By Lit Possessed

How grad school let Elif Batuman indulge her passion for Russian novels and find a voice of her own.

January/February 2010

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By Lit Possessed

Photo: Timothy Archibald

Elif Batuman's idiosyncratic essay collection borrows its title from Dostoyevsky's strange, dark novel, The Possessed. In her introduction, Batuman explains: Dostoyevsky's novel "narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school." Readers may appreciate, however, that the adventures Batuman, PhD '07, recounts are more like those of Alice in Wonderland than those of Stavrogin in provincial Russia.

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to be published in February) recounts some of what happened to Batuman as she obtained her doctorate in comparative literature. She squired Isaac Babel's eccentric relatives around Stanford. She journeyed to Samarkand to study Old Uzbek, a language that her instructor claimed has a hundred words for crying. She attended a conference at Yasnaya Polyana where she pursued a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek theory that Tolstoy was murdered, and she explored a palace made entirely of ice in St. Petersburg.

Batuman grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of Turkish physicians who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. When she graduated from Harvard, she wanted to be a writer; but although she was offered a fellowship at a writers' colony housed in a former lumber mill on Cape Cod, she chose graduate study at Stanford instead. Her first impressions of the Farm? "Under rolling green hills, positrons were speeding through the world's longest linear accelerator; in towers high above the palm trees lay the complete Paris files of the Russian Imperial secret police. Stanford was essentially the opposite of a colonial New England lumber mill."

She teaches in the interdisciplinary studies in humanities program, and she has fulfilled her goal of becoming a writer. Keith Gessen, editor of the magazine n+1, saw work she had published in the Harvard Advocate and asked her to contribute. "Babel in California," about a conference at Stanford, appeared in the second issue of n+1 in the spring of 2005. It caught the attention of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who soon had Batuman writing a piece on Thai kickboxing. In 2007, Batuman received a grant from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, which gave her some leisure to work on this book and the novel that's her next major project.

Batuman has some of Dickens's gift for vivid characterization, and her sharp wit and sly tone are reminiscent of Twain and Thurber. She acknowledges a fondness for all of those writers but cites another influence: Haruki Murakami, for "the way the real shades into the surreal in his stories." Her essays—the result of "copious note-taking"—reflect an abundance of often hilarious, occasionally poignant and invariably offbeat details about people and places. Her experiences of living in Uzbekistan (where her homestay host kept the flush toilet a secret from her guests), the aura of decadence of the St. Petersburg ice palace (whose first incarnation was conceived as a showcase for jesters and dwarves) and the obsessive scholars at the Babel and Tolstoy conferences do veer toward the surreal.

But no matter how graduate school resembles a "descent into madness," she praises it as "one of the last spheres where private life and 'interpersonal relationships'—relationships with other students, with professors, with the books you're reading, between the books you're reading, within the books you're reading—are accorded the highest priority and become the subject of attention, description, and study." She sees literary scholars as "progressing toward a cumulative understanding of literature" and cites as her mentors such Stanford professors as Gregory Freidin, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Monika Greenleaf, Franco Moretti and Joshua Landy. In the book she concludes, "If I could start over 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."

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