Friday, April 16, 2010
Let me admit my bias up front: Elif Batuman may have already written the book I’ve been planning to write. Her book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is very similar in form and substance to the work of creative nonfiction that I’d like to inflict on people in a year or so. Batuman’s book has somehow received an extraordinary dose of marketing support and publicity in recent months. Its advertisements appear conspicuously in the New York Review of Books; the product is well placed in many bookstores; and at least three different people have forwarded me one of its ecstatic book reviews.
Is jealous warranted? I’d say so. Batuman has a few advantages over me: she’s a Harvard and Stanford University graduate; she speaks Russian; she’s travelled to Russia; she had previously published a series of well-received articles in prominent magazines; and, most importantly, she’s clever and funny, with more than a dash of David Sedaris in her.
As it turns out, the book is very good, but not quite what either its title or its press promised it to be. More than anything, the book is a darkly comic description of the hell that is humanities graduate school. Batuman’s essays make use of Russian literature, but, like this blog, these essays don’t hesitate to make wide detours whenever the author feels the urge to discuss some of her own intellectual or personal experiences. It’s this mix of the personal, the comic, and the academic that attracts me to the author and the book. When the book works, it’s because the comparative literature or literary theory is shedding light on her autobiography, or vice-versa.
By her own admission, the author once set out to write a novel but failed. The mass of her writings lacked form or structure. Presumably, this unique approach to creative non-fiction, replete with comic interludes, irony, and rich character descriptions, is a second attempt to produce something akin to a novel. Butuman writes well, and her adventures in Eurasia (studying Uzbek literature alongside of a boyfriend), Turkey (she’s ethnically Turkish), St. Petersburg (she visits a replica of a tsarina's’s ice palace), Yasnaya Polyna (there’s a Tolstoy conference there, can’t wait to go someday), and California (she serves as a handler for some of writer Isaac Babel’s kin) are worth reading.
Putting jealousy aside, the book’s critical reception should lend legitimacy to this blog’s project, the attempt to link personal narrative to public history and quasi-academic discourse. Moreover, this isn’t really about Russian literature, and certainly not about other people who are obsessed with the subject. The book is really a treatise on obsession as it gets amplified or distorted by the very strange rituals of graduate school. If you boiled this book down, there might be only 75 pages or so if real Russian literature or history, if that. (But was it Batuman who described some character who said you don’t judge the beauty of a dress by the quantity of fabric its tailor used in its construction?)
So there might still be a vacuum for a book about obsession with Russia, as opposed to obsession about literature in the context of graduate school? The irony for me is that the book’s title, the Possessed, taken from the title of one of the author’s favorite Dostoevsky books, was probably one of the books that launched me on my path toward monomania many years ago. Strangely, when Butuman recounts the plot’s dark, twisted plot, I can recall almost nothing about it. The book stayed with me on some level. I’ve never doubted that it was one of the best books I ever read. Notwithstanding Butuman’s assertion that Joseph Frank and other Dostoevsky critics see it as a deeply flawed book; the Possessed discusses human nature with a brutal frankness seldom seen anywhere else. It’s acutely Russian in the sense that it reveals human depravity with a nakedness found in no other literature.