Monday, January 10, 2005

Nothing Is Invented

The Guardian has published one of Susan Sontag's last essays in literary criticism, a review of the Soviet Russian writer Leonid Tsypkin's novel Summer In Baden-Baden, which recounts, in a dreamlike, semi-autobiographical form, the travels of Dostoyevsky and his wife through the cities and spa resorts of western Europe in the late 1860s.
The reasons for the book's obscurity are not hard to fathom. To begin with, its author was not by profession a writer. Leonid Tsypkin was a doctor, a distinguished medical researcher, who published nearly 100 papers in scientific journals in the Soviet Union and abroad. But - discard any comparison with Chekhov and Bulgakov - this Russian doctor-writer never saw a single page of his literary work published during his lifetime.

Censorship and its intimidations are only part of the story. Tsypkin's fiction was, to be sure, a poor candidate for official publication. But it did not circulate in samizdat either, for Tsypkin remained - out of pride, intractable gloom, unwillingness to risk being rejected by the unofficial literary establishment - wholly outside the independent or underground literary circles that flourished in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, the era when he was writing "for the drawer". For literature itself.

In addition to giving the reader a behind-the-scenes view of Tsypkin's book, Sontag's essay is a powerful and intelligent drawing together of many of the thematic strands of classical Russian writing, and shows how deep was her experience and understanding of Russian literature. She is particularly interesting when addressing the question of Dostoyevsky's anti-semitism, and also when discussing the great Dostoyevsky scholar Leonid Grossman, with whose work Tsypkin was certainly acquainted.

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