Point for point

Pub date March 30, 2010

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LIT In Chekhov’s story “Lady with Lapdog,” there is a passage that describes the inner life “running its course in secret” as that which holds “everything that was essential, of interest and of value … hidden from other people.” This revelation resonates throughout Elif Batuman’s new book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 304 pages, $15). Drawing its title from Dostoyevsky, The Possessed offers a compelling glimpse into the inner life of its author, one informed by a love for books.

Batuman’s graduate studies at Stanford took her on adventures to Samarkand, Uzbekistan; St. Petersburg, Russia; Ankara, Turkey; and Venice, Italy, but the richness of her descriptions owe less to exotic settings or the course of events than to the books she packs in her suitcase. Batuman’s chapters on Samarkand, which can be read as a crash course on Uzbek literature, are filled with recollections of Navoi, Farid al-Din Attar, Muqimiy, and G’afur G’ulom (the “Uzbek Maxim Gorky”).

Borges’s fanciful story “On Exactitude in Science” describes a map so large and exact that it covers the land “point for point.” The story ends with an eerie image of a tattered map stretching into the desert, inhabited by people and animals, until it becomes the very world that it outlines. In the same sense as Borges’s map, literature provides its own cartography. Like a true bibliophile, Batuman reads (and writes) as a traveler: a Don Quixote figure who navigates her way through the life that is revealed by tracing the longitudes of the life that is hidden.

From Stanford, where she currently teaches comparative literature, Batuman spoke with the Guardian about The Possessed.

SFBG In the last paragraph of “Summer in Samarkand” you write, “I am reluctant to say that what ended in Samarkand was my youth.” What do you mean by that?

Elif Batuman The pathos of graduate school is that you go in at 22, and they kind of spit you out at age 30, and you’re like, “Where did my youth even go? What became of it?” When you’re young, every adventure could be this life-changing thing that opens the door to something new, and after a certain point you kind of stay the same, and you’re doing all these things, but it’s just a succession of events. The biological narrative has ended, because you’ve reached adulthood, and the burden of creating that narrative falls onto you in a way that’s not the case when you’re young and everything is so dramatic.

SFBG At the same time, as a writer you feel that if you don’t incorporate your experience into some kind of narrative, it becomes a wasted experience.

EB One of the huge reliefs of writing this book is that I finally did something with that time in Samarkand. There is a nice story by Isaac Babel called “My First Fee” where he talks about how his untold stories are sitting in his heart “like a toad on a stone.” It is a little bit like that.

SFBG The Possessed is a literary memoir, and you write about people you meet in your academic career. You also talk about people you met at conferences, your boyfriends, and various academic trials and tribulations. What have these people’s reactions been?

EB I did get some negative response about “Who Killed Tolstoy” from a professor. She basically said that she thought I shouldn’t have published it, and she thought it was in terrible taste and horribly indiscreet.

SFBG Really?

EB It was [about] that episode on the bus. It was kind of a peculiar e-mail: “When I read this, I thought it was fiction, but recently I found out that this incident on the bus happened.”

SFBG When the guy who had an accident on the bus wouldn’t throw out his pants afterward?

EB Yeah. She used the phrase “despicably cruel.” I was frustrated by that e-mail, because it seemed to me the story was only being read as gossip when I tried really hard, when people did things that I thought were interesting or funny, to write about them in the service of some larger point. In the Tolstoy piece, it was about the universal frailty of the human body that affects all of us. It wasn’t about one guy who did something embarrassing, but about this horrible plight that we’re all in as human beings.

SFBG The Possessed got overwhelmingly positive reviews. When people said not-so-positive things, did you have to develop a thicker skin?

EB I can’t read reviews, because they freak me out. If they’re one paragraph, I’ll read it. My publishers send these publicity updates with one-sentence reviews in them, so I know the Buster Keaton–Susan Sontag quote [laughs].

SFBG “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.” It’s a weird description.

EB [Laughs.] It freaked out my mother. She was like, “Why would they say something like that? Why do they think Susan Sontag should be your mother and not me?’