Reading to Live
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Elif Batuman’s first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is nominally a collection of essays but reads like the fragmentary record of a quest. Batuman, like Roberto Bolaño’s detectives, is in search of a literary puzzle in the convergence zone between literature and life. While working on her dissertation at Stanford, Batuman writes, she “formulated a theory of the novel: the novel form is “about” the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.” It may be fairly said that The Possessed is “about” Batuman’s attempt to test this theory through an alternately hilarious and troubling medley of memoir, criticism, and travelogue.
One way to transform experience into literature is through metaphor—life’s windmills become literature’s fire-breathing nemeses. But Batuman proposes a different method: “what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor?” The life experiences Batuman relates are contiguous with her favorite books. While staying on Tolstoy’s ancestral estate, “the air smelled like plants and cigar smoke, bringing to mind the marvelous story that begins with a young man’s arrival, late one spring night, at the country estate of his former tutor...I tried to remember how the story ends.” A hundred and sixty-four pages later we learn the story’s ending and come to understand why that particular night—one haunted by literary theory’s endlessly proliferating mirages—conjures the allusion. It is a proximity of life to literature that Batuman is after, a relation so close that literature often becomes experience’s direct source.
This mutual cross-contamination of word and world proves to be Batuman’s great insight, but it is also the source of some of The Possessed’s confusion. It is difficult for a reader to sort through the overlapping layers of narrative, and the book doesn’t quite cohere into the affirmation Batuman seeks. Batuman is a sly theorist, and hides her work so well in anecdote and aside that we sometimes lose sight of her underlying project. “The House of Ice” chronicles Batuman’s visit to a reconstructed ice palace on the banks of the Neva, which she will write about for the New Yorker. But as she searches for the meaning of the palace, her “Postcard from St. Petersburg” becomes intertwined with, among other things, Ivan Lazhechnikov’s novel House of Ice, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, conversion narratives, and the abuses suffered by Russian authors. These are subjects worthy of interest, but the ice palace itself, held up finally as a “negative fantasy of literature,” crumbles under the weight of all that is being asked of it.
Despite this, Batuman’s bright prose, spot-on wit, and extraordinary pithiness keep us with her. The three-part essay “Summer in Samarkand” contains so many uproarious episodes that it’s as if David Sedaris were relating them: “I spent most of the walk staring at the ground, trying not to fall into the yawning chasms that appeared every few blocks. The people of Samarkand probably weren’t thrilled to have all these yawning chasms in their sidewalks, but they made the most of them by using them to incinerate their household garbage. Newspapers, watermelon rinds, and other items smoldered obscurely in their depths.” Crossing these, Russian girls maintained serene expressions, “unlike my own,” Batuman writes, “which, I felt, probably conveyed a kind of deep literary trepidation.”
But Batuman’s easy banter and quickness to poke fun at her own graduate-level nerdiness (“If you’re stroking someone’s hair,” she writes in lieu of a sex scene, “is that a sign of affection, or is that affection itself?”) belie a deeper seriousness. Wrapped in anecdotes about Isaac Babel’s living relatives, Tolstoyans, and Uzbek culture are sober questions about language, identity, and the nature of love.
“What is it you love when you’re in love?” Batuman asks. “His clothes, his books, his toothbrush.” One aspect of Batuman’s “problem of the person” is that the beloved is not contained fully in anything, least of all material objects. But through metonymy, objects “are magically restored as aspects of the person—as organic expressions of actions, of choice and use.” Like love, the study of literature is a search for the person (the author) in the artifact (the book), which can be as limited and limiting as explaining love via a toothbrush, were it not for the magic that transforms that object into an aspect of the person. This magic is the act of reading.
Batuman writes of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky that “he needed writing to be a form of action—a form of life. He was dead serious about it.” So too is Batuman serious about reading. What is truly at stake in this does not emerge until the last essay in the book, titled “The Possessed,” in which Batuman orchestrates an intersection between her graduate school classmates and Dostoyevsky’s novel The Demons. With her friend Matej’s “conversion narrative,” Batuman shows literature not just in proximity to life, but in shocking collision with it. Does The Demons cause Matej’s change of heart or does Batuman exploit the parallels after the fact? The answer would appear to be a bit of both, and the consequences, for literature and for life, are heart-breaking, making this the most arresting of the essays collected here.
Batuman is a generous reader of both the novels she loves and the events she relates. While not heavy-handed in her use of literary theory, neither does she spurn it. Theory is sewn into The Possessed like jewels into Anastasia Nikolaevna’s dress (an interpretation of Tolstoy is described as “twisted and glinted, coiling in the sun”). And the book contains one of the more convincing arguments in theory’s defense: “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone,” Batuman writes, “or that it was possible to compromise something you love just by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” Theory is like a toothbrush—drawing us closer to the “person,” the literature, we love.