Equal parts travel book and love note to the Russian novel, this odd debut wins the reader over with erudition, charm and amusing insights into the world of literary academics.
The Possessed: A defense of academia as a creative force
Don Quixote, Elif Batuman reminds us, laboured under no arbitrary delusion: he forced the world to conform to his favourite fiction, the chivalric tales of knights' quests and damsels. Some way into The Possessed, Batuman summarises her own doctoral thesis: "The novel form is 'about' the protagonist's struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books." Among her own arbitrary, given qualities, Batuman maintains, are her American nationality and Turkish heritage. Her favourite authors are the Russians.
"Some Russian people are sceptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature," she writes. At passport control the officer stamps her 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'." Batuman reflects that we are all prone to feeling possessive about our particular regional variation on human suffering, but if literature cannot "render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness ... what's it good for?"
If you've ever studied art or literature you will have encountered the idea that academia destroys the thing it loves. Batuman's book is a passionate debunking of this old saw: a defence of intellectual curiosity, perhaps no less necessary (if less grave) now than it was for the authors and dissidents of Batuman's study. "Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more," she asks, "to immerse yourself, to become possessed?"
Batuman is an academic and a journalist. The Possessed, subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is her first book, a self-designated "memoir" comprising seven essays that previously appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers and so forth. At first glance this might seem like the kind of book a veteran writer pitches to fulfil her contractual obligations rather than a hotly tipped debut. Let's call this a largely American tradition of the novel as New Journalism, its founders and leading lights Joan Didion and Truman Capote. This is a genre in which the subject matter is almost beside the point; all that matters is that the writing be witty, allusive and readable. In the UK, much of Geoff Dyer's output fits the profile and what comes immediately to mind here is Out of Sheer Rage, his captivating book about failing to write a book about DH Lawrence. These days the notion of an academic somehow writing a bestseller on their austere, overrefined passion has almost become part of the job description, but it's always a pleasure to see it done well.
Batuman writes openly about postgraduate life - the archives and databases, the scholarship and grant chasing, "the endless cycle of seminars and coffee, coffee and seminars" - with a self-deprecating charm. But this is no exercise in academic self-abasement and she's as keenly aware of creative non-fiction's tendency as a genre to undermine its own aims, to set out to fail. In a perfectly pitched scene, a young academic gives a paper on Isaac Babel called Writing a Biography of Isaac Babel: a Detective's Task. He tells a series of anecdotes about getting thrown out of records offices and openly professes no knowledge of material that has already been published. A member of his audience mutters that "For an incompetent scholar, everything is 'a detective's task'."
Batuman, on the other hand, is a really good scholar. You could very well read The Possessed on the beach or in the bath, but you'd acquire a lot of finely researched arcana and critically illuminating frames of reference while you were enjoying her turn of phrase. We can laugh at Nathalie Babel, honoured conference guest and daughter of Isaac Babel, with her "deep, sepulchral voice" ("WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I WAS TOLD THAT MY PUPPY WAS A WRITER"), but we also get some doctoral-level insights into Babel's prose style, along with the historical titbit that Babel once interrogated Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, who went on to produce the silent classic King Kong. Add to this Barthes's gloss on Cervantes; the history of the Uzbek language; Empress Anna Iannovna of Petersburg's maniacal, almost Roman, mistreatment of her jesters; always in just enough detail and concision to spur you to a library.
Batuman is also a wonderful travel writer. Her details are luminous, her ear for off-kilter dialogue impeccable. On the way to Samarkand the highway passes through Kazakhstan. Batuman is struck by the sudden grey desolation of the landscape. After 20 minutes there are trees again and an Uzbek roadblock:
"'So we're back in Uzbekistan?' I asked the driver.
'Yes, this is Uzbekistan. Trees, you see.'
'They, um, don't have trees in Kazakhstan?'
He shook his head, frowning. 'Don't like them.'
'The Kazakhs don't like … trees.'
The driver shook his head more emphatically. 'No way.'"
Throughout, the author's writerly self-awareness isn't so much an idiosyncrasy as a comparative lit philosophy; it's what she sees in her beloved Russian novels. She is scathing on the fad for authenticity in travel-writing: "The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of 'sticking it to the man' to reject a chain motel in favour of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls." This in a piece written on commission for Let's Go travel guides: Batuman has been sent to explore cities in Turkey that her own mother claims never to have heard of, one of whose names, Tokat, literally translates as "a slap in the face".
Summer in Samarkand provides a kind of narrative backbone to the book. Its three chapters detail a fruitless sojourn in Uzbekistan to learn a language she is no longer contracted to teach. Samarkand is "a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse". Uzbek broadly derives from the Russian colonisation of Turkey; it has, Batuman claims, over 100 different words for weeping. The historical facts, she writes, "helped me understand the feeling I so often had, while studying Uzbek literature in Samarkand, of being a character in a Borges story, studying a literature invented by a secret cabal of academicians". She writes with warmth of her tutors, her hosts and those she meets and can sketch a character in a single sentence: the time she spends living with "two very kind but depressed Russian academics: a mathematician from the Academy of Sciences, and his wife, a biologist who had recently been fired from the Academy of Sciences and who spent all night in the kitchen playing Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo Game Boy."
In Who Killed Tolstoy? Batuman presents us with an account of the International Tolstoy Conference, held annually on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's birthplace and lifelong home. If not a disaster - in fact it's charmingly ramshackle - the conference is still something of indictment of the conference as format. Here the Q&A after Batuman's paper on Anna Karenina and Alice in Wonderland is abandoned in passive-aggressive chaos and a call for tea. The Possessed is shot through with uncanny literary echoes, and when her Stanford professor likens the excruciating conference dinner they've just endured to a scene from Dostoyevsky, it's not so much an affectation as a kind of baffled surrender. A historian researching the marginalia in Tolstoy's volumes of Kant is asked if he's found anything. "'No. He didn't write anything in the margins at all,' the historian said. He paused, before adding triumphantly: 'But the books fell open to certain pages!'"
A final chapter, on Dostoyevsky's difficult final novel, is the only place Batuman's delicate poise is threatened. At first it reads like an appended slab of doctoral thesis. "Because the purest culmination of mimetic desire is self-annihilation, Stavrogin's demise is accompanied by 'a quasi-suicide of the collectivity'" is not a sentence I'll be quoting very often. Yet a couple of pages later, Batuman connects the literary theory and obscure, flawed character back to her life as a Stanford postgrad. The dangerously charming Stavrogin becomes Matej, a charismatic fellow-student and old flame. The ideas of literary mimesis, of forcing one's life to correspond to a narrative model, echo one another in theory and in anecdote. The ending is, frankly, moving.
Batuman's expertise is presented with the clarity and straightforwardness of true learning; her endless engagement is endlessly engaging. It's no minor stroke to pass on this contagious enthusiasm for great books while admitting "the anxiety of literature, that most solitary and time-consuming of arts, as irremediably vain, useless and immoral - to be so alive to the quixotic madness of academic literary study and yet maintain that if there is any such thing as an answer, that is where we must look.
Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.