In the introduction to The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, author Elif Batuman charts how she came to study Russian literature. She wanted to be a novelist but was dissatisfied with her work and the world of writing workshops she experienced on the East Coast.
She writes, “I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft.’ I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?”
As an undergrad she had been struck by an essay on Don Quixote by Foucault because Quixote “had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book.” She says that she had begun to been drawn” into the study of literature.” Eventually she ended up at Stanford, studying for a PhD.
The Possessed is a collection of essays about Batuman’s time in grad school studying Russian literature. Her writing combines the literary and personal essay in an attempt, like Foucault’s Quixote, to combine life and books and to generate an even better book in the process. The essays are entertaining and funny yet bolstered by approachably heady ruminations. Held together by a complex assortment of interlocking themes, the book forms a devastatingly emotional whole about art and mortality and love and academia. It’ about her love of friends and boyfriends, Russian literature, foreign cultures, reading and writing in general, and passion as an end in and of itself.
Many of the five essays contained within (one extended essay, “Summer in Samarkand”, is spread out over three chapters) have been previously printed in publications like the New Yorker and n+1, but they don’t read as cobbled together or disjointed. They are thematically cohesive on their own. Batuman appears to have worked hard to draw out the similarities between them for the sake of this book.
The placement of the essays puts the timeline of her grad school years elegantly out of order. She has structured the book to tell the story of her sentimental education. Like Augie March, Batuman parades through a succession of philosophers and theorists, adopting their views, and then rejecting them as part of her maturation process. Her opening essays describe herself with comic modesty, but towards the end she allows herself deeper and more mature revelations. The placement of the essays puts the timeline of her grad school years elegantly out of order. As she writes in the first chapter, “A straightforward relationship to factual truth never was one of Babel’s top priorities.”
In that first chapter, “Babel in California”, Batuman’s character exudes the intelligent naiveté of someone who has spent his or her life ensconced in a cocoon of perpetual education. Though a much better writer than many of her peers, she shares a tendency for overly earnest precociousness. She likes to end passages with wide-eyed questions: “Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” and “If you’re stroking someone’s hair, is that a sign of affection, or is that the affection itself?”
She is forever trying to draw connections between her life and the books that she reads and to develop new theories on literature. Her friend Matej says, “You remind me of a Croatian proverb: the snow falls, not in order to cover the hill, but in order that the beast can leave its tracks.”
This aspect of her personality becomes a running joke throughout the book. It is, after all, what she is doing with this book in comparing the events in Russian literature to her own life, albeit with a heightened sense of the limitations and possibilities of conflating life and art.
The main events of the first chapter revolve around an academic conference on Babel. Batuman describes the events in a deceptively conversational manner until the purpose of these anecdotes and the structure of the essay reveals itself. She narrows in on how love is expressed through objects and remembrances, “articles” and papers in the case of the Babel scholars, and how writing can be an act of remembrance or preservation.
This idea is later picked up on and movingly expounded in the third chapter “Who Killed Tolstoy?” Batuman is now at the International Tolstoy Conference on the grounds of his former estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Russia. She attempted to get herself there by proposing in a travel grant for field research (I suspect jokingly) that Tolstoy might have been murdered and she wants to do some detective work. The conference is populated by a similar set of elderly academic eccentrics as at the Babel event, but Batuman’s comic hijinks gives way to a different investigation on physical mortality.
She sees a performance of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring a Russian actor known for a Sherlock Holmes TV series. “I had been struck by his similarity to Dr. Watson. Doctor, I thought, you see but do not observe! For all your scientific enlightenment, you always misread the signs.” Later a professor named Vanya has an unfortunate accident on a tour bus. He says, “Ladies and gentleman, I must apologize for the delay. I am an old man, you see. A very old man.”
She endlessly considers the talk Vanya gives on Tolstoy’s play The Living Corpse and how it might relate to Chekhov’s death. “Dr. Chekhov, loyal custodian of the human body, you who could look in the ear of an idle man and see an entire universe – where are you know?” She ends on uncertain ground. Like people, words occupy some nether region between memory and nothingness.
“Summer in Samarkand” the long essay that is interspersed throughout the book, tells of the summer she spent in Kazakhstan with her boyfriend Eric to study the Uzbek language. She has no special passion or love for this language or the country and the writing in these sections can be flatter than in the other chapters and it doesn’t help that she tries to enliven her prose with humor that can be condescending towards central Asians.
There is a deep sadness to these chapters, though, as they track the ending of her relationship with Eric. (She repeatedly grouses that the Uzbeks have a “hundred different words for crying.”) The passions of her youth seem to be winding down. “After Samarkand, the beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words – the beauty of things that don’t appear on the page – somehow lost its charm for me.”
Finally the last essay, the Dostoevsky-centered “The Possessed”, returns to the “problem of the person” that was discussed in the Babel essay. Here her friend Matej emerges as a major character in her life, a greater friend (and occasional lover) than originally revealed.
Matej is a dashing figure on campus. He is an ardent proponent of the French philosopher René Girard. Batuman and the other enraptured students soon embrace Girard as well. Batuman says that, “Girard posits mimetic desire as the fundamental content of ‘the Western novel’” – or that the characters in prominent Western novels want to become a character in a novel as an ideal of being.
We’re back to Don Quixote and the idea that, for Batuman, writing is a quixotic quest for an ideal. In an earlier chapter she had written “I began to understand why it had been so difficult to write about my summer in Samarkand which, despite all the appurtenances of a new beginning, an exotic adventure, had actually been the end of something. It had been the kind of strange appendix that doesn’t make sense until later, out of order…”
Now her struggles to understand her love and desires takes a darker turn when she writes, “Because the mimetic desire of the novelistic hero is never directed at its true object, which is any case unattainable, it is fundamentally masochistic, violent, and self-destructive.”
Instead of clarifying and enhancing life, Girard and Matej, like the main character of Dostoevsky’s Demons threaten to loosen the mental bearings of Batuman and her fellow students.
Eventually she writes her way around to a support of love and literature. If this realization doesn’t leave Batuman too far off from where she was at the end of her introduction, The Possessed still serves as an ample demonstration of how a life can be enhanced by literature. It’s the rare example of a book about the self that does not spin inward to the author’s self-centered concerns. These essays turn endlessly outward with Russian literature as a starting place, embracing life and the reader, whether or not they give a damn about Babel or Tolstoy.