Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (Aus, US/Kindle) is a personalised, intelligent, humorous exploration of Russian literature; and of academia, reading, and writers - with plenty of travel and adventure. It’s the kind of book you devour and dog-ear – where you’re learning with delight, being provided insight into authors, stories, countries, languages and lifestyles. I thought Elif would be the perfect subject for a ‘responsive’ interview. Enjoy!
LiteraryMinded‘s prompts are in bold. Elif Batuman’s responses are in roman.
Visit Text Publishing’s page for the book, here.
Your introduction, on why theory does not compromise the enjoyment of literature: ‘Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?’
There is a received idea that you kill what you love by studying it. So OK, if you really love jellyfish and want to know what makes them tick, you probably have to kill and dissect a jellyfish, or at least find a dead jellyfish. But it’s problematic to apply that analogy to literature, as some people tended to do in American universities in the late 1990s. Why should studying or analysing your favorite books kill either their beauty, or your own ability to produce a book? The Possessed is an answer to that question.
EB: That looks like the same ice palace I visited in St. Petersburg in 2006—I recognise the playing cards on the table. It’s a reconstruction of the ice palace Empress Anna Ioannovna built on the Neva in 1740, for the marriage of two of her court jesters. The jesters were locked inside for their wedding night, and almost froze to death. In one chapter of The Possessed, my friend Luba and I visit the reconstruction. Here is a picture of us outside:
Another photo, taken inside the palace at night: on the left you can see a life-size ice sculpture of Anna Ioannovna, who was enormous; on the right is a snow-sculpture of a Renaissance angel.
Here is what the ice palace looked like on my last day in St. Petersburg:
One of my favourite stories.
‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is one of my favorites too. To me this story is about how life is uncontainable by formulas. When Gurov meets Anna in Yalta, he’s totally bored with the present and the future. He knows so well how their affair is going to go—based on previous experience, on the large literature of adultery novels, on the oppressive weather and the dullness of the resort town. All this blasé-ness is summed up in the line, ‘Nekuda bylo devat’sia,’ literally something like ‘There was nowhere left to go.’
But just when you think that, in narrative terms, there really is nowhere to go and nothing left to do and no choice but to turn back—that’s when Chekhov somehow goes further. At the exact midpoint of the story, Gurov heads back from Yalta to Moscow, expecting to forget about this insignificant ‘romance’ and return to ordinary life. But he’s unable to go back. Despite himself and his own expectations, he pursues Anna to the provinces, which are fully as predictable and depressing as he expects—except that all these fences and provincial opera houses are now, for whatever reason, the locus of all meaning in his life, and what he thought was an ending is really the beginning.
Many readers, including me, have thought of this story as a response to Anna Karenina. In Tolstoy’s big novel, there really is nowhere left to go and Anna throws herself under a train. But Chekhov takes what seems to be a totally exhausted literary form, in the most exhausted literary setting, in the space of a short story, and makes it open outward.
The other thing I love about this story, which I briefly mention in The Possessed, is the idea that we all have two lives. Here is the passage I had in mind:
‘He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him…—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club… his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself… believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.’
EB: As Stephen Colbert said to Jerome Groopman: ‘I accuse you of trying to look like God.’
Finish this sentence: ‘One academic I know…’
Hmm, that sounds like the beginning of an off-colour limerick. I’m not sure this is the right venue for off-colour limericks about academics I know. But how about some off-colour limericks I once wrote about Tolstoy, who is pictured above?
There once was a Count called Tolstoy
Who one night, on a boat to Hanoi,
Gave ten thousand rubles
To a girl with no scruples—
That imprudent Count Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy and a girl from Seattle
Were debating the breeding of cattle.
Lev Nikolaevich said,
‘Let’s discuss this in bed’ -
Soon the bed-posts had started to rattle!
(‘The breeding of cattle’ is an allusion to a joke by the critic Tkachev, who suggested that Anna Karenina should have been a love novel about Levin’s romance with his cow, Pava.)
EB: That’s pretty great, but I think he could have fit a few more novels/ novellas in there…
‘He killed two women! One was a gentle creature.’
‘Who was the other—the landlady?’
‘No, the pawnbroker.’
Another scene in Love and Death furnishes a great commentary to Tolstoy’s immortal How Much Land Does a Man Really Need?:
The best thing about writing about reading…
To me, writing about reading is totally intuitive. I don’t understand why more (non-academic) writers don’t write about books! Books and literary plots are entities in the world; they form people, much as love affairs and universities and friendships and wars. It’s strange to me that when novelists write about people who are formed or influenced by books, they typically either mention the books only briefly/ obliquely—or they invent nonexistent books for their characters to be influenced by. Henry James’s Aspern Papers, Philip Roth’s Prague Orgy, and A. S. Byatt’s Possession are all books about fictional characters obsessed with meta-fictional authors, whose books never existed. There’s an unspoken convention that, if you write a novel about a literary work, you have to invent that literary work, too.
Things don’t have to be that way. Don Quixote, arguably the first novel ever, is a book all about reading real books. Cervantes cites and quotes Don Quixote’s favorite books at length; Quixote reads so much that he never sleeps, barely eats, and is obsessed with living life as if it were the plot of a romance. In Don Quixote, real books are physical objects in the world. They circulate, are forged and bound and burned. They drive people crazy and have to be dealt with.
Don Quixote opened so many potential novel traditions. The one that ended up dominating novel production for centuries turned out to be a form that privileged life and experience over literature and study. But someday I would like to write a novel that, like Don Quixote, really pushes the interface between fictional characters and real books.