Summer In Baden-Baden

Reviewed by Dedi Felman

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Plunging into this novel, one immediately loses one's bearings. The unrelenting rush of words triggers a dreamlike state that recedes only with the final line. The story opens with an unnamed narrator traveling to Leningrad at a snowy, gloomy time of year. In a parallel journey, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his new wife Anna Grigor'yevna are on their way to Baden-Baden, fleeing their creditors and with a plan to win large sums at roulette to pay off their debts. Fedya (Fyodor) is highly excitable and unpredictable. He exhibits the grossest of prejudices, yet charms with his intense emotion and tender displays of affection for his young wife. The stream of consciousness narrative masterfully evokes the turbulence of the Dostoyevskys' married life, setting it against the narrator's quieter but no less despairing journey to a destination that seems ever receding--what to make of his literary idol and how to break free of Dostoeyvsky's clear and penetrating influence? A vertiginous feeling of falling pervades the work--tumbling headlong in love; blacking out into epilepsy and madness; falling under the spell of art's mysteries, conflicted by envy and passion; staggering to our knees in worship of that which we do not completely grasp. How, the narrator asks, can Russian Jewish writers revere an artist like Dostoyevsky in light of his vicious anti-Semitism? How could the master of Petersburg--the master of our souls and the intricate contours of our sensitivities--have been so crude in his appraisal of his fellow humans? This dark corner of history is never fully illuminated, but we leave the shadows invigorated by the fevered encounter. By the end of the struggle a powerful heritage has finally been fully acknowledged even if not completely put to rest, and a path has been opened for a new writing, a writing possibly even more faithful to the truth than that of the Russian Master of realism's.