22 February 2012

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

Before I tell you about how much I loved this book, I cannot resist describing to you the incredible chain of coincidences that bound me to it. My first conscious awareness of the text came from the Bilkent News, where a student had written a review describing the experience of reading it while himself traveling, and how Batuman's adventures came to blend with his own. This being a pet delight of mine - reading and traveling, new places being strangely inflected with the books you read there and vice versa - I was instantly intrigued, not least because that, the student said, was what Batuman's book was itself about (leading him to write his review as if his trip was some kind of mind-blowing meta-meta experience, quite charming). A few weeks later, I was looking up this article in the New Yorker about a restaurant in Istanbul that serves a kind of classic Turkish food that Turkey itself has forgotten, so that my friend visiting Istanbul could go, and lo and behold! the author was none other than Elif Batuman. I had read this article back when it came out in 2010, and was absolutely enthralled by it. I vowed to go to Istanbul just to eat at this amazing place, and it was one of the first things I thought of when I got this job. Incidentally, I have since been to the restaurant, and it really is incredible. Pretty minor coincidence, you might think, but wait! There's more! A few short days after that - this really did happen in an astonishingly abbreviated amount of time - I was reading the introduction of a book co-edited by a professor I'm friends with, and in a fascinating footnote about modern detective fiction and Satan as master criminal I find this aside: "Credit for this interpretation may belong to Elif Batuman and/or to the editors, but no one concerned is entirely certain of its provenance."Yes! Elif Batuman in fact studied with a professor I think of as one of my mentors! In grad school terms (well, in math grad school terms,, I don't know if humanities people actually do this), that makes us related! Given that it wasn't my actual advisor, we're more like cousins than sisters, but in any case, it's neat. I think.

This lengthy digression into my personal connection with the book (and its author) seems warranted because reading this book was such a wonderfully familiar experience. Batuman is not exactly your typical graduate student, but that is what makes her the ideal person to write a book like this. She can capture some essential aspect of grad student life, but she can also spend a lot of time describing parts of her experience that were far more interesting than that of most grad students. Very few literary scholars end up in a place like Uzbekistan for the summer - most of them just aren't that adventurous. Batuman has a kind of curiosity about life and willingness to pursue it that you only find in the best kinds of people. She is also ferociously intelligent, and a very talented writer. In other words, she not only goes to these places, but she has interesting thoughts about her experiences there, which make the book an example of the best features of travel memoir. And the places she goes really are fascinating. I knew absolutely nothing about Uzbekistan before I read this book, and I learned all kinds of bizarre and interesting things about it. I think the most amazing is this absolutely sublime poem by Alisher Navoi, which is so astonishing that I have to quote it in full:

Was it my heart - a bird - that was caught in your
   locks that unfortunate night,
   Or was it bats of some kind?
Remember, the sultan dooms to death even his
   closest friend
If he learn the latter has secreted away money from
   the treasury.
Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled you
   soul --
Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?

An underlying subplot is also this broader question about academia and what literary scholars do. So far as I can tell from the internetz, Batuman is now a full-time writer rather than a literary scholar, strictly speaking - I can't tell how much academic work she actually does (I feel guilty writing that, because my own parents get so upset when I tell them they are NOT math professors anymore). This makes sense. Again, I want to be careful how I phrase this, because I think Batuman is probably a very capable and talented scholar of literature - actually, I'm sure she is - but she also seems capable of something that I am tempted to say is more interesting, and something that not everyone can do well. Let me explain: I remember various moments in grad school, reading certain theoretical works and struggling to understand them, and suddenly seeing my life in their terms, and concocting these theories that united, say, Mary J Blige and Walter Benjamin, and thinking how unfair it was that I couldn't write my papers about things like that. As it turns out - Batuman does get to (it actually makes me think that maybe I could too...). At the same time, unlike a lot of people writing about academia who are at some remove from it, Batuman doesn't disparage the profession. There are some tender mockeries of the absurdity of academics, especially academics collected in one place, the point of which is not to say that people studying literature are basically con artists, but simply to show you what it's like - and trust me, that is exactly what it's like. Ultimately though, as Batuman herself puts it, "If I could start over again today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them" (290).

The book is basically a series of linked essays, and to be totally just, the transition is occasionally a little bumpy, and they don't entirely make a seamless whole, but the overall effect is nonetheless wonderful. I don't know whether people outside academia will appreciate this book to the extent that I did - maybe you need a thrill of recognition to fully love it - but I think the travel memoir portion should be of interest to pretty much anyone. Honestly, I don't know whether people who  aren't me will love it - I suspect they will. But this is one of those books that spoke to me on an intensely personal level at just the right moment in my life - I'm very glad to have read it.

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