In the European tradition, a novel is nothing except a philosophy expressed in images that describe the experiences of life in the most enduring way. Which explains why academics, who are far removed from life, rarely produce great works of literature: they are hooked to literary theory, jargon and the need to impress their peers. Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American professor of comparative literature at Stanford, is an exception to the general run of academics: she believes all fiction must come from experience, not from a study of other books. In a travelogue of literary adventures, Batuman describes her route to a PhD in a bracing memoir, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta Books, Special Indian Price, £ 11.99). It reveals her power as a European storyteller and the Russian-ness of its literature to comprehend “the riddle of human behaviour and the nature of love”.
It was at Stanford that Batuman came round to the idea that literature was about life, not language; not about the sounds of words but about their meanings. Something about Russian literature appealed to her ever since her first violin lessons from a fascinating old Russian man who always wore black turtlenecks and appeared “deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition”. Batuman says he was the kind of man who could only be explained by Tolstoy, Pushkin or Dostoevsky.
Batuman has borrowed the title from Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons, earlier translated as The Possessed, which narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province. In a broad sweep of Russian literature in the 19th century and early 20th century, she covers the major writers in seven chapters, which not only talk about the authors, but also about the kind of people who read their books. These chapters are: “Babel in California”; “Summer in Samarkand”; “Who Killed Tolstoy?”; “Summer in Samarkand (Continued)”; “The Palace of Ice”; “Summer in Samarkand (conclusion)”; and finally “The Possessed”.
To describe the Russian-ness of its literature Batuman takes her cue from a short story by Anton Chekhov, “Lady with Lapdog”, which is about how everyone has two lives — “one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes and the other, ‘running its course in secret’ and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting and meaningful is somehow in the second life.” In fact the theme of the second, secret life is recurrent in Russian literature, something that readers won’t figure out until they reflect on the story later.
“Babel in California” is a sweep of Babel’s life and thoughts and how he was eliminated under Stalin’s purges in 1940. These circumstances have now been fully documented with the opening of Soviet archives and what is of interest is the quality of Batuman’s analysis of his 1920 Diary in which he notes that all he wanted was “to understand life, to learn what it really is”. To do this well, it is necessary to “describe” everything as it really is. Here is a short take on his modus operandi as a writer.
With reference to his stories in Red Cavalry, his injunction is to “describe all the characters, in detail, to penetrate their souls… What are our soldiers? Who are Cossacks? What is Bolshevism? What is Kiperman? Describe his trousers. Describe the work of a war correspondent, what is a war correspondent? Describe rapid fire. Describe the wounded. The intolerable desire to sleep — describe. The castle of Count Raciborski. A seventy-year old man and his ninety-year-old mother. People say it was always the two of them, that they’re crazy. Describe”. Babel’s injunction to young writers was not what you need to put in but what you could no longer keep out. Simply make the story close to the bone without frills.
With a keen eye for the absurd, Batuman is at her best in describing the quirky pageantry of academia. In “Who Killed Tolstoy?” Batuman describes her trip to Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate, for a seminar, and how Aeroflot lost her baggage and had to deliver her lecture wearing sweat pants and flip-flops.
Days later, still wearing the same Tolstoyan robes, Batuman calls the airline again only to be reminded of the Russian phrase, “resignation of the soul”. It reminds you again that all Russian literature – novels, plays and poetry – is not reason but emotion that is not expressed by denotations of words, or the grammar of sentences, but by the colourations of words expressed by the author’s style. The great merit of Batuman’s novel is that she has captured the essence of Russian literature, which reveals her grasp of philosophy and power as a storyteller.
Batuman’s last essay, “The Possessed”, analyses Dostoevsky’s most enigmatic novel that takes its title from the Bible (St Luke) in which the demons leave the man whom they have possessed and enter a herd of swine; the swines rush down a steep bank into a lake and are drowned. The novel has been subjected to many interpretations that Batuman touches upon but then leaves it to us to make up our mind. That’s the best that can be done with this deeply philosophical work.