The title of Elif Batuman's highly charming new book, she writes, is "borrowed from Dostoyevsky's weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which 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 grad school."
Batuman, who is of Turkish ancestry and grew up in New Jersey, now lives in San Francisco and teaches at Stanford, the documented home base for her Dostoyevskian descent. You may not consider comp-lit conferences inherently adventurous, but if anybody's bildungsroman can persuade you otherwise, it's hers.
Almost certainly too funny and easy-going to satisfy serious literary scholars, yet mercifully less ingratiating than its Roz Chast cartoon cover illustration might suggest, Batuman's book is a rare gem: a genuine affirmation of deep reading — of caring about ideas and about being carried off by them — from an exceptional writer who's not yet even 35.
Years ago, as a budding literary aspirant, Batuman uneasily opted out of the workshop-intensive assembly line of contemporary American fiction, in which "middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things." But she wasn't so keen on the ivory-tower echo chamber, either. So what was an eager young bookworm to do?
It is not so unreasonable to search for answers to big questions in the provenance of Babel, Chekhov, Pushkin, and Tolstoy. Given her high tolerance for mystification and contradiction, it seems only natural that Batuman's attention eventually would turn to Russia, that endless source not just for great writers of dense tomes but also for even denser political provisions by which to repress them. She figured she should go look around there, and eventually did. There were detours.
She began by doing budget travel in Turkey for a Let's Go guide, "with its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of 'sticking it to the man' to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls." Soon she'd worked her way up to Harper's and The New Yorker, playing editors and academic grantors off each other to fund a murder investigation of Tolstoy's death, or a rumination on the semilegendary 1740 St. Petersburg ice palace and visit to the tourist-baiting 2006 re-creation thereof. Along the way, she found herself subsisting on "cold Ukrainian meat jelly," studying an antique language with a hundred words for "crying" in Uzbekistan, and rather portentously losing her luggage: "When we find the suitcase, we will send it to you," she was told. "In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?"
You might say Batuman has followed in the footsteps of fellow Stanford lit prof and San Francisco resident Terry Castle, who brought out her own eruditely hilarious autobiographical essay collection, The Professor and Other Writings, just last month. But whereas Castle, who is in her 50s, has earned an excellent academic reputation and a readership through seven other books, Batuman has the advantage of a relatively blank slate. We greet her at the beginning of a great career.
"I stopped believing that 'theory' had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it," she writes. "Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?"