Friday, December 23, 2011

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

Having only recently grumbled about Tolstoy rambling like a drunken muzhik around his enormous novel, Anna Karenina, how could I resist this book? You see, I have this nagging sense that I should love these Russian mega-novels, or that in a past life I did love them, or that I might love them properly in this life if someone would just badger me enough. I thought Elif Batuman might be that someone.

I just finished The Possessed, and while I don't think I'm any more inclined to wallow through War and Peace, I ardently share Batuman's assertion that literature is one of our greatest achievements and consolations, and its study not a frivolous pastime. She does admit, though, that the great Russian authors tended to prolixity...
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale.
Batuman is an American of Turkish descent, and her relatives wonder why she is pursuing a PhD in Russian literature. They aren't the only ones.
Some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature. I still remember the passport control officer who stamped my first student visa. He suggested to me that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.”
Batuman, however, feels that the world's finest literature has universal appeal. Sharing that view are the Shanghai film-makers who have just done a Chinese adaptation of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. You can always find a bit of common ground, if you look hard enough.
In the Chinese Red Cavalry, the screenwriter told us, Cossacks would be transformed into “barbarians from the north of China”; the Jewish narrator would be represented by a Chinese intellectual. “There are not so many differences between Jews and Chinese,” he explained. “They give their children violin lessons, and they worry about money.

After beginning an undergraduate degree in Linguistics (my own field of study), Batuman acknowledges that she can't feign academic interest in language in general; the emotional pull toward Russian is too strong. Anyone who has received advice from older relatives and other mentors to pursue a practical or lucrative line of study will know this battle. To whom do you listen, your mother ("But you'll always have work if you're a dentist...")? Or your heart, as verbalised by Joseph Campbell ("Follow your bliss")?
Didn’t that mean all languages were, objectively speaking, equally interesting? And I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia. Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. 
After living in Turkey, I truly appreciate Batuman's resistance to suggestions that she study the literature of her ancestral country. (She confesses that she did read the Orhan Pamuk novel or two and was bored witless.)
The thing that immediately struck one about the Turkish novel was that nobody read it, not even Turkish people. I often noticed this when I was in Turkey. Most people just weren’t into novels at all. They liked funny short stories, funny fables, serious fables, essays, letters, short poems, long poems, newspapers, crossword puzzles—they liked practically any kind of printed matter better than novels.
It's odd that there isn't more of a literary culture in Turkey, because the Turks speak with enormous pride of their language. I think it's tied to that sense of nostalgia for the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Turks ruled much more of the planet than they do today. Of course, not everyone shares that bit of nostalgia.
Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language. Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on. When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all. “Of course we have some Turkish words in our language,” they would say. “For example, handcuffs. But that’s because you occupied our country for four hundred years.”
So enough of Turkish. Ms. Batuman throws herself into Russian language and literature, including a respectably deep immersion in contemporary culture. Modern Moscow is nothing if not fodder for literature.
In Moscow, for the first and last time in my life, I dated bankers. Things didn’t work out with the first banker, but I still remember the second banker fondly. His name was Rustem, he had remarkable yellowish brown eyes, and he had until recently been an engineer at an explosives factory in Yekaterinburg, designing bombs that were named after flowers. Now he was working for Bank Menatep, which the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky used to manage the state funds for Chernobyl victims, and also to commit alleged embezzlement and tax fraud for which he is, at the time of this writing, serving a prison sentence. Rustem was saving up money to pay for parachuting lessons.
She goes to a Tolstoy conference on the author's estate. Alas, Aeroflot loses her suitcase, so she must attend the conference in the pajama-like clothes she'd worn on the plane. She takes some solace in the fact that the devotees of Tolstoy when he was still alive were a motley crew. She might have fit in rather well with them, sartorially speaking.
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!”
The other academics at the conference are an eccentric and tolerant lot, and even the Aeroflot clerk delivers a succinct speech on Russian philosophy.
Together, between talks on Tolstoy, we wandered through Tolstoy’s house and Tolstoy’s garden, sat on Tolstoy’s favorite bench, admired Tolstoy’s beehives, marveled at Tolstoy’s favorite hut, and avoided the vitiated descendants of Tolstoy’s favorite geese: one of these almost feral creatures had bitten a cultural semiotician. Every morning I called Aeroflot to ask about my suitcase. “Oh, it’s you,” sighed the clerk. “Yes, I have your request right here. Address: Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?”
I saw a number of very enthusiastic reviews for this book, but one in particular convinced me that I would relish it.  Ian Sansom, writing for The Guardian, drew the perfect line in the sand:  "... if you liked Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, you'll hate The Possessed."  

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