The great thing about Russian literature is how strange it is.
The characters in Dostoevsky are always breaking out in histrionics. They bustle about, shake their fists, and call each other scoundrels. They “fly” to wherever they are going and “fly at” each other when they get there. “What on earth does it mean to ‘fly at’ somebody?” David Foster Wallace once asked, in an exasperated footnote in his essay on Joseph Frank’s literary biography of the Russian novelist.
The weirdness in Dostoevsky (Wallace also called Notes from Underground “one weird little book”) belongs to the larger strain of absurdity in Russian letters. In Gogol’s famous short story, a collegiate assessor’s nose roams St. Petersburg disguised as a state councilor. That would be odd enough, but Gogol keeps interrupting himself to address the reader. “This all dissolved into mist, and we don’t know what happened next,” he says, dropping one narrative thread to pick up another. “The Nose” ends with Gogol intruding again to explain that, upon reflection, his story is too implausible to be true. Then he takes that back, too. If you add one thing, he points out, and then another, and then a third… “Say what you like,” he concludes, “but such incidents really do happen in the world.” Clearly, we aren’t supposed to know what to think.
In Russian literature there are ten Gogols for every Checkhov. In Oblomov, the main character spends the first third of the novel in bed. The Master and Margarita is about the Devil’s surprise visit to Moscow and the fantastical havoc that ensues. Keith Gessen and Anna Summers recently translated a collection of stories by the famed Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, whose characters are always crossing into and back from the shadow world. In one story, a woman shares a seaside mansion with Poseidon’s widow and her son, who spends his days scavenging the ocean floor.
So it’s perfect that the stories in The Possessed, Elif Batuman’s collection of essays about her graduate studies in Russian literature, are so quirky and funny and strange. The content of Batuman’s book couldn’t be better married to its style. The Possessed is literary criticism as smart comedy writing; it is Gogol meets Susan Orlean in the Stanford Ph.D. program.
Like all great comic figures, Batuman has the narrative advantage of never knowing exactly what she’s doing. In the introduction we learn that she was never cut out for fiction writing. Literary criticism will be her calling. Then, in the essays themselves, we learn that she doesn’t really have a knack for that either.
Or does she? The Possessed turns on a sly commentary about whether one can truly know a literary text. Just as you can never really know another person, Batuman seems to say, because a person’s essence remains elusive (“Where exactly is the person?” she keeps asking), so too you can never truly know a literary text, no matter how intensely you study it or how much you learn about its author. Batuman travels the globe in a series of comically absurd literary investigations, all the while speaking between the lines to the ghosts of her Russian subjects, asking what it will finally take to understand them.
My favorite essay is “Who Killed Tolstoy?”, in which Batuman cadges a trip to an international conference at the great Russian novelist’s Moscow estate to investigate whether he was poisoned. Aeroflot loses Batuman’s luggage, making hers perhaps the only forensic literary investigation conducted entirely in sweatpants.
Was Tolstoy really murdered? Batuman makes a good case, but of course we cannot know. Whether we are mulling the rudiments of our daily existence, the things that make us who we are, or a great writer’s inscrutable end, the world will always be too absurd for us to understand. The genius of so many Russian writers was that they expressed this truth so well. And yet we have no choice but to go on reading them. “If I could start over today,” Batuman writes, “I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I think that’s where we’re going to find them.”