(This review was written at high speed, and I wish I’d done more justice to Batuman’s book. The Possessed sent me back to the Russian classics after a decade, and what Batuman does is make you read the books as though you’re reading them again for the first time. Review published in the Business Standard, October 2011.)
Granta Books/ Farrar Straus Giroux
PG Wodehouse took a bleak view of Russian novelists. Vladimir Brusiloff, introduced to his readers in The Clicking of Cuthbert, specialized in “grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, where the moujik decided to commit suicide”.
Perhaps if Wodehouse had met Elif Batuman, New Yorker writer and literary critic, she might have persuaded him, as she does us, that reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekov, Pushkin and company has (give or take a depressed moujik or two) much to offer the open-minded reader.
The Possessed is a startling collection of essays on reading: funny, wise and imbued with Batuman’s particular brand of scattershot brilliance. The Russians draw her in little by little, as she succumbs first to Eugene Onegin, and then to Anna Karenina: “Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel—ice skating, balls, horse races—were beautiful, dignified and meaningful in terms of plot.”
Batuman really means to be a novelist, but her creative writing career doesn’t survive the reality of workshops: “Why was it
automatically good for a writer to live in a barn,” she asks, “reading short stories by short-story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?”
Russia pulls her in gradually; this student of literature, born to Turkish parents and raised in New Jersey, finds herself drawn to study the Russian novelists in Russia, through a series of complicated detours. (One of them involves judging a shapely leg contest for adolescent boys in a village in Hungary. Batuman has a knack for memorable asides.)
As she warms to her accidental subject, she writes: “I stopped believing that theory had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?”
In Moscow, she dates bankers, for “the first and last time” in her life; elsewhere, she meets Isaac Babel’s formidable, larger-than-life older daughter Nathalie; in St Petersburg, she attempts, unsuccessfully, to stay overnight in the replica of an ice palace modeled on the fully furnished House of Ice commissioned by Ivan the Terrible’s niece, a palace that has “no clear purpose, and therefore many unclear purposes”. She lives briefly in Samarkand, where she learns why it is impossible for women to be saints, how to eat lepyushka, and shares with us her readings of the life of the Emperor Bobur (as the name is spelled in those parts) and the fact, unrelated in Indian histories, that he suffered terribly from gemoroi or haemorrhoids.
Behind the exuberance of the travel writing and the conversational digressions, there is also real scholarship (many of these essays were first published in the New Yorker, the LRB and other magazines). At a Tolstoy conference, Batuman argues, only slightly mischievously, that the writer may have been murdered, but the discussion veers off into a heated argument over whether he had or hadn’t read Alice in Wonderland. Dostoevksy’s poor intellectuals, the ones in his book The Possessed who inspired the book’s title, descend into madness as Batuman asks why the Russians required so much grotesquerie.
Just a few decades ago, The Possessed might have been read differently—Russia has slipped from its position as one of the great powers, and perhaps because of that relative erasure from the world stage, the country is once again new territory for a traveler and writer of Batuman’s stamp. She is free to explore it without having to explain it, and free to explain—always obliquely—why the Russians took such a firm grip on her imagination, why their larger-than-life stories were so much more compelling than the stories she had fled from, where “middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions… and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things”.
By the last chapter, where Batuman explores one of Dostoevsky’s more enigmatic works, a novel called Demons, she has taken us halfway across the world and back. Everything that most critics would edit out of their work is here—the backstories, the failed relationships and minor missteps, the cult-like intensity that might sweep a community of academics—perhaps because Batuman knows, and makes the reader see again, the value of digressions and secret histories.
The question that animates this chapter is not really about literature or books or scholarship: what is worth devoting your life to, asks Batuman? She cannot imagine studying, say, Islamic fundamentalism forever; another person might not be able to imagine being a bread-maker in Samarkand.
“If I could start over today,” Batuman writes, “I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” The Possessed, peopled with a cast of eccentrics but free of suicidal moujiks, will convince many readers to at least begin that search.