A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 15, 2010

From Russia With Stories

The following article appeared, in another version, in the January-February issue of Stanford Magazine

The title of Elif Batuman's new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), echoes that of Dostoevsky's strange, dark novel, which is also known as The Demons. In the introduction to her book, Batuman, PhD '07, tells us that Dostoevsky's novel “narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school.” But the adventures that Batuman recounts in her book are more like those of Alice in Wonderland than like those of Stavrogin in provincial Russia. 
 
Batuman grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of Turkish-born physicians who emigrated to the United States in the 1970s. When she graduated from Harvard, she wanted to be a writer, but although she was offered a fellowship at a writers' colony housed in a former lumber mill on Cape Cod she chose graduate school at Stanford instead. She recalls her first impressions in the introduction to her book: “Under rolling green hills, positrons were speeding through the world's longest linear accelerator; in towers high above the palm trees lay the complete Paris files of the Russian Imperial secret police. Stanford was essentially the opposite of a colonial New England lumber mill.”

She now teaches a workshop for seniors in Stanford's Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities program, but she has also fulfilled her goal of becoming a writer. Keith Gessen, editor of the magazine n+1, saw the work she had published in the Harvard Advocate as an undergraduate and asked her to write for him. “Babel in California,” her account of her participation in a conference at Stanford on Isaac Babel's life and work, appeared in the second issue of n+1 in the spring of 2005. There it caught the attention of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who assigned her a piece on Thai kickboxing that appeared in 2006. She has written several more pieces for the New Yorker, as well as for the Guardian and for Harper's. In 2007, Batuman received a grant from the Rona Jaffe Foundation for women writers, which gave her some leisure to work on the novel that's her next major project.

It was Gessen who urged her to collect several of her articles in book form. The Possessed recounts some of the things that happened to Batuman in the course of obtaining her doctorate in comparative literature: She encountered Babel's eccentric relatives; journeyed to Samarkand to study Old Uzbek (a language that her instructor claimed has a hundred words for crying); attended a conference at Yasnaya Polyana where she pursued a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek theory that Tolstoy was murdered; explored a palace made entirely of ice in St. Petersburg; and experienced the friendships, frustrations, and challenges of graduate school.

Batuman has an almost Dickensian eye for precise and unusual detail and a gift at vivid characterization, and her sharpness of wit and slyness of tone are reminiscent of such humorists as Twain and Thurber. She acknowledges a fondness for all of those writers, but cites another influence: Haruki Murakami, for “the way the real shades into the surreal in his stories.” Batuman says her essays are the result of “copious note-taking,” and the abundance of often hilarious, occasionally poignant, and invariably off-beat details about people and places -- the unexpected and sometimes bizarre experiences of living and studying in Uzbekistan, the aura of decadence of the St. Petersburg ice palace, the obsessive scholars at the Babel and Tolstoy conferences – does lend an aspect of the surreal to her work.

But while the essays in her book present graduate study as a kind of “descent into madness,” she admits that graduate school is “one of the last spheres where private life and 'interpersonal relationships' -- relationships with other students, with professors, with the books you're reading, between the books you're reading, within the books you're reading – are accorded the highest priority and become the subject of attention, description, and study.” She sees literary scholars as “progressing toward a cumulative understanding of literature,” and cites as her mentors such professors as Gregory Freidin, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Monika Greenleaf, Franco Moretti, and Joshua Landy. In the book she concludes, “If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them.”



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