February 2010

Janet Potter

nonfiction

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

My ability to write about The Possessed is seriously hampered by the big crush I developed on Elif Batuman while reading it. My reasons are twofold. Firstly, there is nothing, just absolutely nothing, more contagious than genuine enthusiasm. Secondly -- the more self-involved reason -- I was a Russian literature major in college, and reading Batuman's account of her life as a student of that most dazzling literature and most dizzying language sent me rushing back to my own days in the throes of Russophilia.

This book -- a collection of essays about her experiences as a graduate student in comparative literature -- is, first and foremost, a love letter to the Russians. Starting with her first reading of War and Peace as a teenager, Batuman has been smitten with and shaped by Russian literature. It is a fringe calling, to be sure, one that has taken her to an Uzbek university, a palace made of ice, and the house of Chekhov. What gives this memoir its endearing sincerity is how keenly Batuman chases her Slavic muse out to the fringe, almost as if she has no control over where it will lead her next, but eager to learn. This sets her apart from many of her fellow memoirists, who give their muses a job description before following them into the world.

The burgeoning genre of willed self-discovery -- memoir, personal essay, literary narrative, whatever you want to call it -- is not one that thrills me. Those books, where the authors sense something lacking in their worldview and force themselves out on a journey to amend it, feel to me just that: forced. They choose new enlightening, immersive experiences as if from brochures, and set the egg timer to go off when they can return to their real lives.

But this is Batuman's real life, and it's hard not to fall for her witty, insightful accounts of the things she'll do for Russian literature. As she says, “I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don't get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on all the least convenient things -- and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that's the wonderful gift right there.” (The fact that she characterizes learning Russian as “a little extra work” should be proof enough for you of her devotion.) It was love, therefore, not literary curiosity, that led her to help plan an Isaac Babel conference, ride a ferris wheel in Samarkand, and try to solve the mystery of Tolstoy's death.

She has devoted years, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, to the study of Russian literature, and is as comfortable telling you about Dostoevsky's personal life as that of her language instructors. The cast of characters in The Possessed is populated almost equally by dead authors and Batuman's classmates and professors. The ease with which they intermingle -- both in the book and in Batuman's life -- is telling. She, full of self-deprecation, would call it the evidence of how consuming her studies were. While this is true in part, it's also true that she has a novelist's eye for the salient detail that will bring a character to life. Take, for example, the exchange she has with a fellow conference attendee:

“Do you have any cats or dogs?” she asked finally.

“No,” I said. “And you?”

“In Moscow, I have a marvelous cat.”

Or her account of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland, who traveled to Russia to marry the tsar's niece:

On the way back to Courland, the teenage duke died, of alcohol poisoning. On his last night in Petersburg, he had engaged -- rashly, one feels -- in a drinking contest with Peter the Great.

It's remarkable how often Russians talk and act exactly like characters from Russian novels. I once had a Russian professor who -- maybe because she was fuzzy on the word's exact connotation -- constantly asked me if I was demoralized. Batuman captures this duality perfectly, describing the people she meets with curiosity and perception, but without hiding her bemusement at how quintessentially Russian they are. When she spends a summer in Samarkand, she sees her host's friend sweeping: “Bent double, she swept the entire courtyard and all the steps using a little whisk broom with no handle. Why didn't she have a normal broom? Probably the same reason Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying.”

The same duality is present in Batuman's depiction of herself in the book, where she comes across both as a bright, passionate, talented traveler and writer, and as a prototypical grad student, caught up in love, cheap apartments, and departmental politics. Her immersion in literature studies, she says in the introduction, is meant to serve her goal of writing novels of her own. In this way, the adventures she describes are the beginning, middle, and end of her grad student days, but only the prologue of her career as a writer.

Batuman shies away from overtly calling The Possessed a journey of self-discovery. She would admit that some self-discovery took place along the way, but maybe only the inevitable kind. Early in the book, she abandons the study of linguistics because of its objectless central search for “what it is that we know when we know a language.” Perhaps the question she ends up going after is: What is it that we love when we love literature? As with all love, it seems that as Batuman seeks after the answer, she may not come to understand it, but she loves it all the more..

Her ultimate attitude towards her experiences strikes me as essentially Russian: engaged and observant, but never too quick to assign meaning. The Russians, after all, will spend hundreds of pages agonizing over the meaning of life, and then shrug and go home for a drink, leaving the beauty and tragedy of life to fight it out by themselves. Batuman, for all she has learned, also leaves the enigmas unresolved and, as she says, “still life goes on in Chekhov's garden, where it's always a fine day for hanging yourself, and somebody somewhere is playing the guitar.”

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374532184
304 Pages