Friday, April 5, 2013

The new Leonid Tsypkin book - we're lucky to have it

Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden was so good I knew that there was more to the writer.  He had to have written more, and worse, to have become skillful enough to create that kind of carefully made masterpiece.  But given the history of the book, written by a doctor, smuggled out of the Soviet Union, published in obscurity – although it found its way into the right hands eventually – I never expected to see anything else.

There was more, though, some of it similarly good, now collected in The Bridge over the Neroch and Other Works (2013, New Directions), translated by Jamey Gambrell, two novellas and some stories written between 1972 and 1978.  Were any of these texts published before, in Russia, or anywhere?  Did Tsypkin keep them in his desk, or bury them in the yard?  I have no idea.  The introduction says nothing about their history.

A couple of the stories are close to writer’s exercises.  I had expected more like those, but  at least three of the pieces are superb:  “Ave Maria,” the account of a funeral of an extraordinary woman; “The Bridge over the Neroch,” a family saga in which flight from the invading Nazis is not even the most dramatic part; and “Norartakir,” about a couple on vacation in Armenia.

All of the stories would be worth writing about.  They are all colored by the dinginess of Soviet life.  “Norartakir” is especially interesting in this regard, since the vacationers, the husband a professor and the wife a high-ranking civil servant, are if not exactly nomenklatura have money and clout.  They are also Jewish, and the story is largely about the inescapable strain of being Jewish in the Soviet Union.  This passage follows a stunning visionary sequence that blends Noah’s family on Ararat (the backdrop of the vacation), Christ’s crucifixion, pogroms, and the Holocaust, when Boris Lvovich awakens in his hotel room to the sound of airplanes:

Pilots in helmets, with impassive white faces, verified their course by the plane’s instruments – everything was correct, southwest – and in an hour, or perhaps even less, the airplanes would land in a foreign airport, also plunged in darkness, and from their bellies, weapons and tanks with five-pointed stars would roll out and crates with guided missiles would be unloaded, and swarthy, curly-haired people who looked something like Boris Lvovich, would use these missiles to kill people who looked exactly like Boris Lvovich.  (150)

Tsypkin is careful to omit certain words:  Israel, Yom Kippur War, Jewish.  Yet they are constantly evoked.

The narrator of “Ave Maria” is Jewish, too, so his discomfort with the Orthodox funeral runs through the story.  I just want to give a glimpse of Tsypkin’s prose, but he writes such long sentences.  Well, I’ll break them:

… he crossed himself, but a bit shamefully, as though he were zipping his fly; they all crossed themselves that way…

…  meanwhile the priests, standing near the coffin of the dead woman as though they were an honor guard, took turns reading the requiem, and in the interludes between the reading the choir sang, but a certain thread had already been lost, and one of the priests actually kept swinging the censer in the direction of the churchgoers, as though tossing a paper ball on a piece of elastic.

… a cloud of incense that looked like smoke from the explosion of an anti-aircraft gun now floated in the place where they had just been standing…

And on like that.  Tsypkin was such a good writer.  What good fortune to be able to read more of him.


  1. It's wonderful, isn't it? I prefer the unified, Dostoevskian, Summer in Baden-Baden but this is fine stuff. Thanks for posting on it!

  2. Really enjoyed Summer in Baden-Baden so I'm looking forward to reading this.

  3. According to the Russian language wikipedia enter for Tsypkin, the story Bridge over Neroch was published n Jerusalem in 1984. Publication of his stories in Russia began in 1999, it says.

  4. I remember when Summer in Baden-Baden was published thinking: this sounds like hype, surely the book isn't as good as all that, just another Posthumous Reputation Bubble etc etc.

    So, I need to get some Tyspkin.

  5. This is such a good book that I wish my reviewlet were better. Other people will soon write better reviews than this one.

    The new book does not have the big hook of Dostoevsky like the novel, which could have been a gimmick but in fact was amazing. I remember sharing Leroy Hunter's skepticism when the novel came up.

    Jeffry - thanks for that information. I was genuinely curious.

  6. I enjoyed Summer in Baden-Baden but hadn't heard that another title was available, so thanks for the tip.

  7. Hey, that raises a good point - where are the rest of the reviews of this book? I thought there would be more of a wave.