To Deserve Such Pain

The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works
by Leonid Tsypkin
New Directions, 2013

Remember Leonid Brezhnev—the jaws that bite, the claws that catch, the eyebrows that, if stacked, might have equaled Stalin’s moustache in volume? Not so much? Well, never mind. History may be swallowing the memory of one Leonid, but it is disgorging that of another, Leonid Tsypkin (1926-82), who wrote and died in the time of Brezhnev’s stale, unprofitable rule.

Discussion of Tyspkin’s work, though acclaimed in Susan Sontag’s introduction to New Directions’ 2001 edition of his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, still seems to call for an account of his life. Not only his former obscurity but also a certain evasiveness in his prose style make biographical knowledge desirable if not strictly necessary. You can count on Tsypkin as on Isaac Babel to bury the lead, to deny you an overview of the public events in the context of which the reflections and impressions that comprise his narratives are registered, to elide temporal or spatial narrative transitions. You can count on him, in a word, to blur the background. This blurriness might have been attributable to prudence, to the writer's concern to avoid compromising himself with the authorities, if publication had been a possibility. It wasn't. According to his son, Tsypkin “did not send his manuscripts to publishers and did not want to circulate his prose in samizdat because he was afraid of problems with the KGB and of losing his job.” He wrote, as Sontag says, “for the drawer.”

Of course, drawers get opened. Discovery would have been a threat. It may also have been a fantasy, for who can write for no one? A sense of one’s audience, the writer’s commonplace has it, is essential. Tsypkin couldn’t have had such a sense, couldn’t have known whom he was writing for. But in order to write at all, he’d have had to write for someone. The fascinating narrative instability that characterizes the two novellas, two brief memoirs, and three stories of The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works seems to have something to do with the impossibility in Tsypkin’s circumstances of developing a coherent sense of audience. How to please a sympathetic reader one can’t begin to identify while not displeasing a hostile reader one knows too well? As we approach an age of total surveillance, a narrative technique that manages to be highly specific while jamming its own signals has a special piquancy.

Though the technique may owe something to laboratory science and scientific scholarship—Tsypkin was a distinguished medical researcher and prolific academic writer—there’s little in it by way of science or method. The pieces are all autobiographical. Readers of Summer in Baden-Baden less interested in the evocation of Dostoevsky than in the glimpses provided into Tsypkin’s own world will find their curiosity indulged: descriptions of the unspoken hostility among passengers lined up at a bus stop, of the revulsion felt by next-door-neighbors for one another in a roach-infested apartment house, and of the cliquishness of mourners at a Russian Orthodox funeral impart an incidental yet revelatory understanding of the Soviet-Jewish predicament. Tsypkin's demanding, diaristic, rhythmically fitful prose style, lingering and leaping like a Tarkovsky take, is another unifying element. Transitions are abrupt and unexpected. In the novella “Norarkatir,” for example, mundane travelogue-like passages take a sudden, visionary turn. One moment we’re following an autobiographical protagonist’s sightseeing itinerary on his and his wife’s state-sanctioned holiday in Armenia—they’re not getting along very well, by the way—the next we’re at the crucifixion. Bulgakov’s passion narration in Master and Margarita may be the precedent for this imaginative flight, but Tsypkin’s Jesus, gazing across the epochs down the ages through the trees and into a concentration camp where guards operating a gas chamber are wondering where to place their Christmas tree, is just another senselessly suffering schmo. The idea of redemption never even crosses his mind.

Tsypkin had another reason than political caution not to confront certain aspects of his experience head on: they had probably traumatized him. There’s so much for him not to have wanted to talk about. Even by Soviet standards, if such standards exist—and it would be a little surprising if in the course of the Soviet experiment some apparatchik hadn’t devised an index of human misery—he was dealt a terrible hand. Minsk in 1926 was no time and place to be born, especially to be born Jewish: having survived in the bloodlands between Stalin and Hitler—of which Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate offers an unsurpassed account—he faced the deprivation, repression, and sterility of Soviet postwar life. (It's hard, reading from here, not to imagine a parallel life for him in the West, if only he had been allowed to leave; at the level of professional success he achieved in the Soviet Union, he might have been worrying about his golf game and his patio furniture.) Anti-Semitism varied in the level of violence with which it was practiced, but it was a constant force. Sontag acquaints us with some of the facts of Tsypkin’s youth:


His father, Boris Tsypkin, was an orthopedic surgeon, who, in 1934, was arrested on the usual fanciful charges and then released, through the intervention of an influential friend, after he tried to commit suicide by jumping down a prison stairwell. He returned home on a stretcher with a broken back, but he did not become an invalid and went on with his surgical practice until his death (at sixty-four) in 1961. Two of Boris Tsypkin’s sisters and a brother perished during the Terror.

Minsk fell a week after the German invasion in 1941, and Boris Tsypkin’s mother, another sister, and two little nephews were murdered in the Minsk ghetto. Boris Tsypkin and his wife and fifteen-year-old Leonid owed their escape from the city to the chairman of a nearby collective farm, a grateful ex-patient, who ordered several barrels of pickles taken off a truck to accommodate the esteemed orthopedic surgeon and his family.

A year later, Leonid Tsypkin began his medical studies, and when the war was over he returned with his parents to Minsk, where he graduated from medical school in 1947. . . . [By 1950], Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign, launched the year before, was racking up its victims, and Tsypkin managed to hide for the next years on the staff of a rural psychiatric hospital. In 1957, he was allowed to settle with his wife and son in Moscow, where he had been offered a post as a pathologist at the prestigious Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis and became part of the team that introduced the Sabin polio vaccine in the Soviet Union.


Art created under difficult circumstances is always a triumph, but the long odds that Tsypkin overcame render his achievement almost miraculous. Such overcoming itself seems to endow the work with an importance apart from its inherent qualities. But in fact, Tsypkin’s novellas and stories, bearing as they do no self-affirming trace, offering no justification for their own existence, expressing no determination to bear witness, seem to resist attributions of importance. Even when they deal with the upheavals of the Second World War, their narrative perspective is narrowly individual, their tone unassuming. The resolve and courage that certainly lie behind their composition are kept off the page. Heroism, an essential concept in nationalism generally and in Soviet ideology in particular, is utterly out of Tsypkin's dramatic universe. His protagonists are unflattering alter egos prone to uncertainty, disorientation, and indecision. Keeping them at arm's length, the narration prevents us from giving them even the indirect credit that readers tend to bestow on narrative surrogates. Their petty spitefulness and alertness to mortification put them in a line of caste-conscious Russian tragicomic heroes reflecting the development of a stratified bureaucracy from Peter the Great to the dystopian twentieth century.

This line runs through Dostoevsky, mortified pride being the primum mobile of Dostoevskian tragedy and the earlier, more comic or at any rate less tragic works like Notes from the Underground and "The Double" as well. Baden-Baden is said to arise from Tsypkin’s deep admiration for Dostoevsky’s work, is said more particularly to be Tsypkin’s attempt to reconcile this admiration with Dostoevsky’s virulent anti-Semitism. I'm not so sure. As reconciliations go, Baden-Baden is on the grudging side. Its Dostoevsky may be a hero, but imprisonment in Siberia has left him a borderline paranoiac plagued by imaginary slights from imaginary adversaries. The epilepsy and addictive gambling that are destroying him and his forbearing wife, Anna, are like thwarted expressions of desire to avenge his humiliations. There are humanizing touches—he imagines during sexual intercourse that he and Anna are swimming together—but our sympathies lie with Anna.

Among the discoveries of Neroch is that this desire for vengeance also haunts Tsypkin's more clearly autobiographical protagonists. They're portrayed as being pettily spiteful. In "Norarkatir," the narrator takes revenge on the manager of a hotel who won't allow him and his wife to extend their stay by informing her over the phone in his mock-official capacity that she's got cancer. It turns out that she really has got it and already knows it. Why wouldn't Tsypkin, who was entitled to it if anyone ever is, have cut himself a little slack?


The sun was blinding, reflecting off a wide, unfamiliar river flowing down below at the foot of white limestone cliffs; there was a group of boys sitting on a pile of limestone, and one in particular stood out—he was smaller than the teenager, but he walked up to him calmly as if to ask a question, and then slapped him in the face, also quite calmly, as though he had wanted to kill a fly that had settled on the teenager's cheek, and just as calmly called him two of the most insulting words possible, words that the teenager had almost never encountered before; he then returned to the group of boys with the obvious sense of a duty accomplished . . . . [The teenager] walked on, his cheek burning, pulling his head into his shoulders, afraid to even glance back in the event this might all happen again; he was gradually suffused by a feeling of guilt—that boy couldn't have slapped him out of the blue, and with such an air of calm . . . . Every time someone reminds me of this, I experience the same feeling of guilt, and it's only later, when there's no longer any opportunity to respond, I fire up my imagination with images of revenge—each more refined than the last—perhaps feeling guilty is a saving grace, because it's unbearable to live with the awareness of unavenged insults, and therefore you invent some sort of guilt for yourself; or perhaps it's simply a trait handed down from generation to generation.


Guilt may be handed down from generation to generation, but so is the anti-Semitism to which it is a perversely logical response. The narrator's father loses his job in a campaign to rid the medical institute he works in of doctors who could be seen as "unreliable." The narrator’s son is beaten at a party: "His face turned into a soccer ball—that's what he looked like the day I came home from work and he was lying in his room, his eyes swollen shut, and his teeth broken, unrecognizable and strange." And when the son and daughter-in-law are granted permission to emigrate, “Norarkatir” leaves the narrator and his wife awaiting a reprisal which in reality came swiftly. (After twenty years at the Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis, Tsypkin was demoted to the junior position he had started in, his salary cut by three quarters and his place in the working of the lab eliminated through ostracism.) The generational pattern is imagined as an immemorial one: the narrator's ancestors are envisioned as "slender black-bearded people in sandals, wrapped in blue, gold-bordered cloaks, blackened by fire and smoke, who looked like Flavius Josephus, pulled these brown scrolls out of the fires and ruins, hiding them under their cloaks, against the left side of their breast. They ran from one burning building to another under a hail of arrows with poisoned tips, loosed by the hands of invading foreigners." The ancestors are blessed in having had the faith inscribed in those scrolls to risk their lives for. Tsypkin, under his own hail of poison arrows, had none. The Bridge Over the Neroch is the inspired record of a penetrating intelligence self-consciously "inventing some sort of guilt for itself" to impose an order on a cruel world that, being the richer for Tsypkin's endeavor, is also that much the crueler.


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