There are some books that are so good, that are so in tune with the reader’s current obsessions, that they create a conflict in the reader, a conflict between awe for the achievement of the author, and a kind of burning jealousy and sullen disheartenment that the author had the idea and executed it first. This is the book that I should have written, dammit!
This slim novel has two intertwined narratives and worlds. In the first, the narrator ‘Tsypkin’ is on a train journey from Moscow to Leningrad at some point during the late Soviet period. Day is waning, and it is deep winter. He is reading on his journey the Diaries of Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevsky, the writer’s second wife. He arrives in Leningrad, stays with an old friend, and in the morning goes to visit the Dostoevsky museum in Kuznechny Street. His impressions of his journey and his visit to Leningrad are interwoven with the impressions which arise in his mind engendered by the book he is reading, which form the second narrative.
In this narrative, the Dostoevskys are on their way to Baden Baden in the summer of 1867 to escape from the writer’s creditors. They stay in the spa town for a few months, where Dostoevsky is consumed with his passion for gambling and plagued by terrible fits of epilepsy, Anna is pregnant with their first child, they are harassed by money worries and ill treated by the natives of the town, and continuously insulted and humiliated.
This brief synopsis does little to convey the great power of this book, however, which lies chiefly in its prose style, and in its method.
Tsypkin (or his translators) has invented a new kind of sentence, one that meanders for pages and pages, but is broken by dashes, a kind of stream of consciousness monologue compounded of impressions of the journey- impressions of the book he is reading on the journey- ideas that spin out from these impressions- memories of what he has read of Dostoevsky’ life- mini narratives that flesh out- as only fiction can- the known details of that life - the relationship between the writer and his wife- mini narratives that vivify the quotidian texture of Dostoevsky’s life as he experienced it- the sweat- the eternally patched and darned clothes – wearing the wrong kind of hat - the subtle grades of humiliation encountered on visits to pawnshops- memories of the novels and other Dostoevskyana- it’s a perfect representation of a mind thoroughly immersed in the work of another writer- a representation of the process of reading itself- of a mind in the grip of a lifelong obsession.
Particularly powerful and subtle is Tsypkin’s method of incorporating details from Dostoevsky’s novels into the narratives about the Dostoevskys in Baden Baden. Dostoevsky is accused by his neighbour at the roulette wheel of having scooped up some of his neighbour’s chips after a particularly big win. Dostoevsky of course had no idea he had done this, he is so wrapped up in his obsession with winning, the inner sensations of it; but the other man is convinced he has done it on purpose. For a moment, the whole crowd around the table regards Dostoevsky with disdain; he is a thief in their eyes, a scoundrel, and he savours this humiliation, bracing himself against it with mad fantasies of revenge, just as the underground man does in his novel. This incident comes from The Adolescent, written in the mid 1870s, after D had already returned to Russia from his European exile. Tsypkin in this way uses material from the fiction to flesh out his imagined rendering of Dostoevsky life. At the same time this suggests how such fictional incidents may have had their roots in Dostoevsky’s biography, where they were to lie dormant for many years until mined by the writer.
This is a hugely successful way of circumventing the biographical fallacy, that bugbear of biographers, by incorporating it into the fabric of an artistic narrative, one that is personal, imaginative, sensitive and utterly convincing. Much of the strange essentials of Dostoevsky’s biography are here, through the power of art, made perfectly lucid and understandable, notably his fraught relationship with Turgenev; his humiliating fall from grace after the huge success of his first novel; his self-defeating loyalty towards his terrible, grasping relatives; his anti-Semitism, which is particularly worrying for Tsypkin, himself a jew; his imprisonment and exile.
Chief among these is the role played in the novel by Anna Grigorievna herself. She forms the chief focus of the second narrative; and indeed the novel is as much about Anna Grigorievna as it is about Dostoevsky and ‘Tsypkin’. The text is larded with incidents and observations from her Diary. This brings her inner life and relationship with the writer into focus in a much more powerful way than most standard biographies of Dostoevsky do, where she is more often than not relegated to the status of helpmeet. Here, her central role in the novel reflects much more her central role in Dostoevsky’s life, and allows the reader to arrive at a more nuanced, more sympathetic, human understanding of Dostoevsky’s whole world. Through this, the reader comes to regard Dostoevsky as Anna herself does, with a mixture of awe, exasperation, pity and love.
An unforgettable book.