Summer in Baden-baden has almost no plot to speak of. A man rides the train from Moscow to Leningrad, the once and future St. Petersburg. During the trip he reads a book. He visits an old friend to reminisce about her son, a long deceased bosom buddy of his. He visits the Dostoevsky museum-house. This exterior action fills, by my estimate, 18 to 20 pages, or roughly one eighth part of the book. The rest is the book he reads: a memoir of Anna Grigorievna, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s stenographer and second wife who lived with him for the final fifteen years of his life, the time during which he produced most of his enduring work.
Let me take a few steps back to discuss the whole literary picture. The last century of fiction has seen major attempts to portray the action of pure thought: Joyce’s stream of consciousness, Proust’s flood of memory, the ins and outs of desperation in Seize the Day–all are attempts to codify the clouds of internal experience. And major works of the Western canon portray the effects of reading. Don Quixote, which comes to mind because I am reading it now, obviously depends on reading to drive it, as do Northanger Abbey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, less comprehensively. These narrative impulses (or, if you like, impasses) persist. I am thinking of Tony Soprano’s morphine dreams and the Quixotic (capital Q intended) fictional Jonathan Ames, lover of detective stories and novice private eye.
Leonid Tsypkin enacts a fusion of these old goals with Summer in Baden-baden, whose primary aesthetic mode is to reproduce the experience of reading a novel. How faithful his reproduction is to my own experience of reading! First there is, of course, the book itself. The narrator’s copy of the memoir is an old one he has stolen from an “aunt who possessed a large library” that he has had repaired and bound in a more durable cover. I, too, open a book with an idea of its history, particularly the portion of its history that begins with my first laying eyes on it. Then I begin to read, and the otherwise relentless train of my own thinking submits wholeheartedly to the text. To put it another way: the words on the page bend my thoughts to themselves so that they become at least parallel, or perhaps become one and the same. In the same way, the huge fields of text that one might take as a simple paraphrase of Dostoevskaya’s memoir are recast as experience of a higher order because they are not presented as a composed report but as the ordered spontaneity of a reading mind, which will embroider and lightly annotate, as the narrator’s does.
The aptness of Tsypkin’s style is most evident in the restraint he exercises when shifting from exterior action back to reading, or vice versa. There are no triggering events, a la Walter Mitty, nor are there any typographical signals. The shifts rather resemble the movement of the eyes, every once in a while, up from the page to a woefully incongruous physical realm. Eyes will see wherever they are pointed with no great fanfare as they flit between foci. It is an absorbing portrayal of absorption.
That is my definition of Summer in Baden-baden–what do I take from it? I admire its honesty. I do not refer so much to the plain treatment of the narrator’s (and probably author’s) dilemma with Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he reveres even as he belittles the great novelist, even as he winces at the latter’s rampant anti-Semitism; or to the rotten recollections of the Purges and the Siege that he is both blessed and cursed to have survived. I mean the honest act of recording an experience as it happens, in this case the collective experience of reading a book, of being simultaneously of two worlds, which requires true discipline of vision.
Perhaps there is something in the hyper-censorship of the Soviet regime, too, although I am no scholar and can only speculate. Tsypkin wrote, as he often said privately, “for the drawer.” Rather than face scrutiny for his literary achievements–he made his career as a scientist–he locked them away, and they were published after his death. In this light, the narrative of reading becomes more precious because it is the only literary sphere, due to its inherent privacy, which he could pursue unmolested. Then the reader’s portrait gains a provocative clandestine force as the confessions of a censored man.