Elif Bautman's hilarious tour of 19th-century literature tells the story of contemporary writing's own struggle for relevance.
A return to literary classics, with a twist
Elif Batuman is talking about the front covers to various international versions of her book: "I just got back from Holland. The front cover there is completely black, and there's just a picture of Tolstoy on it with his huge beard, sitting at a table. And they've made it €25 (Dh130). No one is going to buy that book.
"The UK cover is - you know that part where I dream I'm playing tennis with Tolstoy, and he has a tennis racket, but I have a goose; it's taken from that. And when it's the right way up it looks like I'm winning, then you turn it upside down and it looks like Tolstoy is winning."
If all that sounds dizzying, inexplicable and somehow wonderful, then that is just as well: it is in keeping with the book that Batuman has written. The Possessed is a work that critics have already observed, seems to invent a category of its own: part literary criticism, part travelogue and part confessional, the book follows Batuman through various travails during her time as a student of 19th-century Russian literature at Stanford University. It made its author a literary star when it was published in the United States last year, and even found its way on to The New York Times bestseller list: not a place that often finds room for post-graduate musings on great Russian novelists. Meanwhile, The New Yorker - where Batuman is now a staff writer - called The Possessed "Eat, Pray, Love for the PhD set".
Now Batuman - the 33-year-old New York-born daughter of Turkish parents - is becoming used to her celebrity, and is entangled in a tour to support international publication - which is what brings her to London, to talk to me. The Possessed, she says, has changed her life: so what gave her the idea? After all, a first-person tour through 19th-century literature doesn't sound an easy pitch.
"The book wasn't my idea!" she immediately says, laughing. "The first piece was written in about 2005 for a literary magazine called n+1. In the meantime, I was thinking about ideas for books. I wanted to do a novel, and my agent wanted me to do something on female mixed martial artists.
"My editor, Lorin Stein, was getting so frustrated. He said: 'You already have a book. You've written all these magazine pieces on Russian literature, and we can put them together. We're going to show people that Russian literature isn't this intimidating thing; it's something they already love and they just don't know it. We'll have a great title and a great cover.' So all the things that made it great were his idea."
It quickly becomes apparent that self-deprecation is one of the key weapons in the Batuman arsenal. Stein - now editor of the prestigious Paris Review, and himself something of a literary star - may have nudged Batuman in the right direction, but the success of The Possessed is not as surprising as it might seem, and its cause is Batuman's writing. From a Stanford symposium on Isaak Babel - where Babel's daughter Nathalie tells her: "Your hand is very cold" - to the International Tolstoy Conference at Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate, we follow Batuman through a series of chapters that are thoughtful, acute and, most of all, hilarious. Along the way there's time for her ideas on the value of literature, and the particular, transcendent beauty of the great 19th-century Russian novels. Funny, intelligent, quirky non-fiction? It's almost starting to sound the bestseller it has become.
But her book began life as a novel. Batuman says her first aspiration was to be a fiction writer, and that she may, again, turn her hand to fiction. The Possessed, then, is informed by her conviction that the formal study of literature is a good thing for fiction writers - an idea that might seem uncontroversial, but that runs contrary to current mainstream thought.
"There's this idea that if you want to write you shouldn't study literature because then you're dissecting what you love, and you should keep your love of literature pure," she says. "I think that's kind of silly.
"It leads to the idea that you shouldn't read too many old books; you should just be reading these recent, precise, precious things, and then writing your own. And that's where we are with contemporary fiction."
Batuman is not heartened by the state of contemporary fiction, and in a recent London Review of Books essay was strident in her criticism of the Master of Fine Arts creative writing programmes so popular among aspiring writers in America, which encourage young writers to "find your voice" and "write what you know", and give rise to those "recent, precise, precious" novels.
"American fiction has been deadened by a lot of things," she says. "I think many of our current problems go back to the Cold War: this premium was put on 'creativity', and that's what gives rise to the idea that studying critical theory is bad.
"There's also this view that writing fiction is indulgent and somehow shameful, so it has to be justified, and then you get the creative writing schools and either these pared-down, minimalist novels or these great sprawling maximalist novels that cover so much history and try to make so many connections."
The Possessed can be read, then, as a search for a new way of writing, seeming to ask: how can we write now? And in asking this question via 300-odd pages of first-person, boundary-crossing, interdisciplinary narrative non-fiction, it helps to provide an answer. Batuman speaks approvingly of last year's cultural manifesto Reality Hunger by David Shields, in which Shields calls for writers to blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, to put more "real life" into their work.
"I haven't had too much time to think about my next book yet," says Batuman. "But all the stories that interest me are true; they are something that happened to me or someone else. So I want to use those stories, which suggests I am writing non-fiction, but on the other hand, I want the liberties that fiction writers can take to be creative."
So what is it that makes the great 19th-century Russian novels so special? What might today's writers learn from them? Indeed, what might any of us learn? And should we be coming to learn, or simply to bathe in the magnificent prose?
"If you're coming to this literature for life lessons, I think that's OK. I find something very appealing about taking literature very literally.
"I think what appealed to me most when I decided to study these novels was the quality they have of being both funny and sad," says Batuman. "And not sad in a tragic way, but sad in that ordinary, every day way. In Tolstoy, you feel you are getting life as it really is."
I'm reminded of a passage from The Possessed in which Aeroflot loses Batuman's luggage en route to the Tolstoy conference. When Batuman telephones to ask after her bags, the Aeroflot desk attendant tells her: "Are you familiar with our Russian phrase, 'resignation of the soul?'" I put the question to Batuman: isn't that, really, what the great Russians can teach us? Resignation of the soul?
"Ha!" laughs Batuman. "You're the third English person to say this to me: that the message is resignation of the soul. But I don't think that message would sell the book."
Maybe that's true. Then again, The Possessed, wonderfully, is already well on its way to getting the many readers it deserves.