Thursday, May 25, 2017

Elif Batuman's "The Possessed": Book Review

 The Possessed , Elif Batuman (2010)
These garrulous 2010 anecdotes of this Stanford graduate student document how Russian literature permeates the imagination of her peers and mentors. It also shows how unhinged, conniving, and silly academia can be. Nothing new there, but Elif Batuman is also an intellectual, as her Harvard undergraduate preparation shows. She also displays her determination to market herself then as now.

Cadging grants for specious research into Tolstoy's death sets in motion one chapter. Another, the most coherent and slightly less rambling, precedes that in demonstrating how to pitch Isaac Babel in more appealing form than a display of manuscripts in the Stanford library. Here, you get the best example of how Batuman examines herself in relation to her young life's pursuit. She thinks of literature as "a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft." The tell-tale "pretty much..." signals her habitual preference for the chatty over the sober in her scholarship. It's present, but until the last essay analyzing Devils (fka "The Possessed" itself, it prefers to soft-sell the lit-crit for a coming-of-age assemblage of journalism originally appearing in separate form. It shows. Some information repeats, and the Samarkand stint that's interspersed with the Russian-oriented entries makes the collection lurch about, even if she also links events and thoughts together in revised sections. It's ambitious, and it's certainly more readable, if loquacious.

She's attempting to align her dissertation about "big" novels and the way that they try to make the author's life resemble his or her beloved fiction, as with Don Quixote. "The novel form is 'about' the protagonist's struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books." Many who do create out of this tension attempt and perhaps fail to answer some of her big "different, insoluble" questions: "Why were people created? Why are all people unhappy? Why are intellectuals even unhappier than everyone else?" No answers emerge.

What energizes Batuman she finds repeated in a reconstructed palace of ice, "the monstrous crystallization of the anxiety that made authors from Cowper to Tolstoy to Mann cancel out their most captivating pages: the anxiety of literature, that most solitary and time-consuming of arts, as irremediably vain, useless, and immoral." This is livelier than much of Harold Bloom, I do confess.

Some of the best parts show off Batuman's eye and ear. Natalie Babel turns "with the expression of a cat who does not want to be picked up." Another woman "spoke in a head voice, like a puppet." One more "chanted in a half-pleading, half-declaratory tine, like somebody proposing an hour-long toast." And, a "few times I saw a chicken walking about importantly, like some kind of regional manager."

As a critic, she attempts to push her education into the greater world, through an extended stay in Samarkand. Her own quest to see if her Turkish fluency and her Russian fascination overlap as she tries to learn Uzbek flounders, for "that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no preexisting entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked." A different type of anxiety of influence lurks within this outcome.

When she applies Rene Girard's theory, we return to the diligent doctoral candidate. "According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves." As with ads that feature the beautiful or handsome possessor of the bottle of vodka, this supposed freedom that owner displays means that we are driven not "to possess the object, but to be the Other." This discourages her. Why not stop our pursuit? One novel would be all we needed to disabuse our self from illusion. Love and ambition, what Augustine posited as the "basic premises of literary narrative," would prove failures. Who needs any more scholars "in a world where knowledge, learning, and the concept of difference turned out to be a mirage?" Still, she ends the final entry by claiming if she did it all over, she'd "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."

Does this book of occurrences and contemplation succeed? It left me interested in Batuman's argument. It also left me somewhat bemused by her privilege (daughter of medical professionals, Jersey suburb, elite education, and a seeming knack at finagling her way into gaining funds), for she adapts the position of a six-foot-tall misfit. She cannot have been all that inept. I think she bobbles her attempt to parallel her unwieldy structure to Eugene Onegin's "strange appendix that doesn't make sense until later, out of order" but at least she tries to bridge the gap between the common reader seeking insight and entertainment, in what could have been a tired trope, the long march to the Ph.D.
(Amazon US 5/9/17)

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