Michael Stein reviews Leonid Tsypkin's The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell (New Directions, 2013)

I am sitting in the Café Louvre glaring at the formally dressed waitstaff as one after another they pass by with blank stares and trays of empty glasses. For a time Kafka was a regular at this somewhat elegant Prague coffee house and pool hall, and I imagine its waiters' studied unresponsiveness, legendary even back then, playing a role in literary history by undermining his already low self-esteem and compounding the sense of insignificance that was such a vital ingredient in his writing. The book I'm attempting to read when not trying to catch a waiter's attention is Leonid Tsypkin's Summer in Baden Baden, a novel finished in 1981 and rescued from obscurity when Susan Sontag happened upon its English translation in the early 1990s. I'm at the very beginning, when the narration shifts from modern-day Leningrad to the stressed life of gambling fever and poverty led by Dostoevsky and his young wife in Germany to escape his creditors back home. The scene in which the reader enters Dostoevsky's life and times is set in a restaurant in Dresden, where the writer goes into a frothing rage at being ignored by an arrogant waiter.

While the continuity of bad café service in Central Europe is an issue that could certainly use addressing, the more consequential tradition to be invoked here has to do with humiliation–and how a writer uses it. After all, humiliation, with its many offshoots—degradation, self-debasement, shame—is one window through which a writer can examine the often absurd human condition. In the work of Leonid Tsypkin the literature of humiliation reaches its most exalted pitch, with the newly translated collection of novellas and short stories The Bridge Over The Neroch: And Other Works being his most eloquent testament to "the insulted and the injured."

Dostoevsky and Kafka are frequently credited with prophesying the dark, totalitarian excesses of the 20th century, but Russian-Jewish Tsypkin, born in Minsk in 1926, was forced to live through those nightmares. First, during his boyhood, came Stalin's Terror. There followed the interrogation that led to his father's attempted suicide, alluded to glancingly in this new collection's title novella. The beginning of this highly unconventional family saga is taken up with the German invasion in 1941, which Tsypkin together with his parents was barely able to escape. (The extended family was less fortunate. After losing three of his siblings in the Terror, Tsypkin's father had to endure the death of his mother and another sister in the Holocaust.) Though the German invasion—and the frantic retreat of Jewish families like Tsypkin's—looms large here, it seems in danger of slipping through the cracks of the narrative. From beginning to end, Tsypkin keeps the reader unmoored. Main characters are unnamed—they are known as "the boy", "father", and "grandmother" until we move to a later decade in which "the boy" becomes "the man". Shifts in place and time are barely signaled, as are jumps between dream and reality. Even more disconcertingly, Tsypkin smuggles the most horrifying information into the narrative as surreptitious asides.

The following passage would be an ordinary teenage boy's memory of visiting a girlfriend were it not for the brief reference to her mother's tragic fate:

The girl's mother, a dark-haired, talkative woman, usually opened the door for the boy—in the boy's family they called her an unpleasant sort, probably because she loved to dress up and she always smelled of perfume—the Germans killed her because she was a Jew. She would take the boy along the brightly lit rooms with red carpets on the floors and on the walls, too, and he tried to pass through rooms as quickly as possible so as not to run in to the girl's father—even when he wasn't home, his spirit was present, he was probably born a member of the academy—a large man, with a large, pedigreed face thrown back, his chin buttressed by his stiff, starched collar.
There is an early chapter describing the boy's town burning. Before we are told where the flames come from, though, we are presented with descriptions of his emphatic, curious gazing at the fire, and even of the origins of the binoculars through which he is watching. A stream of associations follows, none of them to do with the war; some touch on other recent dark events then move quickly on to stamp albums and bullying at school. It isn't until the chapter's final sentence that the verbal onslaught halts abruptly and the reader gets a hint that this is taking place at the close of the third day of the German army's rapid advance into what is now Belarus.

After the war, Tsypkin followed his parents into the medical profession but then had Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign to contend with, obliging him to lay low, working at a provincial psychiatric hospital before moving to Moscow in 1957 and beginning a distinguished medical research career. It was only in the early 1960s that he began writing more seriously: first poetry, followed by the short stories presented here. Tsypkin neither published nor circulated his work in samizdat, partly out of fear of the repercussions he might face, but also due to a deep insecurity at the reception his work would receive; he was very much an outsider in Russia's dissident literary life. In the short story "Ave Maria," the funeral of a famous Russian pianist and friend of the autobiographical narrator puts him in contact with the Moscow intelligentsia, who treat him with a disdainful condescension that seems to spring from Tsypkin's own experience.

With the novella Norartakir, written in 1976, Tsypkin offers his most anguished and masterful treatment of the "insulted and the injured", though with explicit deference to a people for whom Dostoevsky would not have reserved the term. Then again, Dostoevsky didn't live to see the Holocaust, as a crucified Christ does in one memorable sequence here, being able to see inside the gas chambers of the future as the guards outside celebrate his birthday with Christmas carols and a decorated fir branch in place of a tree.

Centered on a couple on vacation in an unnamed Soviet Republic bordering Turkey, Norartakir is a veritable survey of indignities and humiliations suffered by the autobiographical character of Boris Lvovich. It begins with petty marital bickering and communist-era inefficiency and ethnic slights, written in an almost maddeningly mundane prose. Then, Tsypkin's strategy reveals itself in a sudden burst of lyricism without any apparent connection to the plot. The first of these departures takes place in Boris Lvovich's thoughts during a taxi ride and hinges on Judaism, as in many ways all Tsypkin's major writing does. This stylistic shuffling is a pattern that repeats itself throughout with increasing forcefulness. As when a boxer peppers his opponent with one feeble jab after another only to lull him into inattention, then levels him with a brutal shot to the head, Tsypkin sets the reader up to assault him with sudden visionary flights that take in everything from ancient Armenian battles to Russian fairy tales and hallucinatory images.

Tsypkin's ultimate target in the book is anti-Semitism, and especially the Russian anti-Semitism that was such a painful and pointless obstacle in his life. Considering his biography, one could imagine it would have sufficed simply to write down his own and his family's experience, but he does nothing of the kind. He treats the issue from varying perspectives and in differing literary styles: looking at anti-Semitism's effect on the powerless, impotent Boris Lvovich as he becomes increasingly consumed by suppressed rage, at the grotesque forms this hatred has taken throughout history, and at its impact on Boris Lvovich's son Andrei, who finally feels compelled to emigrate from this place where he is so unwelcome.

It is during a seemingly undramatic scene of Boris Lvovich and his wife visiting a local museum where the novella reaches its peak. The sight of a rusty spear blade from antiquity draws the reader into the scene of the crucifixion itself, from which Tsypkin launches into a historical panorama of anti-Semitism. Then, in some of the most searing, visionary prose in modern literature, he recreates in miniature the alternating settings of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, but whereas the latter goes back and forth between the scene of Christ at Golgotha and present-day scenes of sometimes comic and romantic relief, in Norartakir it is between a history of Christian violence against Jews—rampaging crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, death camps—and then back again without transition to the dying Christ, who sees all this brutality passing before his gradually closing eyes:

Those who carried the banners sang something in a low voice and a language that the dying man on the cross didn't understand, and behind, someone in the crowd threw rocks at the windows of the houses—the panes of glass were smashed to smithereens on the cobblestones, and when the priests with the banners and the crosses on their chests turned the corner, the stone throwers broke into the houses and dragged out old people with the same mournful eyes as the people depicted on the banners, with the same curly beards, only gray-haired and knotted because they were dragged out by their beards, and others got hold of the children and women; and black-eyed women with disheveled hair, pressing their screaming children to their breasts, fell to their knees and begged of the ones who had dragged them out, the ones who reeked of alcohol; and from the broken windows up above, white tufts of cotton and down fell, covering the sidewalks and the cobblestones like snow—now even the hovering horseflies didn't cut through the film covering the eyes of the dying man, but through that veil the dying man suddenly saw clearly the black smoke emitted by chimneys so tall as not to foul the air.
A Russian pogrom, the crucified Christ on the verge of dying, Auschwitz—all in a single sentence.

And then, as abruptly as he has plunged you into these dark chapters of history, Tsypkin settles you back into Boris Lvovich's humiliated self as he and Tanya deal with being kicked out of their hotel. When Boris Lvovich's petty, futile revenge on the hotel director backfires, this is Tsypkin's way of saying: Being a victim isn't a virtue in itself.

The novella ends with Boris and Tanya's son Andrei and the hopeless sense that in Russia the unpunished attacks and petty vindictiveness against "people who look like Boris Lvovich and Andrei" will go on indefinitely. In the final scene, Boris Lvovich, his mother, and Tanya tearfully watch Andrei walk down the stairs of their apartment building, off into emigration and out of their lives; an evocation of the departure of the Tsypkins' son Mikhail, who had left the Soviet Union in 1977, settling in the U.S. Tsypkin faced harsh repercussions for his son's emigration, which effectively ended his medical career. His final exertion for the art and values he believed in was getting his novel manuscript smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in a Russian émigré publication in New York. Days after the weekly Novaya Gazeta began serializing Summer in Baden Baden, Tsypkin died of a heart attack. It was his fifty-sixth birthday.

In the annals of writers who explore the limits of human endurance and the painful questions and answers that linger there, Leonid Tsypkin deserves a special place. Not only for the Job-like patience he showed in pursuing his calling as a writer, in spite of all the obstacles and lack of encouragement, but also for his winding, twisting, poetic sentences of almost unsurpassable beauty; sentences he wove out of often far from beautiful material. They compose a small body of work that stands with the very best of world literature.