At the beginning of Leonid Tsypkin’s novella “The Bridge Over the Neroch,” the narrator, riding in a Moscow subway car, experiences a moment of remembrance that is almost an exact inversion of the one precipitated by Proust’s madeleine; down in the metro, smelling the warm July air of 1972, the speaker finds himself unable to recall the specifics of his childhood—instead of the expected flood of images and associations, he sees only a blur of indistinct forms. “What is it?” he asks, “my forgetfulness or the forgetfulness of history? And will my neighbors in the subway train of 1972 and I disappear in exactly the same way from the memory of the schoolboy in a nylon jacket sitting across from me now?”
What follows—a long and discursive family biography tracing the discontinuous course of a Russian Jewish family in the midst of the twentieth century—is an attempt to describe how those disappearances occur and reoccur over time, and how they may occasionally become dispersed throughout many minds. Which parts are Tsypkin’s own and which invented is impossible to say. But readers familiar with his novel Summer in Baden-Baden (New Directions, 2001) may recognize the tangle of research and imagination found in that work. And just as it is almost impossible to read there without feeling displaced by the intrusion of the unreal into the day-to-day, it is difficult to look into these previously unpublished pieces without knowing anything of the author’s life.
Tsypkin’s biography is both mundane and unbelievable: a non-Soviet pathologist, sometimes in poor standing with the state, he worked on his fiction in short bursts for a decade and was on the verge of seeing his only novel into print when he died suddenly at the age of fifty-six. When Summer in Baden-Baden was published twelve years ago, unknown and unheralded, it seemed like one of those rare and quiet miracles that alight at times into our world by accident. And yet, though the work is a masterpiece, in the years since its publication it seems to have acquired the reputation of an oddity. Thus one of the great pleasures of seeing The Bridge Over the Neroch become available is that it should make clear that Tsypkin’s novel was not an aberration. The seven stories collected here, written between 1971 and 1978, will, I hope, confirm Tsypkin’s reputation as a writer of peculiar distinction.
There are no sketches or experiments; one sees no evidence of the early work that surely must have consumed him. Already the earliest story, “Ten Minutes of Waiting,” is constructed in the long and unraveling sentences which characterize Tsypkin’s style. There, a nameless narrator, flustered and impatient and “buffeted by the four winds like the soldier from Bagritsky’s poem,” describes the nonsensical pattern of traveling across Moscow, where it seems nothing functions except by habit. Winding his way through the city, lost in the strange geometry of his thoughts, the narrator begins to preoccupy himself with predictions and explanations for everything he sees. When two women board his bus he concludes that “both of them can tell unerringly, just looking at the bus from a distance, or perhaps from how it drives or turns, who is driving today——Minya or Grinya; bursting into the bus first and immediately occupying all the convenient seats for their girlfriends or their supervisor with their shopping bags, they instantly engage in amorous squabbling with the drivers.” In its twists and turns, picking up and examining and disposing of the passing of every arbitrary thing, the trail of the narrator’s thoughts brings the reader to the most unexpected destination. It is as if, in one’s backyard, one suddenly came upon a river on which one saw floating the glittering secrets of the world.
The longest and most sustained demonstration of this effect comes in the title story. Here, propelled by the forward course of history, the disoriented reader becomes lost in a series of accumulating details. In one particular scene, as the narrator watches his father’s death, the moment seems to split apart into strangely twisted branches.
“He’s dying,” said mother. She sat on the sofa in her cotton robe, no longer leaning back on a pillow, but hugging her knees, which were covered with a blanket—on her finger the gold ring with the small diamond shone dimly—she had put it on when they left the burning city and hadn’t taken it off since. She said this the way people talk about strangers or as though father were doing this on purpose—it was altogether possible that at this minute, she somehow resembled the figure on Martos’s grave; later on, it often seemed to the son that his mother hadn’t been sitting, but standing, the sheets unwinding at her feet, white as clouds, and she rose from them like an unyielding patriot captured by the Gestapo, or a rocket taking off into space.
The uncertain significance of things is to be questioned at every moment. During the narrator’s recollection of events in the Second World War, he is caught in a line of refugees fleeing the coming German offensive. Soon the convoy passes a pile of murdered civilians, and the physical memory of the sight of “people in worn gray clothes, their gray faces long unshaved,” lying in heaps. The startling details now fastened in the narrator’s mind, the “legs slightly bent at the knees, and only on their temples, a small, round, already dry wound with a congealed trickle of blood, lost somewhere in the beard” indicate a strict adherence by Tsypkin to the requirements of fidelity. “The people walking along the road,” the narrator continues,
went around them silently, but as they passed by they didn’t take their eyes off them and then for a long time afterward they kept looking back, as though trying to imprint their features in their memory—exactly like the people back then had passed the coffin of the first secretary in the Sovtorg workers club. At first, everyone thought that the guards were Germans, but the sky was clear, and no skirmishes could be heard, and then a rumor circled that the guards of the convoy were shooting anyone who couldn’t walk fast enough and was falling behind the column.
This passage, which could be exchanged with any number in the collection, is representative of the remarkable flattening of reality in Tsypkin’s prose. There is no distinguishing between intimate and world-historical events. All matter, stripped of its adornment, seems to be given equal footing so that, again and again, in travelling overland and across time, the stories show just how easily the great forces of history can be subsumed into matters of personal significance. Trying to guess at this significance, and trying to see through every surface to the buried heart, becomes the primary habit of all of Tsypkin’s protagonists.
It is a fixation made visible in different forms. In Summer in Baden-Baden, for instance, the cresting waves of euphoria and paranoia that gripped the main subject, Dostoevsky, spread outward from his mind in dark, unfathomable pools. In “The Bridge Over the Neroch,” the narrator’s father, crippled by circumstances far beyond his control, withdraws like Bartleby from life altogether. Three stories included here, “Norartakir,” “Fellow Passenger,” and “The Cockroaches,” involve characters who, faced with some minor grievance, struggle against all logic or reason to assert themselves in the most childish and spiteful ways. These forms are generally symptomatic of some other condition; more specifically, Tsypkin’s work is focused on depicting how individuals can accommodate themselves to the forces (the mysteries) that remain just beyond their comprehension.
In the story “Ave Maria,” the now-familiar narrator attends the funeral service of a friend, a notable pianist named Maria Yakovlevna. Seated in his place among the pews he acclimates himself to his surroundings: the ornaments and decoration, the smell of incense, the songs of the choir in the loft. All of these seem to be unavoidable signs of time and history, and considering this, he thinks,
I was a particle of it all, together with the others in the church I had traversed a long and terrible path, the beginning of which was lost somewhere in the twilight of Alexander Nevsky’s battles on the ice, the alarming raids of the Pskovian and Kievan princes; I had miraculously survived the street bonfires and burning buildings with them, the roaring, enraged crowd; of course I understood what the choir was singing about—otherwise where would it come from, this lump that was swelling in my throat? The voices ascended higher and higher, and here it was, the highest point, the limit, the crest of the wave, the destination of it all: “For the peace of the soul of Your newly deceased servant, Maria. Forgiver her her transgressions . . .”
Thus moved, he tries to reflect on the life and the death of his friend, but is disturbed from his reverie by an unwanted guest, a drunk, it seems, who has wandered into the church. Struggling to ignore the distraction, the narrator focuses on his memories. He recalls Maria’s illness, her hospital internment, the pride he felt on being included in her orbit; one questions how close he and the deceased might actually have been. Later, aroused by a eulogy, the narrator falls into a feeling of communal spirit. Sensing the proximity of his neighbors, he writes, “I felt I was but a part of them—the road we had traveled together I now imagined in the form of a triangle: the base of it sunk somewhere in the depths of the centuries, then, as history progressed, it narrowed until now only the summit remained, the sharp tip, and we were this sharp angle—an island in the middle of the raging sea, which had by some miracle survived world catastrophe . . .” But there is no revelation—or rather, whatever has happened has already reached its end. The narrator stands and joins the train of mourners. The body of Maria Yakovlevna is carried from the church to the cemetery. It is laid in the earth and covered, and the day concludes like any other.
Colin Torre was born in 1981. His daily writing can be found at belcimer.com.
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