Not long ago, Nick Laird wrote an interesting article for The Guardian on the Slow Food Movement, an idea sprung from modern dissatisfaction with fast food. Participants gather to enjoy homemade meals cooked for as long as necessary. The emphasis is on the experience, not merely the consumption, of food. From this, Laird argues that poetry may be the antidote to Twitter and Facebook, both preaching the value of immediacy while encouraging reaction over contemplation. Whereas a Tweet is limited to a small amount of characters and is meant to be read quickly, a good poem is as long as it needs to be and asks to be digested slowly. Laird calls this the Slow Language Movement.
Leonid Tsypkin may not have written poetry, but his collection The Bride Over Neroch would certainly fit in with Laird’s idea. The prose is dense, detailed, and impossible to skim. It requires patience and tries its best to fuse many details into one enormous paragraph (and sometimes into one sentence). The book ought to be the perfect response to a world consumed with social media and instant connection. But this is part of the problem. The writing, while precise and complex, doesn’t always challenge one the way in which poetry, or rich prose, does. This may be a fault of the translation, but midway through the title piece I was wondering if the disconnect I felt was due to Tsypkin’s writing or due to my dwindling attention span. Both, maybe? I have no problem with a dense book, but I do ask that the author give me something to hang my hat on other than seemingly arbitrary observations of mountains. Though it is unfair to compare Tyspkin to other writers, while reading Tsypkin I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle books are not short of mundane detail yet manage to be thoroughly engrossing, and László Krasznahorkai, who spins unwieldy sentences that demand close reading and grant significant rewards. Conversely, Tyspkin’s titular novella, a meticulous story of many generations of a Russian-Jewish family, sweeping though it may be, feels overstuffed and wearying.
Things improve, though. The second novella in the collection, “Norartakir,” employs a similar style with more satisfying results. The plot of the novella is simple (the description on the back cover is somewhat misleading), but, in this instance, the story takes a backseat. Travel log, revenge tale, and exploration of social/cultural differences, “Norartakir” offers more to chew on than the other long piece in the collection, though it too suffers from meandering prose that doesn’t always hit the mark.
Shorter tales follow, most of them achieving good results that do much to redeem the otherwise cumbersome spots in The Bride Over Neroch. “Fellow Traveler” and “Ten Minutes of Waiting” nicely document the absurd realities of systematic Soviet life. “Ave Maria,” compact in comparison to the longer pieces yet given enough room to unfold, is perhaps the best balance of Tsypkin’s digressive tendencies and his ability to relay a compelling tale.
As with many collections, the sum is not as good as its finest parts, though the stories offer enough worth recommending. Perhaps this is a book aimed at specific readers: those enamored with Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden will cherish this publication of the neglected writer’s remaining work; scholars of Soviet-era literature will likely find some of these stories enjoyable. And the before-mentioned Slow Language Movement can add Tsypkin to its list of important writers. Otherwise, let the casual reader beware: here there be both glories and duds.
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