Whooosh! That sound I hear is the flames taking hold as Elif Batuman burns her bridges, leaving academia behind — or so I thought. After writing The Possessed, with its hilarious accounts of graduate student cliques and academic conferences, how could she ever go back? I was certain, after snorting and giggling my way through this book, that it was a not-so-fond farewell. Yet I have to admit that I began to doubt this interpretation. For funny as some of it is, The Possessed is animated by a deep love of literature, and of Russian literature in particular. I am no great connoisseur of the Russian novel but even I can tell that Batuman has thought hard about those great old guys, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Isaac Babel and Arthur Conan Doyle. (Yep. That’s what’s fun here.) And she cares about what they have to say. More, she believes firmly that literature can help us make sense of life, and she demonstrates how it has done so for her. The moment when she won me over completely was when she wrote, “I was at that time greatly under the sway of The Portrait of a Lady, a book in which one finds the following line :’ Afterwards, however, she always remembered that one should never regret a generous error.’ As a result I was constantly rethinking all my conservative decisions and amending them in favor of ‘generous errors,’ a category which surely included going to Samarkand to learn the great Uzbek language.”
Okay, that’s complicated. Let me back up. Elif Batuman is a very smart girl of Turkish descent who grew up in New Jersey. She learned Turkish at home, and Russian as a linguistics undergraduate. Somehow — she hardly seems to know how herself — she got sucked into Russian literature, and became a comparative literature graduate student at Stanford. The Possessed tells this tale, along with analyzing some of the books she read most attentively. The comic set-pieces are a conference on Babel (this is the one that had me laughing out loud on the subway and attracting way too much attention), another conference on Tolstoy at his home in Russia, and Batuman’s summer learning Uzbek in Samarkand. Her life intersects with literature, which in turn informs her decisions and the way she perceives the world, never more clearly than in the final section when she analyzes Dostoyevsky’s Demons (which used to be called The Possessed). It occurred to me, reading the last segment, that perhaps each narrative section of the book, which more or less tracks one literary work, mirrors that work, but I’m too lazy to go back and check this theory. But I wouldn’t put that kind of tricky structure past Batuman, who in fact now teaches at Stanford.