The Boon of Control: Leonid Tsypkin Unearthed

Leonid Tsypkin’s fiction reads like fan fiction for the greats of Russian literature. His novel, Summer in Baden-Baden (published in English by New Directions in 2001), fictionalizes Dostoyevsky and his wife’s summer stay in Germany. Instead of forcing yourself to digest the cosmic questions of Dostoyevsky, you get to absorb his daily life. And the characters in the stories that make up The Bridge over the Neroch, the new collection of Tsypkin’s remaining writings (also from New Directions, translated by Jamey Gambrell), think in terms of national literary culture, especially poets.

Early in “The Bridge over the Neroch,” the novella that anchors the eponymous new collection, for instance, the narrator, a doctor in Moscow caring for his aging parents, invokes two of them in one swoop:

If I were now in the boy’s shoes or he were in mine, we would almost certainly recite to ourselves, “Here crossed the rails of the city trains / further on the pines stand guard, further they cannot go,” but at the time I didn’t know Pasternak existed… to this day, when Mama hears the word “frost,” she always says: “Frost and sun, a marvelous day…”

The first quotation uses the words, of course, of the twentieth-century author Boris Pasternak; the second quotation is from Pushkin, the nineteenth century author who in laying the Russian language’s literary foundation stationed himself as both the culture’s Dante and its Shakespeare. Russians view the world through literary goggles, and Tsypkin captures this embedment by illustrating how naturally and easily the characters recite the poets’ lines. Through Tsypkin’s goggles, a non-Russian reader can access the rich literary knowledge that undergirds Russian culture.

Tsypkin was born in Minsk, to Russian-Jewish parents, in 1926. Escaping the dark fate of many of his family members—either murdered by Stalin’s secret police or in the Jewish ghetto after the German invasion—Tsypkin survived, and graduated from medical school. He produced his writing on the side of his medical practice. None of his work was ever published in his lifetime. Tsypkin’s career as a physician earns him a place in the medical day-job literary canon that includes William Carlos Williams, Robert Musil, and, of course, his fellow countryman Anton Chekhov. But where Chekhov’s medical training reveals itself through his incredible sympathy for and detailed analyses of the consciousnesses of his characters, Tsypkin’s background manifests itself more corporeally. The work is full of intricate medical descriptions, often about aging: “I try to imagine [her heart]—a little hypertrophic from working so many years, laced with sclerotic blood vessels like bandages, in some way resembling the plaster replicas they give students for lessons in anatomy.” These descriptions don’t always seem the most effective means of character development. Rather than bringing us to the metaphysical core of a person, they bring us to the biological. Every healthy biological core ought to be identical; but if there is a way to interpret unhealthy physical conditions in order to understand a character, I feel I lack the tools to do so: I don’t know what kind of character judgment to make from an aging heart.

While it is remarkable and exciting to discover an author whose work was unavailable prior to his death, the weakness of unearthed prose is that the author never really had a chance to fully edit it. Reading these stories, I often felt I was reading the mistakes of intermediate fiction workshops: the second chapter of “The Bridge over the Neroch” goes thirteen pages without a paragraph break; the sentences ramble similarly, ending at places alien to the ones where they began. The first sentence of “The Bridge over the Neroch” begins, “The smell of the metro in 1972 is identical to the smell of the metro in 1936.” I would be captivated if the sentence ended there, but Tsypkin keeps it going for three and a half more lines. Perhaps drawing out his sentences was a stylistic choice; but he does overcome the fact that there is perhaps nothing that better signals inaccessibility to a reader than a page (or many pages) of text uninterrupted by paragraph breaks. These days, I have trouble blaming myself for getting lost as a reader; a few sentences into a story, Tsypkin seems to have lost control of his own prose.

Wondering whether my frustration with the prose was a result of the translation, I read a selection of Tsypkin’s work in Russian. It’s true that Russians make greater use of dashes than English writers; it’s also my experience that commas separate clauses more firmly in Russian, and longer sentences feel more comfortable. But still, Tsypkin’s glut of run-on sentences and general sloppiness blew any other Russian prose I’d ever read out of the water.

Russians are not so discriminate as to banish a great thinker from their canon for inelegant prose. The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wrote, “You not only forgive Tolstoy his ponderous and often unnecessary moralizing and his clumsy sentences, you even begin to be fond of them as a trait, a feature of the man. Faced with a really great figure, you accept him with all his ‘weaknesses,’ which become the distinguishing marks of his aesthetic.” By allowing myself to indulge my lost bearings, invoking a standard of “clean writing,” perhaps I have fallen into my own trap, and allowed myself to miss Tsypkin’s greater substance. Perhaps it will take me more time to appreciate the beauty of feeling unmoored.

Rereading the section of “Norkatir” (one of the novellas in the collection, in which a Jewish husband and wife from Soviet Moscow travel to a Turkic republic—likely Armenia, based on the fact that Mount Ararat is so visible in the story) in which the protagonist, Boris Lvovich, tries to take a picture of the remains of Noah’s Ark, for instance, I began to feel myself amenable to the idea that the dizzyingness of Tsypkin’s prose might enlighten his subject matter.

Boris Lvovich, who still hadn’t seen anything, opened his camera, his heart pounding. “You can’t, it’s not allowed,” he heard all around, and one of the visitors even pulled on his sleeve, pointing at the tall bearded man in the black soutane… he used [his hand] to make a powerful, forbidding gesture, and that gesture was directed at him, Boris Lvovich.

Attentively reading the scene, which is meticulously protracted for multiple pages, I felt Boris Lvovich’s anticipation at seeing a sacred object, as well as his determination—part pilgrim, part tourist—to photograph it.

I still hesitate at too much self-censure because of the conviction that prose styling ought to house and transport the feelings it hopes to evoke, rather than obtrude them. Language must be carefully picked and wielded; grammar and syntax shouldn’t get in readers’ ways. Allowing the reader to float out to sea is a bold statement: that one’s ideas stand out strong in spite of their conveyance. And heading deeper and deeper through Tsypkin’s stacks of clauses, without the traction of a paragraph break in sight, I felt too often as though I, too, might end up withered and shipwrecked on the side of Mount Ararat.

Caroline Tracey is taking time off of her Russian Literature studies at Yale University. She is working on a novel and preparing to write her thesis, on Andrei Tarkovsky and the Russian landscape.