On Elif Batuman’s The Possessed

Posted on | May 26, 2010 | 2 Comments

I’ve been an Elif Batuman enthusiast ever since her work started cropping up in the pages of Harper’s and n+1, so you can imagine my delight when her essays on hapless grad students and Uzbek poetry appeared recently in a collected volume—The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. You’ll have to trust that these are significantly funnier than they sound. video poker casino games online

There’s a free-associative quality to Batuman’s prose: the fact of having thought of a connection becomes enough to justify its pursuit.  She notes this herself, roundaboutly, when her classmate Matej calls her out on the far-fetchedness of one such logical leap, involving Soviet cosmonautics and King Kong: “If there wasn’t [a connection], you would find one anyway… 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.”  Then again, a later essay about Matej’s resemblance to Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin ends with Matej disavowing grad school in favor of a Croatian monastery, so it’s hard to know how seriously to take his observation.  Still, Batuman is a firm believer in this kind of elliptical concomitance of literary meaning.  It’s what leads her all the way to Uzbekistan.

The book’s governing obsession—even more than Batuman’s pursuit of the enigmatic nature of “Russianness”—is the ageless question of the proper relationship between Art and Life.  Batuman, by way of her various misadventures in academe, seems to come down firmly in the art camp.  While she soaks up details with a writer’s eye—life is, after all, material—her fumbling studies in Samarkand prove a cure-all for the idea that questing after experience leads to richer insight than burying oneself in books.  Of her classmates studying more conventional languages in more conventional cities, she writes:

Luba has spent the summer researching the life of the princess Dashkova in St. Petersburg; Matej had been in Berlin doing some kind of topographical study of Walter Benjamin.  Those were cities with archives, university presses, libraries—cities where students went to learn from books, not from “life.”  And they were right, those students: I had seen life, and it hadn’t added up to anything. virtual fusion bingo

Batuman doesn’t really need to go all the way to Samarkand when she can write an essay just as revelatory about a bunch of Slavicists at a Babel conference in Palo Alto.  Just as, in the book’s final essay, she rejects Rene Girard’s mimetic theory of the novel—which posits that rather than being directed by free will, the “desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other”—so too she rejects the mimetic life.  In fact, the whole of The Possessed functions as a kind of extending working out of Batuman’s own mimetic relationship to the novel.  One doesn’t need to act like one’s favorite writers, she concludes, in order to lead a life worth writing about.

I recently tried to come up with a list of hobbies for a short bio I needed for a tutoring job I’d briefly taken up; the other bios made breezy references to bike treks and volunteer work.  This exercise in self-summary sent me into a tailspin of existential horror.  As it turns out, I have no interests. Or rather, I have interests, but they are in books.  Books bear questions which in turn are best answered, or at least addressed, by other books, and so on.  For this reason, The Possessed comes as a comfort.  Batuman points, unapologetically, to a path in which immersion in books is a form of life experience no less genuine for being confined to the page.  Even theory, that target of easy ridicule, gets a pass: “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it.  Was love such a tenuous thing?”

I want to believe she’s right.  But then I find myself thinking back on William Deresiewicz’s famous takedown of James Wood, a critic whom I generally admire.  The charge?  “For all [Wood’s] interest in fiction’s ability to tell the truth about the world, there is something remarkably self-enclosed about his criticism—a sense that nothing exists beyond the boundary of his consciousness, and that his consciousness contains nothing but books.”  There’s a failure of intellectual rigor in assuming that traffic between books is enough to account for the world on its own.  Batuman, of course, has written comparatively little next to Wood, but she doesn’t seem to be at risk for this kind of insularity.  Her criticism is Art about Life about Art, and this quick step into the messy world, even if she renounces it in spirit, is enough.

Comments

2 Responses to “On Elif Batuman’s The Possessed

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    May 29th, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

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  2. Of Dating and Derrida: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot : Apostrophe : ameliaatlas.com
    November 3rd, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    [...] want their lives to look like.  In this sense, The Marriage Plot reminds me of nothing so much as Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: it’s a book about how we try to live out our lives as if we were literary [...]