Of all literary techniques, stream of consciousness is the one I have the most problem with. Unless the subject matter and author combine and try damn hard to catch my imagination, its all just going to wash over me, however critically acclaimed the work may be. Leaving writers like Joyce, Woolf and Sebald all firmly labelled in my mind as worthy but dull.
Thankfully, experimentation in some of his books by one of my favourite authors, Bohumil Hrabal, persuaded me that my aversion might be down to content rather than style, and lead me to take a risk on Summer at Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin. This is a joy of a book and one where the technique is used not as a means to an end, or a flamboyant literary example of the Emperors new clothes, but as an integral part of the story.
Summer in Baden-Baden is a bibliophiles book, and one in particular that should be read by every fan of Dostoyevski. Tsypkin was himself a dedicated admirer of the Russian master and the narrative of the story encompasses and links them both.
The book is framed by a train journey Tsypkin took in the late 1970s to St Petersburg. A trip to visit and photograph various locations from Dostoyevskis life and books, in particular Crime and Punishment, and one that he hoped would bring him closer to understanding the author. As Tsypkin travels he reads from a gift his Aunt has given him: the diary of Dostoyevskis second wife Anna, covering the period in 1867 when they lived in Baden-Baden.
It is here that the book takes off, as the text flows from first to third person narratives and from the point of view of Tsypkin, Dostoyevski and Anna. The switching of POV and narrative style allows the characters of the married couple to be explored from inside and out in a way that Dostoyevski himself would have been proud of. The changes are made seamlessly, often mid sentence, but you quickly get into stride with the tempo of the writing, to the point were the style of prose seems the most natural way of telling the story. Its effortless and breathtaking at the same time, and full credit needs to be given to Roger and Angela Keys for their wonderful translation.
Dostoyevskis battle with his addiction to gambling takes centre stage for much of the time. It reveals many of his flaws: his weakness, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and mood swings that lead him to push away those closest to him. So whilst at times you can hear echoes of a number of Dostoyevskis works in the text, it is The Gambler you are most reminded of, to the point where Summer at Baden-Baden seems like a shadowy Double of that book.
The relationship between the ever-faithful Anna and her husband is used as a mirror for one of the major themes of the book. How can Tsypkin, a Jew, reconcile his admiration for Dostoyevski with Dostoyevskis attitude towards his faith? Its a question that is touched upon throughout the book, often obliquely referenced, until Tsypkin finally reaches St Petersburg where he directly and honestly addresses it.
As I mentioned before, this is a book for fans of Dostoyevski, and some knowledge of his work, life and times are needed to get the most from it. Some of the nuance of meaning from his meetings with various other Russian writers and the historical accuracy of the events described were a bit beyond my knowledge. But that didnt effect my enjoyment.
Special mention also to the 2001 edition which included an excellent introduction by Susan Sontag and reproduction of Tsypkins photographs from his trip to St Petersburg. Want to see the building where the moneylender in Crime and Punishment lived? Its in here. Although to be honest it looks like it could be from any of the modern day Eastern Europe cities Ive visited.
But whether you regard this book as a fantasy, a fictionalised documentary or an extended piece of fan mail is ultimately unimportant. Summer in Baden-Baden stands alone as an exquisite masterpiece, and Tsypkin an author worthy of sitting on the shelf next to Dostoyevsky without fear of being out of place.