The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works
by Leonid Tsypkin
New Directions; 346 p.
There is a sad sweetness in enjoying the work of a posthumously found author. We read and thereby bestow posterity and value to the works, but simultaneously confront the loneliness of writing masterpieces into a void of no response. In this act of redemptive reading, we highlight the loneliness of genius. Leonid Tsypkin, like few other writers, embodies this bittersweet situation. Tsypkin vacillated between medicine and writing his whole life, but never found the audience he deserved till after his death. His first and only novel, Summer in Baden Baden, written in the late 1970s but translated in 2002, was hailed by the literary world as a masterpiece of Russian literature. Now, that same world ought to feel privileged to receive the new collected works of Tsypkin’s fiction. If you haven’t read Summer in Baden Baden, you should, but the collection entitled The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works, serves as a similar testament to the abiding worth of Tsypkin.
“The Bridge Over the Neroch”, a non-linear novella, tells the story of a four generations of a Russian-Jewish family who live in the world of WWII Russia and then in the throes of Stalinism. Though Tsypkin writes under the specter of Nazism and Stalinism, he never cares to discuss politics overtly. Rather, like many of the great writers who lived under a stifling regime, writing beautifully about a simple life and asserting humanity in the face of ideology is their artistic act of political redemption. A pudgy boy learns to ride a bike, he falls in love, he loses his virginity, encounters death, and watches as his father first descends into madness then slowly decays; all with no fanfare. In fact, it is just this lack of fanfare that is Tsypkin’s unique talent. He revels in small moments that we don’t usually discuss because of their apparent insignificance. For example, Tsypkin overhears a boy’s sense of his unique and invincible mother:
The boy’s mother was talking on the phone at that moment with a girlfriend who called her. She had the same name as Mama, and the boy thought it was unbelievable that there existed another woman on earth who had the exact same name as Mama; he felt that this woman’s existence was an encroachment on his rights and once, his heart beating hard, he took this woman’s purse out of the foyer, locked him in the toilet, extracted a brown wallet out of the purse which smelled of leather and powders, and removed a crisp three-ruble note.
Firmly rooted in the stream of consciousness tradition, he still creates his own style: a purer, chaotic raging river than the more mellifluous Woolf, or Proust, and even Joyce. Tsypkin writes so that memories collide with dreams and desires meld with reality. At first, it takes some time to center yourself within his style but once you settle in the prose turns electric, on fire with the expansiveness of life. Tsypkin floats through time often in the same paragraph, or even the same sentence, as memories of childhood bleed into adulthood and vice versa. Though destabilizing, he mimics the fluctuations of memory. Nabokov once described Tolstoy’s style as one of a groping purist in the sense that Tolstoy would draw an image, then redraw it till he got it right. Tsypkin does the same but with memories. Understanding the precariousness of memory, Tsypkin revisits a story first from this angle, then from that, aware that the recreation of the memory is as important as the memory itself.
“The Bridge over the Neroch,” like a modernist symphony, introduces tenuously connected images, personas, and motifs only to create a crescendo of connectivity:
Family photographs are laid out in several rows, as if they were from the lives of saints. They comprise a general picture: there’s a young lieutenant with one square fastened in his buttonhole, his field cap cocked dashingly, with serious eyes that have a touch of wildness about to flit; a young woman in a high fur hat and fur coat like they wore in the last century….She is posed like ‘The Unknown Woman,’ thinking about the meaning of life. Then there’s a lean but entirely proper solid man, with a sharp, Bunin-like beard and mustache that scratched his grandson when he said good-bye to him before being given morphine; and then there’s a large, short woman, hiding her droopy lower lip in an epicurean smile…she can no longer write articles on art history and thinks that she has fallen hopelessly behind in contemporary Soviet painting…There’s another photo of a black haired woman doctor, no longer young but not yet old…she is the invisible mistress of her home-her son, who lived just outside of Moscow, kept calling her to find out whether the insignificant pain he occasionally experienced was dangerous, and it was enough for him to hear her voice and calm down…In the next photograph there’s a painfully fat boy with bangs and unhealthy circles under his eyes….
After the hard work of following the non-linear narrative, Tsypkin offers this unforeseen release in the form of an intergenerational portrait that ties together all the disparate strands of the story. It’s six pages of pure idiosyncratic ecstasy that ends the story where it began – on a train, a man alone, thinking about the whole of his family’s life.
Past his almost supernatural control and ingenuity with language, like many of the great authors, Tsypkin simply loves life despite the often dreary external circumstances. We tend to underestimate the extent to which this matters in our beloved authors, but our literary geniuses distinguish themselves with their abiding love of humanity, come what may. Tsypkin’s only novel, a piece of historical fiction, tells the story of Dostoevsky with his wife in Germany. Tsypkin, a Jew himself, one who knew first hand the horrors of anti-Semitism, portrayed Dostoevsky in all of his frustrating complexity: the author and the drunkard, the moralist and the gambler, the lover of men but virulent anti-Semite. He wonders, “Why was I so strangely attracted and enticed by the life of this man who despised me and my kind?” and ponders this throughout the book.
Tsypkin brings a similar sensitivity and empathy to his short story “Norartakir.” Here, a doctor on vacation deceives his rabid anti-Semite hotel manager into thinking she has cancer, only to then find that she truly is sick with cancer. In the hands of a novice this story would turn into some moralistic cliche, but Tsypkin resists that urge with aplomb. The story is instead an often confusing and frequently beautiful view into the world of a flawed human beings attempting to come to term with the flaws of often worse, but still human beings.
The rest of the stories are largely short, mundane moments from life that Tsypkin transforms into excursions inwards. In “Ten Minutes of Waiting,” the narrator literally waits for a bus as he thinks through the absurd and strange situations that riding a public bus engenders:
When this kind of leech pops up next to you right by the bus door, waiting for a convenient moment to slip through, an invisible battle of strength arises-we don’t push each other, but our muscles are strained to the limit, like two fighters frozen in a motionless stance; we feel the hostile tension even through our coats, the mutual scorching hatred that awaits only a momentary weakness on the part of the opponent to break him and slip ahead.
Tsypkin delivers these sad, absurd, and hilarious situations with such deadpan that you will laugh your way through these stories at the same time that your heart will ache. After finishing this too short collection, I was left with the same bittersweet taste with which I began. I felt grateful for the few works of Tsypkin we do have, but saddened by the inability for him to see the joyous reception of his life’s toils.