Turgenev could be read in English from 1855, Tolstoy had British and American disciples, and Dostoevsky was, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s view, ‘a devil of a swell, to be sure’. But the English-speaking world’s received ideas about Russian literature were mostly laid down in the 1910s and 1920s, the great age of Western interest in the Russian soul – ‘its passion, its tumult, its astonishing medley of beauty and vileness’, as Virginia Woolf put it. Though there were some who mocked the craze for transplanted Russian soul-speak, most handbooks for fledgling Russophiles 100 years ago took it for granted that readers needed briefing on the paradox-filled Slavic temperament. ‘There is a passive element in the Russian nature,’ Maurice Baring explains in Landmarks in Russian Literature (1910); ‘there is also something unbridled, a spirit which breaks all bounds of self-control and runs riot; and there is also a stubborn element, a tough obstinacy.’ According to William Lyon Phelps, of Yale, in his Essays on Russian Novelists (1911), ‘your true Russian’ is notable for humility, love of theory, paralysis of the will, and a complete lack of ‘the healthy moderation of the Anglo-Saxon’. What, Phelps asks, is the general impression produced on the mind of a foreigner by reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others? ‘It is one of intense gloom.’
These old-school interpreters of the Russian spirit would not have felt at home in the intellectual world Elif Batuman comes from. A Stanford comp. lit. PhD, raised in New Jersey by Turkish parents, Batuman draws strength from Foucault and Roman Jakobson, studied with Franco Moretti and has a blog on which she uses words like ‘w00t!!’. Still, both the Russians and the people who read Russian books in her autobiographical essays behave in accordance with long-standing traditions. Professors exhibit mild intellectual vanity – ‘Why,’ an Isaac Babel specialist wonders in the course of recruiting the writer as a graduate assistant, ‘would you study the gospel with anyone but St Peter?’ – but also a lovable completism. At Yasnaya Polyana, an ‘International Tolstoy Scholar’ insists on sitting in a stream that Tolstoy used to bathe in, a stream now ‘partly obstructed, and full of vegetable life’. The scholar comes out ‘completely green’. Wild-eyed graduate students evade emotional entanglements by invoking literary-anthropological theorists, or show up unexpectedly on Batuman’s doorstep ‘to notify me of the two simple keys that were necessary for a perfect understanding of the poet Osip Mandelstam’. Above all, Phelps and Baring would have recognised her Russians, starting with the first one she met, her violin teacher:
Maxim wore black turtlenecks, played a mellow-toned, orange-coloured violin, and produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition. Towards the end of one lesson, for example, he told me that he had to leave ten minutes early – and then proceeded to spend the entire ten minutes unravelling the tortuous logic of how his early departure wasn’t actually depriving me of any violin instruction. ‘Tell me, Elif,’ he shouted, having worked himself up to an almost amazing degree. ‘When you buy a dress, do you buy the dress that is the most beautiful … or the dress that is made with the most cloth?’
Years later, at a conference at Stanford, Batuman witnesses an exemplary display of what Baring called the want of the ‘cement of hypocrisy’ and Woolf called ‘that apparently involuntary candour which must make family life so disconcerting in Russia’. The setting is a dinner; the speakers are Babel’s older daughter, Nathalie, and a Babel scholar whom Batuman calls Janet Lind:
‘JANET,’ Nathalie said finally, in her fathomless voice. ‘IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?’
Janet Lind turned to her calmly. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?’
‘I can’t imagine what makes you say that.’
‘I say it because I would like to know if it is TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME.’
‘This is really extremely odd. Did someone say something to you?’ Lind frowned slightly. ‘You and I have barely had any interactions.’
This conversation continued for longer than one would have thought possible, given how clear it was that Janet Lind, for whatever reason, was just not going to tell Nathalie Babel that she did not despise her. Looking from Lind to Babel, I was struck by the non-trivial truth behind the Smiths song: ‘Some girls are bigger than others.’ It wasn’t just that Nathalie Babel’s face was physically larger – it was somehow visibly clear that she came from a different place and time, where the human scale was different, and bigger.
Phelps – who maintained that ‘the immense size of the country produces an element of largeness in Russian character’ – would not have disagreed. The main difference is that he wouldn’t have been joking. And just as – to use one of Batuman’s favourite constructions when in graduate school mode – the history of the novel is shaped (in her view) by a dialectical relationship between notation of lived experience and imitation of pre-existing artistic forms, so her eye for funny behaviour, such as Russian people being intense in social settings, is partly guided by literary models (from which antique national stereotypes were also partly derived). Her account of the evening with the Babel sisters has the presiding professor calling it ‘a dinner from Dostoevsky’, and it’s written up as such. The breezy irony and shrewd yet goofy persona, however, are all her own.
The Possessed, her first book, is a carefully organised selection of the pieces that have made her a star among America’s ‘more junior producers of literary and memoiristic fluff journalism’, as she put it a couple of years ago on her blog, My Life and Thoughts. Apart from the opening and closing sections, each chapter was first published – one in a different version – in Harper’s, n+1 or the New Yorker. The last two outlets carried her first substantial bits of journalism, and it’s not hard to see why. Conversational seeming but neatly put together, with a controlled graphomaniac flow, and projecting a self-mocking but uncensoredly opinionated personality, her writing has voice in abundance. She’s good at delayed tumbles into bathos, as in (from a summary of the start of The Magic Mountain): ‘Her high cheekbones … recall to him a childhood fascination with Slavicness – specifically, an idolised older boy at school, from whom the hero once, in the happiest moment of his life, borrowed a pencil.’ She’s good at slipping briefly into heavy, Lukács-like diction (‘indicative of the bourgeois character of historical realism’) without an equally heavy jolt of irony. And she has fun translating idiomatic or rhetorical material, such as the Chagatai poetry she once found herself studying, into not especially elevated English:
Was it my heart – a bird – that was caught in your locks that unfortunate night,
Or was it bats of some kind?
Remember, the sultan dooms to death even his closest friend
If he learns the latter has secreted away money from the treasury.
Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled your soul –
Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?
Combined with her fondness for such intensifiers as ‘100 per cent’ and ‘super-’ (‘my grandmother’s super-bourgeois rose-coloured velvet sofa’), all this gives an air of innocent comic exuberance to her drive-by one-liners: a fellow student who’s ‘indescribably average in both appearance and demeanour, like some kind of composite sketch’; a professor who speaks ‘in a head voice, a bit like a puppet’; ‘an enormous Russian textologist in an enormous grey dress’. Page by page, she works up a confiding tone without trying too hard to make you forget that she’s performing; the effect is like reading a gossipy round-robin email from a tremendously entertaining and well-read person you’d have no qualms about hanging with but might think twice about bothering if she was making notes.
‘How does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?’ This question, and the tidy set of oppositions that Batuman uses it to open up, frames the disparate, chronologically discontinuous chapters as a story of becoming: the education of Elif Batuman. Born in 1977, she arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate ‘believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels.’ She also had the idea that theory was bad for writers, ‘making them turn out postmodern … As for history, it struck me as pedantic, unambitious.’ At first she studied linguistics, but only the foreign language requirement sparked her interest – she chose Russian chiefly because, she implies, she’d read Eugene Onegin and Anna Karenina as a teenager. On graduating, in literature, still planning to write a novel, she’d jettisoned enough of her earlier ideas to be disappointed to find them all around her when she visited a Cape Cod writers’ colony which had offered her a fellowship on the strength of a 75-page first-person narrative written from a dog’s point of view.
Her objections to ‘the transcendentalist New England culture of “creative writing”’ weren’t, she says, fully formed until several years later, when she read two Best American Short Stories anthologies for n+1 and reacted badly to the Strunk-and-Whitean leanness enforced by the MFA ideal of ‘craft’.All the same, she depicts her decision to go to Stanford (‘essentially the opposite of a colonial New England lumber mill’) as a reaction against the ‘puritanical’ programme on offer at Cape Cod. And though she left her department for a year, early on, to do odd jobs in San Francisco and work unsuccessfully on a novel, she stopped believing – if she ever believed – ‘that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it.’ Holding the view that ‘bringing one’s life closer to one’s favourite books’ is a cardinal aim of literary activity, she pictures the trainee scholar/writer as a reverse Don Quixote figure, or perhaps a less hands-on version of Borges’s Pierre Menard. Don Quixote tried to live out chivalric romances, but what if he’d become a philologist instead? ‘What if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor? … That is the idea behind this book.’
Behind the tricky turns in this explanation, a few key propositions stand out. Non-fictional writing, she hints, isn’t automatically less rich than, say, short stories about ‘rueful writerly types’. Books are part of life, not something outside it; ‘the idea of the falseness and sterility of literature’ is merely a novelistic commonplace run wild (Don Quixote again). And it’s thanks mostly to a poor grasp of these literary-historical circumstances that a scholar/writer’s younger self might have sniffed at, say, short story-like first-person essays concerning life and Russian literature, of which the book goes on to provide five samples. ‘Babel in California’ details Batuman’s adventures studying Red Cavalry with Gregory Freidin, introducing a supporting cast of co-students and culminating with the festivities surrounding the international Babel conference. ‘Summer in Samarkand’, the longest piece, broken into three chapters, tells the story of a 2002 trip to Uzbekistan for language lessons. ‘Who Killed Tolstoy?’ and ‘The House of Ice’ describe visits to Yasnaya Polyana and St Petersburg, with reflections on Tolstoy, Chekhov and an ice palace commissioned by Anna Ivanovna, Peter the Great’s niece, in 1740. The last chapter, ‘The Possessed’, draws parallels between Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin and a charismatic member of Batuman’s student circle.
Not all of the pieces are 100 per cent successful. ‘Summer in Samarkand’ drags a bit and sometimes treats Uzbekistan as the kind of joke country that it might strike one as being if one went there in one’s mid-twenties to avoid teaching first year Russian. Something also goes wrong with ‘The House of Ice’, which loses narrative focus and starts leaning too heavily on formulations like ‘Meanwhile, as Foucault has observed’. But most of the time the recipe doesn’t fail. Each chapter tells a circumscribed personal story, set in the wider context of Batuman’s writerly formation but filled too with social and observational comedy, while dropping in capsule biographies, historical sketches, summaries and discussions of the books in her purview, and stray nuggets of research: did you know that Babel once interrogated one of the future directors of King Kong? There are lots of funny quotations – ‘“Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,” Chertkov noted … “Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?”’ – and bursts of fantastic, too good to be true dialogue. At the same time, she gets themes rolling back and forth between the narrative sections and the more essayistic material: personhood in ‘Babel in California’; love and desire in ‘The Possessed’; mortality in ‘Who Killed Tolstoy?’; cultural identity in ‘Summer in Samarkand’.
Occasionally these themes are worked out in the narrative. ‘The Possessed’, for example, scrutinises Demons – a.k.a. The Devils, a.k.a. The Possessed – with the help of René Girard. Stavrogin, the icy sinner with whom everyone in the novel is mysteriously obsessed, serves as a key case-study in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, the book in which Girard introduced his all-explaining theory of mimetic desire. After considering the novel, Batuman tells the story of her dealings with a tormented Catholic intellectual from Zagreb who not only exercised a Stavrogin-like effect on her and several others but was a convinced Girardian, given to such brush-offs as ‘I can’t cure your metaphysical lack.’ (He ended up in a monastery on an Adriatic island.) More often, when not expounded in mock-academic fashion, the themes turn up in reveries and asides. We hear a lot about her – and other people’s – dreams: ‘Why is it,’ she wonders, ‘that no consciously invented stories ever point beyond themselves as multifariously as dreams?’ Certain texts and people – Chekhov’s story ‘The Black Monk’, the futuristic philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov – bob up enigmatically throughout the book, as do thematically freighted, semi-surreal passages: ‘And still life goes on in Chekhov’s garden, where it’s always a fine day for hanging yourself, and somebody somewhere is playing the guitar.’
All this is clearly tipping towards the creative end of ‘creative non-fiction’, as it’s called on writing courses, and the best piece in the book, ‘Who Killed Tolstoy?’, is also the most short story-like. First written as fiction in order to blur the identities of the other scholars at a conference at Tolstoy’s estate, it was ‘non-fictionalised’ and fact-checked for magazine publication, leading to such footnotes as ‘I have been unable to confirm the existence of a Lev Tolstoy Accordion Academy.’ (‘I probably shouldn’t admit this in the public domain,’ Batuman wrote on her blog, ‘but I’m not super-good with facts.’) Her summaries of the conference proceedings are sometimes withering: ‘a Malevich scholar read a paper about Tolstoy’s iconoclasm and Malevich’s Red Rectangle. He said that Nikolai Rostov was the Red Rectangle. For the whole rest of the day he sat with his head buried in his hands.’ Yet academic analysis isn’t accused of killing Tolstoy, and the piece combines a slick succession of high-quality comic scenes with lightly handled intimations of a wider belatedness and absurdity. Whatever the relative contributions of her conscious and unconscious mind, a dream she has after listening to a paper on lawn tennis and Anna Karenina more than earns its keep.
Batuman doesn’t avoid the comic spotlight, making a spectacle of herself in front of Joseph Frank by launching into a joke about Thor and a farmer’s daughter. (The punchline, which she decides against sharing with America’s greatest living Dostoevskian, is: ‘I’m thor, too, but I had tho much fun.’) But she’s less self-revealing than she initially seems to be, and sometimes determinedly non-self-obsessed. When someone tells her she’ll never understand Babel’s ‘specifically Jewish alienation’, she says: ‘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.’ (‘So you see the problem,’ the man replies.) That’s as much as we hear about Turko-New Jerseyan alienation, in a discussion which is framed as a debate over the extent to which literature can ‘render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness’. In ‘Summer in Samarkand’, her disappointment at finding that Uzbekistan isn’t ‘a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness’ is mostly discussed in similarly abstract terms. With regard to her distaste for the identity politics-tinged self-exploring encouraged by creative writing schools, she puts her money where her mouth is, and there’s no arguing with that. All the same, I wouldn’t have minded hearing more.
Finally, what is the general impression produced on the mind of a non-American? It is one of intense chipperness and intelligence; also of awe at the institutionalisation of the writing life in the US, where essayists much less accomplished than Batuman seem to get by on professorships, and choosing a side in the MFA v. PhD smackdown is apparently unavoidable. ‘What if you read Lost Illusions,’ she asks while expounding her reverse Don Quixote theory, ‘and, instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews and having love affairs … you went to Balzac’s house and Madame Hanska’s estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him – and then started writing?’ At first this struck me as an academia addict’s special pleading: what’s wrong with just moving to New York etc? Then I reconsidered her story about leaving Stanford for a year. Running to the Golden Gate Bridge on 13 September 2001, she broke her elbow after tripping over a hastily erected anti-terrorist barrier. The garret route lost much of its appeal when, having ‘no real job’ and no health insurance, she was landed with a $1700 bill for an X-ray, a cast and a sling.