From Russia with Love

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Elif Batuman offers a rogue’s gallery of Russian writers, scholars, and literary characters—the only oddball missing is herself.

Initially, I was attracted to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed because I hoped it would be an oar-dipping voyage into a memoir sub-genre I have come to admire: a confession about how a writer has been bewitched by an author (Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a meditation on his inability to write about D. H. Lawrence) or by the act of reading (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading).

Why am I drawn to these writers? I think of Craig Seligman’s Opposites Attract Me, a three-way tryst with himself, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag (he relied, for much of his essay, on his close friendship with Kael); Seligman is smitten, to be sure, and he seeks to understand how these two critics have enraptured him. For some authors, reading is a means to match insights with, or better, to stay in the spell of, another author, largely because it feels so good to be bedeviled by the relationship long after the book ends.

Enter the authorial fascination of Elif Batuman and her set of carnivalesque essays about things literary and Russian. In her mid-20s, Batuman, a Turkish-American, is a graduate student at Stanford. She’s something of a polyglot savant—knowing English and Turkish, she picks up Russian and Uzbek with ease. A fledgling scholar, she gives a paper at a Tolstoy conference in Russia and helps host one on Isaac Babel at home. Batuman portrays the comic absurdity of her “profession” and renders the scholar’s velvet cage with farcical insouciance.

Elif Batuman

In Don Quixote, Batuman finds a narrator who measures his life by the chivalric romances he reads and then acts upon: “He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book.” A scholarly Don Quixote, Batuman wants to write a differently turned work of literary criticism. “The method of the novel has typically been imitation: the characters try to resemble the characters in the books they find meaningful,” she writes—but “what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor?” In other words, if one’s life is one’s reading, why not write about what one has lived?

In The Possessed, there’s more on display than just her love of Russian books. In several tales, she is drawn to those who are drawn to Pushkin and Tolstoy, Chekhov and Babel, authors she’s gobbled up already. She next sidles over to study, for a summer, Uzbekistani literature and its greats, Ahkmad Yugnakiy and Alisher Navoi, as well as the Uzbek language, a Turkic-based tongue that has more than one hundred verbs for “to cry.” Batuman’s strength lies in her chummy proximity to those with whose wacky or lost wandering through scholarship she empathizes. She loves these unlikely protagonists—the obscure, the obscurant—with a stylist’s flair, her own complex prose and narrative twists revealing a consummate literary performer:

Some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature. I still remember the passport control officer who stamped my first student visa. He suggested to me that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.” The resistance can be especially high when it comes to Babel, who wrote in an idiosyncratic Russian-Jewish Odessa vernacular—a language and humor that Russian-Jewish Odessans earned the hard way. While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for?

The brilliance of the passage includes a dissonant note we don’t pick up on first reading. Why would a people be protective of their literature? One idea is that a translation cannot render the whole sense of a work in its original language. Another suggestion is that learning Slavic or Turkic languages is too difficult, especially for women. What Batuman seems to be saying is that such protectiveness should not keep her or anyone from discovering the “unhappiness” literature is so adept at presenting, especially in the great family dramas of the 19th-century Russian novelists.

Other times, Batuman’s arch view of the strange personalities she hangs out with takes over. The book often sparks to life via an incident, focused on the irreverent and the irrelevant, such as this scene in which she is invited to a translation workshop by her Uzbek teacher:

The workshop was taught by a wiry, manic, mosquito-like American in his thirties, with a goatee and wearing the single oldest and most tattered T-shirt I have ever seen being used as clothing. The class was collaborating on an Uzbek translation of a terrible English translation of Maupassant’s “Le Petit.” When the cuckolded widow erupts at the nursemaid, “Dehors, va-t’en!” this had been rendered into the great living English language as “Done with you.”

Nine Uzbek graduate students debated for half an hour how to translate the English phrase “Done with you?”

“But that’s not an English phrase,” I finally objected.

“The text we have is the text we have,” the teacher replied, glancing at me a bit irritably, and I noticed dark circles under his eyes.

Leo Tolstoy

Like barkers on the midway, such nuggety vignettes populate The Possessed. In fact, they tend to overrun the book. After a number of these dazzling mini-portraits, the books, places, parties, people, and author began to feel undifferentiated, all of it viewed microscopically rather than with the telescope’s breadth. The larger story of the psychology of a people and their literature is largely untouched.

Batuman characterizes nearly all the bookish sorts she encounters by their quirks and flaws. They sleep in their clothes. They don’t change their underwear. They yammer on at conferences without notes for hours. Isaac Babel’s second wife is mesmerized by a little Eeyore toy that hangs from Batuman’s rearview mirror. Still, I wondered, midway through, why Batuman is so attracted to this world, a world teeming with mountebanks and peculiarities. Her observations on language and literature are filled with a vintner’s love of variety and verve, while her descriptions of people are one-dimensional, deformed, overrefined. The more eccentric the persona, the more her sketchpad fills.

Is this a problem? Not if you find such eccentricity funny or daring or clever. But if you want to know what’s at stake for the author, The Possessed can feel evasive. All its intimacy is in Batuman’s style, in her affair with language. While she studies in Uzbekistan, there’s a guy named Eric who shares her bed. But he’s no more than an ornament, a boyfriend manqué: there’s no attraction between them, no sex, no touching, no reason why they’re together. (He’s summarily dumped in a later chapter.) In this way, most of the characters within Batuman’s reach remain ornamental; her book is so focused on strangeness that she never uses it as a tool to see her own misadventure.

“If I didn’t resist the circumstances that pushed me to Uzbekistan that summer, it was because I believed that out-of-the-way places and literatures are never wasted on writers,” Batuman writes. But this insight arrives only after she’s come home. Rather than proving its thesis that, by viewing various literatures and their scholars with cynical suspicion, one can achieve a kind of self-possession, The Possessed instead demonstrates that in charting the peccadilloes of academics and pedants, Batuman has become one of them.

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." His previous book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, is in its third printing. He's also a journalist for The San Diego Reader. More from this author →