The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them — Elif Batuman

I’ve been trying and failing to satisfactorily describe The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them to friends and failing to get across the book’s humor, which is unusually rich and deep. Whoever wrote the back cover blurb, with its weird melange of subject matters like a demented person’s shopping list, outdoes me:

If you’re going to read just one book about conference planning, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, boys’ leg contests, giant apes, Uzbek poetry, the life of the mind, and the resignation of the soul—seek no farther: this is the book for you!!!

It’s funnier still in Roz Chast’s handwriting. The humor, taken out of context, falls flat without the build up from earlier material, as Batuman describes situations that become jokes absurd academic setups involving the relatives of Isaac Babel or the relationship traumas experienced by our plucky, self-aware narrator. Actually, plucky isn’t a fair word: Batuman is deep, and not just because she reads a lot and lives a lot and finds ways to combine living and not living, as when she sees Don Quixote:

Don Quixote, I realized, had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book. Foucault, meanwhile, broke my idea of literary theory: instead of reducing complexity and beauty, he had produced it. My interest in truth came only later, but beauty had already begun to draw me into the study of literature.

Except that Don Quixote pays for his broken binary with social opprobrium that he, wisely or not, doesn’t realize (or chooses not to realize), and his end on a deathbed leads to his famous renunciation of books of chivalry.

The life lived through books is, to some extent, the only kind of life we can have—or, alternately, we learn to lead our own lives through the narrative examples that others set for us, whether through their being or their stories. And we understand the stories of a single other person better by understanding the stories told by cultures better.

That last sentence is somewhat vague. Let me cite a comic example of someone utterly failing to do so:

While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for? On those grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s ‘specifically Jewish alienation.’
‘Right,’ I finally said. ‘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.’
He nodded: ‘So you see the problem.’

We moved from the high brow, about the power of literature and the reference to the “vale of tears,” to the very low brow, which entails virtually anything having to do with New Jersey, to the middle brow of self absorption. This is good stuff.

And if literature can’t render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness, maybe it’s still good for passing the time until death, or at least idle cocktail party chatter, or at least impressing potential sexual partners with literary repartee, assuming you find the right sort of partner. For Batuman, grad school is that sort of place, although she also dates a banker (it doesn’t work out), and one or two others I’ve forgotten.

There are other grad school jokes, which I have a special appreciate for because I’m in it, and those sometimes combine jokes about Russia (which are also common): “The title of this book is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which 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.”

Batuman actually ends up in a remote, former Russian province, in the form of Uzbekistan, where a series of bureaucratic and financial snafus combined with questionable decision making lead her. During a tedious bit of orientation in preparation for going to Uzbekistan, Batuman leaves to find a hat. Despite the risk of death, maybe Batuman is better off in the Caucuses, thinking:

Somehow I ended up in an Urban Outfitters. All around me, girls were buying absolutely unwearable-looking clothes: sheer dresses with V-necks down to the navel; jeans measuring literally two inches from waist to crotch; rhinestone encrusted G-strings with no elasticity whatsoever. I found a hideous white ill-fitting sun hat, bought it, and fled to Barnes & Noble.

She’s not one of them; she’s one of us, which I can say merely because she agrees with me about airports and airplanes (“Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you.”) Compare that to one of my recent ruminations:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

But I’m less funny than Batuman, which is a good reason to read her, despite the improbability of her subject matter. Batuman’s language is wonderful too: she says that she’s going to Tashkent with “Dan… who was indescribably average in both appearance and demeanor, like some kind of composite sketch.” The comparison is fresh, describes Dan without describing him, and, more importantly, shows exactly how Batuman thinks of him, even if he has some kind of vibrant inner life not apparent on the surface. If so, alas, we get little indication of that inner life, which might be part of his problem, and the problem of many of those who don’t have adventures in Russian books—or any kind at all.

(Here’s a comment on The Possessed from the Literary Saloon.)

One response

  1. Pingback: The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves — Andrew Potter « The Story's Story

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