Leonid Tsypkin: “The Last Few Kilometres”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Leonid Tsypkin’s “The Last Few Kilometres” (tr. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell) was originally published in the September 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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For the second week in a row, The New Yorker gives us a very short — and very worthwhile – story. I had never read Leonid Tsypkin, who died in 1982, though I’ve heard great things and have been meaning to read him ever since I got a copy of his Summer in Baden-Baden. This story, though I’m still grappling with it, makes me excited for that.

According toThe New Yorker, “The Last Few Kilometres” was written in 1972, and you can feel the poverty of Moscow under the Soviet system. Throughout this story, our unnamed man is riding a train home from Moscow at twilight. Here is what he sees from his window:

Outside the window, in the murky film of the fading autumn day, Moscow’s former suburbs swam past — clusters of identical white high-rises with laundry hanging on the balconies — which weren’t suburbs anymore, but inside the city now. Closer to the railroad huddled earthbound two-story structures, blackened with soot; plots of land fenced off with solid walls stretched along the rails, their terrain cluttered with car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purposes.

It all feels closed in, and the city is steadily overtaking all horizons. Our man himself “had just finished lovemaking rather indifferently.” As the story progresses we shift from the back and forth from the train to the afternoon when he arrived at his mistress’s place for some food and drink and sex. She has cleaned up the place and is herself “all dressed up.” She busies herself getting their food ready and he realizes that “[h]e had a real mistress and she received him the ways mistresses generally do only in the movies.”

Of course, it’s not entirely fulfilling. Afterwards, really all he wants to do is get home. This story — its descriptions and its tone — is empty and aching.

The underlying ideas in this story may not be particularly new, but that doesn’t matter to me at all. Tsypkin’s style, the pace of the story, it all reverberates nicely.

5 thoughts on “Leonid Tsypkin: “The Last Few Kilometres””

  1. Dwight says:

    Thanks for the heads up on this story. I loved Summer in Baden-Baden and have been wanting to revisit it–remarkable stuff.

  2. al kuhn says:

    Just finished “Last Few Kilometres.” First time with Tsypkin. Pretty much a genius. Have to read the story again. Entire;y different from Babel, but reminded me of Babel in its originality. Wish I had the Russian. Great may be an overstatement, but certainly original with a very unusual, almost unnatural outlook. I need to think more and read more… AK

  3. Anatol Rabinkin says:

    Just read this story in TNY. It is first time in many months that I read such a good short story in TNY among many practically empty and no-talent stories that TNY is full off. I love “Summer in Baden-Baden”, which I read in Russian and consider this novel one of the most original and major Russian books of the 20th Century. I am former Moscovite and therefore all the story views from train filled me with the rear and deep sorrow for the awful life that all of us had when living there in that time. The last two words in the last sentence is a Gem itself alone.

  4. Sophie Littlefield says:

    it was a stunner, for certain.

  5. Aaron says:

    I give this story even more credit than I initially did upon realizing that it’s from 1972: much of what you might accuse it of copying it actually predates, and instead of being a conventional twist, it’s more of a passive rebellion. I have a lot of bias against stories like this, which are rich in description and light on action, and yet — perhaps because of the length and the focus and that fantastic paragraph at the end about people who “resemble symbols of themselves” — I found this to be a striking example of two routines that couldn’t be more distant (and distance itself!) — an affair and a train ride — and yet couldn’t be any closer and interconnected than if Tsypkin had made those transitions any tighter.

    More thoughts here; so glad that I’m finally catching up on these stories and not passing them by/giving up on my stack of old New Yorkers: http://bit.ly/R2S7sc

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