Posted by: zhiv | April 7, 2010

The Possessed, Elif Batuman

Not exactly what I expected, and I should add that I feel like I have, for me, a unique relationship with this book, and it turns out to be even more outside the norm than I would have guessed. First off, I knew so much more about the book and its author than I normally do. I read a review. I almost never read reviews of books I haven’t read (or movies I haven’t seen), although I love reading them afterwards. As I mentioned previously, I was intrigued enough to go and see Batuman read and do a Q&A. That’s something that I’ve definitely never done before. At the reading she talked about being published by the young editor of n+1, Keith Gessen, and recommended his book, which I read first. I gave The Possessed to my daughter, who loved it. It was all a lot of build up, and I know from the movie business just how important it is to manage expectations. I wasn’t at all disappointed, but the book still left me with a lot to think about.

Elif Batuman is a very fine writer. She’s thoughtful and even profound, engaging and witty. She’s an impressive scholar, deeply knowledgable, and she wears her erudition lightly. This is a very good thing because for the most part we don’t care about it, as she’s so far down the road of esoterica that we’ve dropped off and lost sight of her long ago, and we’re not exactly uninformed about literature. But the key here is that these are personal essays, not scholarly ones, and we read her book to get to know and follow her persona. She’s likeable, she’s funny; she happens to be much smarter than we are, but she still sees things the same way we do, more or less. She has an unassuming, goofy charm that makes us want to embrace her as a sort of Lucy Ricardo in Samarkand, St. Petersburg, and at Santa Croce, getting in scrapes, except that she’s a confident and competent traveler, student, and correspondent. Absurdity finds her, and she rarely creates it, although her basic, original intentions can be off-kilter and obscure: she’s not sure, as it turns out, how she ended up in Samarkand or what she was doing there. One has the sense, however, that she generally knows what she’s getting into, but this only makes us applaud her courage and pluck. All of that’s the persona, of course, which seems to be somewhat, but not too highly crafted. No doubt she’s as complicated and messy as the rest of us.

Except that Comp Lit people are not like you and me. I remember this very clearly, and with some amusement now, from my own long ago grad student days. It so happened that I was a peculiarly underprepared grad student in English, and the language requirement turned out to be the primary stumbling block towards actually getting the PhD. I had zhived and cheated my way through two bad years of high school French, that was it, and I remember seeing the majority of my new colleagues at Berkeley emerging with smiles after taking perfunctory proficiency exams. I knew right away that I was in big trouble. Taking French introduced me to the world of Comp Lit, as my teacher was a grad student in that department. She had to be able to read five languages, not just the three that I had to learn, and one of them had to be Latin or Greek. She took it all in stride, explaining this in easy-going, simple French that even I could understand. This was astonishing to me, and I knew that there was a world of more intensive scholarship that I would never know.

Batuman’s parents are Turks, and this seems to have inclined her to learn Russian, after she started out as a linguistics major at Harvard, before she decided to study literature. A bilingual childhood is a big advantage in pursuing Comp Lit, I would assume. Batuman is a unique and effective hybrid. First, she’s an exotic homegirl living across the street from the Safeway in Mountain View, California, when she’s picking up Russians at SFO to attend an Issac Babel conference, and then she’s an American grad student who spends a summer in Samarkand studying Uzbek, with a Turkish grandmother keeping tabs on her.

The structure of the book does a particularly nice job of doling out measured portions of her personality and concerns. She stakes out her literary turn in a carefully argued introduction, and that’s where we find the undergraduate move from linguistics to literature, and the choice to go to grad school rather than pursuing an MFA, and studying craft as a means of becoming a writer. This is the argument that was highlighted in the review I read, and it was an important topic of discussion at the Q&A. But it’s no more than ten pages of almost incidental set-up in the book. The thesis is that it’s better to spend the days of one’s youthful, energetic intellectual curiosity reading great writers and absorbing oneself in the history and landscapes of literature than it is to sit in workshops with other young, unformed, would-be writers assimilating the harsh discipline of concise and unadorned observation, learning about all of the things you need to leave out of your writing. I myself was quite happy to hear this argument, as it seemed to validate a number of my own choices. And it provides a good reason to study literature, which always seems to need all the help it can get.

Past this intro, however, the book moves towards the literary adventures of this particular grad student. I noted the effective structure, and the first essay, Babel in California, is a superb opener because it sets Batuman here on our home turf, where she’s a regular young woman, completely identifiable and just like you or me, except that she’s caught up in the rather strange world of helping out at a Stanford Issac Babel conference. We get it, we like her, everybody else is slightly batty. It’s a great start.

The book then takes some surprising twists, as Batuman turns out to be the kind of girl who likes to apply for a travel study grant and hit the road. The absurdity of academic conferences seen in the Babel essay are duplicated at a Tolstoy conference, and Batuman shows that she has solid literary sleuthing chops here. Her critical pursuits and observations are mostly incidental, not the point in this book, but they’re still sharp and welcome. Eventually we realize that Batuman is a reporter and a travel writer first, but her journalism and journeys are scholarly, to exotic places and ideas we don’t know and wouldn’t think to go. It’s a high-minded version of the armchair fun that comes along with any good travel narrative.

Batuman’s ultimate thesis is that literature and the reasons why we read it are all about love. Her own romantic history seeps out of the backgrounds of the book, and it’s as messy as any other 20something’s. It comes into some focus in the final essay, which gives the book its title, where Batuman looks at her grad student colleagues as if they’re characters in a Dostoyevsky novel. In the Q&A she mentioned how this was the novel she tried to write, but it didn’t work, and so she wrote up the Samarkand material and added this essay to her previous journalism in order to make this book. It works.

But a funny thing happened as I was reading it. After the Q&A, and reading the introduction, I was congratulating myself about going to graduate school and cultivating literary sensibility rather than going the MFA route and learning the craft (not that there weren’t all sorts of other choices, of course). Then I suppose I hit the Comp Lit-discrepancy portion of the book, esoteric but still quite enjoyable. The concluding essay and finishing the book, however, left me with a surprising feeling of joy and gratitude that I had somehow managed to escape the Academy. It was similar to my response to reading the conclusion to Lucky Jim: wow, that was a close one, wasn’t it? How does a book make you really glad that you went to graduate school and then even happier that you never worked in Academia? Kind of a neat trick, I would say. The reluctant romantic hero of Batuman’s Comp Lit coterie, Matej, ends up in a monastery, out of the world, a fitting but rather extreme solution to the dilemma. In the end, Batuman seems to suggest that graduate school is a great place to learn to become a writer, but not everybody is cut out to be an academic. Fair enough, and this makes a nice, if slightly off-kilter addition toe the Academic/Teacher Novels category.



  1. Great review! I like how you capture the spirit of the book. In an odd kind of way I’m in a similar position you are in, because while I’m a college instructor I don’t have to publish and tenure isn’t hard to get, so I have the the benefits of having gone to grad school, but I don’t have the publish-or-perish nightmare, and I’m pretty much free to do what I want. So I might well have a similar response to this book that you had.

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