Monday, March 08, 2010

Book review: 'The Possessed' by Elif Batuman

Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of Publishing

Russian literary scholars aren't known for their sense of humor, unless they're Elif Batuman. Her new book, The Possessed, a collection of essays that can best be described as a series of academic misadventure stories, is possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years.

Describing a conference about the writer Isaac Babel (author of The Red Cavalry) at Stanford University, where Batuman did her graduate work and now teaches, she notes that "some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature." This parochial attitude can easily turn into obtuseness, as when a scholar suggests that Batuman would never be able to fully understand Babel because of his "specifically Jewish alienation."

To which she replies: "Right, as a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew." To which the man replies: "So you see the problem."

Batuman rarely confronts such oddities head on. She usually lets people and events speak for themselves – often hilariously. On a trip to St. Petersburg for The New Yorker, where she's gone to visit the re-creation of an 18th-century palace made of ice, she's instructed by her editor to "interview the guy who made the doorknobs." Later, the builder of the ice palace asks, "What doorknobs?"

But Batuman isn't merely setting up straw men so she can appear more intelligent. She wears her knowledge lightly, while at the same time still conveying her passion for the books and the people who made them. She's also not shy about discussing the vagaries of academic life, such as hustling for grant money.

In a chapter titled "Who Killed Leo Tolstoy?" she wants grant money to help pay for a trip to a conference at Tolstoy's estate. To qualify for an extra $1,500, she devises a theory that Tolstoy was murdered. Her academic department doesn't buy it, but she makes the trip nevertheless, losing her luggage along the way. "Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you," she quips.

As she is forced to wear the same flannel shirt, sweat pants and flip-flops, the collected Tolstoy scholars come to believe she's a committed Tolstoyan – that is, a follower who's vowed to return to a peasant lifestyle, shunning materialism for a life of work and simplicity. It doesn't help that she wanders the grounds "looking for clues" to Tolstoy's "murder." Ultimately, she determines: "The flies buzz across generations; I know they know, but they won't tell me."

Throughout the book, she conveys a graduate seminar's worth of scholarship in many of the great Russian authors and a few who are not so great, plus some who aren't even technically Russian. (She has a wonderful, moving three-part story interspersed throughout the book about a summer she spent trying to learn Uzbek.)

By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well. She's an example of not just how to appreciate literature, but how to live life through literature – without losing yourself.

Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of