I come to review Elif Batuman’s The Possessed via a compellingly circuitous route.
It is the divine right of interns to make mistakes, or so I keep trying to convince The Millions editor and my boss, the despotic C. Max Magee. Nonetheless, whenever I chance upon a fresh way to humiliate myself, two events occur in rapid succession: first, I wail “No one must know!” and second, I proceed in a frenzy to tell absolutely everyone.
Case in point – the following:
Dear MS. Batuman,
I’m currently interning at the literary website The Millions, for which I occasionally post “Curiosities”… and I recently posted the following:
“At the Paris Review Daily, Elif Batuman walks us through part one of HIS 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky…” (emphasis added)
Shortly afterwards, “Alison” posted the following comment: “Elif Batuman is a woman.”
Doom, I thought, for several reasons. First and foremost, I myself do not possess an anglo-sounding name, so to me such mistakes are personal… As waves of shame from cultural insensitivity washed over me, I comforted myself with the fact that I did not make the heteronormative assumption that just because you were on a blind date with a male in your piece, you must obviously be female. So there! I will tell THAT to my detractors…
But doom I thought again, after I spent the better part of the morning trying to gauge the approximate level of your fame and influence online (and thus the approximate size of my gaffe). My research reveals that your level of fame and influence is, in short, high…
Please accept my apologies. I will make amends by reading The Possessed, and by correcting all those who confuse your gender in my presence, forever.
Think this is a hysterical, maladaptive strategy, perhaps? I beg to differ:
Thanks for your kind and entertaining note, and for reposting on The Millions. I do get the gender mistake a lot, and actually find it kind of flattering, since I interpret it to mean that I don’t have a girly style. You must have mistaken me for one of these hard-hitting gay theater writers who are carrying on the tradition of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Re: your unawareness of my tremendous fame and influence, I will forgive you completely if you purchase The Possessed.
Through my ecstasy at this new found relationship with someone from the higher literary echelons, and subsequent rapid-fire scheming as to what I might do with this unexpected influx of power, it did not escape my attention that Elif had quietly taken my offer to “read” The Possessed and raised it to a “purchase” The Possessed. Nor could this subtle revision be dismissed as mere oversight on her part through force of habit. Her email actually linked the words “purchase The Possessed” to its Amazon page. She wasn’t playing coy.
Purchase, eh? It is the divine right of interns to be broke, or so I keep trying to tell my friends when I insist they pick up the tab after expensive dinners. But a few days later, after I posted the above exchange on my blog, Elif Batuman linked to my post on her own blog, with some additional commentary:
[…] Naturally, I was delighted by this testament to the virility of my authorial voice, which is evidently such that young people would sooner believe me to be a gay man than entertain the possibility of my not having a penis at all.
Far be it for me to skive off my part in what was now clearly a swiftly escalating literary collaboration. “You drive a hard bargain, Batuman,” I muttered to myself. My condolences to Junot Diaz, whose esteemed book was until then the leading contender in that particular paperback bracket. Counteroffer accepted.
At first I couldn’t find The Possessed in the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue where I sought it, but the salesperson at the information desk, his eyes lighting up in recognition, walked me purposefully to its spot.
“It’s pretty popular for a book on Russian literature,” he remarked good-naturedly.
“Well, she’s very funny,” I agreed, possibly with an excess of familiarity.
“Oh, do you know her?”
“Well… you know… we’ve corresponded!” I trilled demurely, in a manner suggesting we’d been hand-writing deeply personal letters to each other for years and were practically the best of friends, instead of having emailed exactly once.
I had high hopes that my new purchase would be funny, so I waited until I was on the subway to begin reading. I have a penchant for bursting out in fits of raucous laughter while reading on the subway. It confuses people, but it’s something of a hobby of mine. I also hoped the author (whom I gathered is a smoker from her Paris Review piece) would frequently mention smoking, my other hobby. It is a particular pleasure to light a cigarette (though not on the subway, of course) while reading about someone else lighting a cigarette, sort of like watching the food network while eating.
The humor, as it turns out, did not disappoint. But it could have used a bit more smoking.
The Possessed, drawn from Elif Batuman’s articles for the New Yorker, Harper’s, and n+1, recounts her adventures during the seven years she spent in graduate school studying Russian literature. I have always felt a fondness for academia, and, in fact, so consuming was my desire to get a PhD in every available subject that, rather than pick just one, I opted to go to law school, effectively using up my quota of degree acquisition for at least another decade. But Batuman had far less enthusiasm, at first:
It was a received idea in those days that “theory” was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern; and what did it have to offer, anyway… Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place…?
Studying literature, as she describes it, was something that happened to her, rather than the other way around. A series of chance encounters — a linguistics professor with a deep concern for Martians, a group of writers huddled in a trailer in a New England artists’ colony, an adolescent boys’ “best legs” contest in Hungary, to name but a few — gently pulled her away from creative writing and toward literary criticism.
Like Batuman, I’ve had some harrowing experiences with contemporary American fiction – particularly short fiction. I can be pretty wary of it. Well-meaning friends who question why I dither endlessly before committing to their book recommendations in this genre are finally treated to a vague “Well, I don’t know if it will be any good…” This does not go over well with the person vouching for the work: “But I’m telling you it’s good,” they seethe, and animosity crackles between us.
If I could pinpoint one moment as the genesis of this (mostly irrational) trepidation, it would be somewhere between 2004 and 2005, when I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (This is not to imply that that collection was considered a shining example, or any sort of example, of the fiction of its time by anyone other than myself). But my disenchantment had been quietly building, and like the proverbial straw, when I read the following few sentences, something inside me just broke:
One wall is covered with taped-up cartoons in black ink and watercolor…
He hands me my wine. And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and sad and true.
The description of a thing as “beautiful and funny and sad and true” filled me with such indescribable gloom that it took me years to shake. I was reminded of that feeling as Batuman related the profound “emptiness” she felt upon reading the “Best American Short Stories” of 2004 and 2005 (apparently an epiphanic couple of years for the both of us):
I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e.
But very little of The Possessed is devoted to critique of fiction. Quite the opposite. It’s pure love of Russian literature that fuels Batuman’s adventures that comprise the bulk of the novel. Really, only a mad sort of love could have prompted her to attend a Tolstoy conference in flip-flops and sweatpants while quietly investigating the author’s death, to fabricate a wedding in Uzbekistan, to ask about doorknobs in a St. Petersburg ice castle, to sleep with a diabolically charismatic classmate who transforms her social circle into the cast of Dostoevsky’s The Demons.
The love of literature crystallizes for many readers when they first encounter a novel they so adore that they think: I wish I could just live inside of it. The Possessed has this desire at heart. Granted, it might be more obvious why Don Quixote felt this impulse for his beloved chivalric romances than why Batuman felt it for the works of Babel, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. But their fantasy is one and the same.
Is seven years of graduate school a more effective means of living inside literature than Don Quixote’s donning an old suit of armor and setting off for adventures with his “squire”? Another question: is it saner?
It’s easy to set these questions aside when drawn into Batuman’s anecdotes, which are told with such deadpan so as to magnify the absurd, or when consuming the literary theory that’s conveyed with such engaging naturalness that one starts believing she is bandying about popular culture. Batuman has the sort of non-fiction voice that not only indicates humor and intelligence but channels it: the reader feels funnier and smarter herself while reading.
But these questions acutely matter to The Possessed, and they in turn transform it from a series of essays and adventures into a novel, into a story, about love and the quest to actualize one’s passions – whether they be Russian literature, chivalric romances, or anything else – through uncompensated devotion. Which is the divine right of all interns and academics.