Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Possessed," Elif Batuman: sharing the excitement of discovery

For readers who have always resolved to read those hefty Russian novels sooner or later, Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is a great starting point -- her writing is witty and sharp, and she has a genuine appreciation for authors whose books (let's be politely honest here) require some attention. She falls in love with the books, their characters and stories, and lets us share in the excitement of discovering that great literature is more than "brisk verbs and vivid nouns." Great writing is about a million other things than craft. Batuman's best talent is creating the desire to get the books off the shelf and begin reading, a feat in itself for a literature most Americans consider oblique and daunting.

Her essays, detailing her own reading post-graduate experience, delve into reasons why these books continue to intrigue and thrill readers beyond their labyrinthine plots and tongue-twisting patronyms. Politics, intrigue, adventure, romance, deception, and more politics: the background of Russian literature is a vortex that drew Batuman to read Tolstoy, Chekov, Pushkin, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky over a seven-year period.

She admits in her introduction that the very "Russian-ness" of the literature was a draw. Apparently, so is her infatuation with the first Russian she met, her violin teacher at the Manhattan School of Music: "Maxim wore black turtlenecks, played a mellow-toned, orange-colored violin, and produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition."

Love: the universal condition that propels Shakespeare plays and the gilt-foil covers of romance novels drives much Russian literature as well. And then, of course, there is the intrigue that swirls around the writers themselves, whether the politically-motivated persecution of Isaac Babel (his words on being arrested in 1939: "they didn't let me finish") or the possibility (for example) that the revered Tolstoy may have been murdered.

Her earnest proposal on that topic got her as far as a symposium in Moscow; after reading a Tolstoy biography she was inspired to write the following theory for a class:

"Arguably Russia's most controversial public figure, Tolstoy was not without powerful enemies. 'More letters threatening my life,' he noted in 1897, when his defense of the Dukhobor sect drew loud protests from the Orthodox Church and Tsar Nikolai, who even had Tolstoy followed by the secret police.

As is often the case, Tolstoy's enemies were no more alarming than his so-called friends, for instance, the pilgrims who swarmed Yasnaya Polyana: a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and desperados, collectively referred to by the domestic staff as 'the Dark Ones.' These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity: a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial 'simplicity' and who eventually had to be driven away 'because he was beginning to be indecent'; and a blind Old Believer who pursued the sound of Tolstoy's footsteps, shouting 'Liar! Hypocrite!' ...

'You are certainly my most entertaining student,' said my advisor when I told her about my theory. 'Tolstoy -- murdered! Ha! Ha! Ha! The man was eighty-two years old with a history of stroke!'

'That's exactly what would make it the perfect crime,' I explained patiently.

The department was not convinced. They did, however, give me the $1000 grant to present my paper."

The Possessed provides an entertaining first resource for readers, and the book's light-heartedness conceals a hefty amount of research in Russian literature. Batuman's book is a kind of literary autobiography, as her own coming-of-age shaggy-dog stories lead into the twists and turns of the novels she reads. While that approach doesn't always lead to great insights, it certainly makes scaling the heights of Russian masterworks easier to contemplate.

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