Quirky, comical essays explore the relationship between Russian literature and life.
Itâ€™s not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batumanâ€™s The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature in search of â€śdirect relevance to lived experience, especially to love.â€ť
Batuman, a first-generation Turkish-American, was educated at Harvard and Stanford, where she now teaches part time. Whatâ€™s refreshing about her writing is her wonderful sense of the absurd and her willingness to venture into out-of-the-way corners â€“ both geographically and intellectually â€“ and to admit when sheâ€™s hit a dead end.
Rare among academics, Batuman writes about her literary awakening as a process. In this spirit, she describes her initial bafflement on first reading certain classics. Isaac Babelâ€™s story â€śMy First Goose,â€ť for example, at first â€śmade absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose?â€ť she writes.
The same goes for Dostoyevskyâ€™s â€śweirdest novel,â€ť â€śThe Demons,â€ť whose earlier translation as â€śThe Possessedâ€ť supplies her bookâ€™s title. Why? It concerns â€śthe descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school.â€ť
After an engaging plot summary, Batuman describes how she came to understand that â€śThe Demonsâ€ť was more than just a flawed novel. â€śGraduate school taught me this. It taught me through both theory and practice.â€ť
Among the literary theories Batuman discusses â€“ with admirable clarity â€“ are â€śmimetic desireâ€ť and â€śconversion narratives,â€ť in which authors redeem tales of sinfulness and decadence with moralistic endings. But itâ€™s her tests of these theories in the context of her own life that reverberate. A classmate from Zagreb treats Batuman as if sheâ€™d â€śstolen his soulâ€ť after they end up in bed together, breaking seven years of celibacy for him. Like Dostoyevskyâ€™s antihero Stavrogin, Matej exercises an unhealthy, destructive magnetism over others. Still, Batumen is horrified when he enters a Carthusian monastery in Slovenia, thereby enacting his own conversion narrative.
Batuman spends a summer in Samarkand studying Uzbek language and literature, which she writes about years later in an overly long, three-part memoir oddly interspersed among the bookâ€™s more trenchant essays â€“ an indication that, despite the passage of time, this experience remains, â€śLike a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree, there was nowhere to put it.â€ť She eventually realizes that, â€śUzbekistan wasnâ€™t a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness,â€ť and that reading obscure literature she only half-understood had lost its charm.
Still, Samarkand is a significant way station on Batumanâ€™s journey toward â€śbringing oneâ€™s life closer to oneâ€™s favorite books.â€ť Following authorsâ€™ trails requires funding, which she seeks in sometimes bizarre scholarly grants and New Yorker assignments.
The latter takes her, among other places, to St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 2006, to report on a historical replica of the House of Ice that Peter the Greatâ€™s niece, Empress Anna Ioannovna, commissioned in 1740 for the wedding of two court jesters, who were forced to spend their nuptial night inside it. The replica, a bizarre attempt to boost winter tourism, raises all sorts of questions for Batuman about the original, which she sees as an embodiment of what great literature, with its redemptive conversion narratives, works so hard to avoid: â€śthe glorification of immoral, useless decadence.â€ť
Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it. In her funniest piece, â€śBabel in California,â€ť originally published in 2005 in the magazine n+1, the dinner conversation at an international conference at Stanford on the early 20th- century Odessan-Jewish writer Isaac Babel evokes the sublime silliness of Tom Stoppardâ€™s â€śTravesties.â€ť When a colleague maintains that Babelâ€™s â€śRed Cavalryâ€ť cycle would never be totally accessible to her because of its â€śspecifically Jewish alienation,â€ť Batuman responds, â€śRight.... As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.â€ť It goes right over his head.
In the title essay, Batuman, in Florence, Italy, to research an article on a Dante marathon, visits a Stanford classmate, a poet who says that if he were to start over today, heâ€™d study Islamic fundamentalism instead of literature. Not so for Batuman. â€śIf I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think thatâ€™s where weâ€™re going to find them.â€ť
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.