casino

Looks harmless, doesn’t it? The book cover too gives an impression of genteel enjoyment, but the moments of peace between the couple during their time in Baden-Baden were rare; Doestoevsky’s addiction causing him to yoyo between pawnbroker and casino more times than I could keep track of. With no money coming from his publisher, the couple were dependent on gifts from Anna Grigoryevnas family, and she was in charge of the purse strings. Which begs the question what was she doing handing all her money – and ofttimes her best clothing – to her husband in the full knowledge that he would only squander it at the roulette wheel? Different times, different ideas of wifely submission and support, I suppose. But she fascinated me. Originally Dostoevsky’s stenographer – he dictated The Gambler to her – I wonder if she thought she could change him. You can hardly argue that she didn’t know what she was getting into.  She had an amazing talent for separating the moral fibre of the man from his addiction.

As for the portrait of Dostoevsky, let me just say it’s far from flattering.

Which makes me wonder about the author’s fascination with him. How does the author, Leonid Tsypkin, a Russian-Jew, explain it in the face of Doestoevsky’s fierce anti-Semiticism? (Track the Jewish characters in his novels to confirm this.) He offers no explanation other than a love of literature.

Leonid Tsypkin wss first and foremost a doctor and medical researcher, who wrote Summer in Baden-Baden with no thought of publication. He already had problems with the Russian authorities, and this text had it come to light at the time would have exacerbated those, because it is much more than a fictionalisation of Dostoevsky’s life, much much more. It starts as the author is travelling to Leningrad / St Petersburg in Dostoevsky’s time to visit the house where Doestoevsky died. He is reading a slim volume – Anna Grigorevyna’s diaries.  As he travels, as he reads, Tsypkin’s prose slips seamlessly between past and present, between the author’s story of travelling through Russia – researching Dostoevsky – in the 1960/1970s – and Dostoevsky’s travels through Germany 100 years before. And when I say seamlessly, I don’t mean within alternate chapters or paragraphs, but frequently within the same sentence.

Ah, those sentences. I’m no fan of long sentences, or stream of consciousness, and so my heart fell when I encountered the first full-stop only after 2 pages! This sentence-length turned out to be the rule, rather than the exception, and yet, there was something hypnotic about Tsypkin’s prose jumping from his journey to Leningrad, reading Anna Grigorevyn’s diaries, to the emotional struggles of the Dostoevskian reality. From I (Tsypkin’s narrative), to he, she, they (that of the Dostoevskys.) I won’t say I loved the style but I got used to it, even if I did zone out on much of Tsypkin’s story. I was, after all, in Baden-Baden, and Dostoevsky was my main focus.

Tsypkin’s story seemed rather drab in comparison, but how else would a narrative re everyday reality in the USSR appear? This impression compounded by the inclusion of black-white photographs of some really ordinary buildings which turned out to be locations in Dostoevsky’s novels, or places which played a part in Dostoevsky’s own life. I say turned out because they are only identified in a list of illustrations at the end of the book. (I don’t think it would have hurt one bit to have identified the locations under the picture.) They are also photographs taken by Tsypkin during his Dostoevskian odyssey.

Susan Sontag – who absolutely eulogises this work in her introduction – maintains that this format and this style is typically Sebaldian. (Not that I would know, never having read Sebald.) And yet it is not, because Tsypkin, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, never had access to Sebald and others such. That he invented this sentence structure and fiction/non-fictional  blend without reference to other writers seems extraordinary to me. And the fact that Summer in Baden-Baden was never published in his lifetime, and in English only some twenty years after his death,  makes this extraordinary novel/biography/travelogue/eulogy to Russian literary history (whatever you want to call it) more extraordinary still.