A delightful book about readers and writers, The Possessed begins with a question, "[H]ow does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?" By way of answer, Elif Batuman has written a series of glittering essays, some previously published in Harper's, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books. Part travelogue, part literary criticism, and part bildungsroman about a scholar's education, the resulting volume analyzes nineteenth-century Russian authors and Batuman's fellow academics alike. It's also very funny.
In college, Batuman focused on linguistics, in the hopes that understanding how language works would provide structural fodder for the novels she longed to write. But she feared that studying novels in too much detail would break their spell. Classes in beginning Russian correct this thinking, proving that "the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with" the language itself. And so a reader is re-born, one who understands that close, careful, informed reading only heightens the power of texts.
To study the novel, Batuman argues, one must be possessed. As she works her way through her dissertation, she concludes that novels themselves spring from the writer's own book-enraptured state: "[T]he novel form is 'about' the protagonist's struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books." But her book shows that you don't have to be a fictional character to shape your life accordingly. The essays are an attempt at a populist literarycriticism, a case study of real people -- students, authors, professors, mostly -- who advertently or not shape their lives around their favorite novels. Admittedly, it's populism of and for an elite, self-selecting group. In the eponymous final essay, for example, she analyzes Dostoevsky's Demons by finding analogies for its complex plot in her circle of grad school friends at Stanford, including the magnetic Matej. His fictional counterpart, Stavrogin, causes mass obsession and suicide; in real life, he causes relationships to break up, Batuman to fall into the sack, and mass confusion -- at least within their intellectual hothouse world -- when he departs Palo Alto to join a monastery in Europe.
Though this may sound like late-night grad-school conversations writ large, Batuman's work never comes off as fatuous. When you love books, naturally you begin to imbue them with mysterious powers, assuming, for example, that you were meant to read them at the exact moment they turned up in your shopping cart or library shelf. And when you're pursuing an advanced degree, naturally you begin to drop references to such things as Girard's theory of mimetic desire. That said, there is a less forgivable strain of arrogance that occasionally manifests in these essays, as when Batuman compares her editors at The New Yorker to a crazy Russian empress who made her courtiers perform inanities for her amusement, or when socializing with fellow exchange students on the way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, leads Batuman to lament "[h]aving extinguished two hours of my youth."
But then the prose gets charming again. "Babel in California," first published to many accolades in n + 1, describes Batuman's experiences at an academic conference on Isaac Babel. The piece shows the absurdity of fetishizing an author's objects or even relatives as a way of getting closer to a book. Invited to speak, Babel's elderly daughter walks around shouting, "I AM CONFUSED" and "HE WAS MY PUPPY." At another conference, on Tolstoy, fellow participants become convinced that Batuman's attire of flip-flops and sweatpants is actually a statement on Tolstoyans, devoted, impoverished followers of the writer's religious and political views (the less exalted truth: she had lost her luggage and had only her pajama-like traveling clothes to last through the weekend).
Of course, Batuman counts herself in the camp of the fetishizers, giddily describing her discovery of a propaganda poster Babel might have seen, which tenuously connects to a young American POW Babel encountered, an interview that in turn may have affected the making of King Kong. Her enthusiasm (and education) turn her into an obsessive, constantly questioning, probing for links or clues, however tenuous, that will allow a deeper understanding of how books work. At one point, she decides to argue that Tolstoy was murdered, despite the fact that he died, infirm, in his eighties, hoping that she'll get a grant out of the process (she does, but for less than what she wanted). Later, she goes to Samarkand to spend a summer learning Uzbek; her fees include a $4,000 body bag, just in case.
"[O]ne . . . likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that," she wonders, "what's it good for?" Literary analysis, in Batuman's hands, has other ends: to breeze past the boring bits (all those novels do take a while to get through, after all) and highlight only those moments when books cease to be paper and ink. In an era of worry about what's to come, The Possessed reminds us of the multiple ways of enjoying a novel: finding its characters more real than even ourselves, understanding its plot in relation to the writer's (or reader's) life, unpacking its language for a sense of how a series of shapes convey such meaning, seeing the book as an animate object with its own past, future, and set of relationships. All we have to do is keep reading.
No doubt Batuman giggled when she heard this recent bit of publishing news: Quirk Books, publishers of the uber-successful Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, have decided on their next re-creation of a classic. Android Karenina will put Anna squarely in the world of steampunk and cyborgs; perhaps she'll have better luck dealing with robots than love. I can't wait to read what Batuman thinks.
Read an Excerpt
Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale. (I brought my bathroom scale to the library and weighed it, ten volumes at a time.) Dostoevsky comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev in twenty-eight, Pushkin in seventeen. Even Lermontov, a lyric poet killed in a duel at age twenty-seven, has four volumes. It’s different in France, where definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzac’s entire Human Comedy in twelve volumes, and his remaining writings in two volumes, for a combined total weight of eighteen pounds.
The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s best-loved works all fit in the first volume: the Odessa, Childhood, and Petersburg cycles; Red Cavalry; and the 1920 diary, on which Red Cavalry is based. The compactness makes itself felt all the more acutely, since Babel’s oeuvre is known to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in 1939, Babel’s first words were, “They didn’t let me finish.” The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from Babel’s Moscow apartment. They seized and confiscated Babel himself, on charges of spying for France and even Austria. Neither manuscripts nor writer were seen again.
In the next years, Babel’s published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Rumors circulated—Babel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaper—but nobody knew for sure if he was dead or alive. In 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, Babel was officially exonerated, and the dossier of his criminal case made public. Inside was just one page: a certificate attesting to his death, under unknown circumstances, on March 17, 1941. Like Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” Babel had vanished, leaving behind a single sheet of paper.
Nobody really knows why Babel was arrested when he was. He had made powerful enemies early in his career with the publication of the Red Cavalry stories, which immortalize the botched Russo-Polish military campaign of 1920. In 1924, Commander Semyon Budyonny of the First Cavalry publicly accused Babel of “counterrevolutionary lies” and character assassination. In later years, as Budyonny rose in the Party system, from marshal of the Soviet Union to first deputy commissar for defense and Hero of the Soviet Union, Babel found himself on increasingly thin ice—especially after the death of his protector, Maxim Gorky, in 1936. Nonetheless, he survived the height of the Great Purge in 1937–38, and was arrested only in 1939, when World War II was just around the corner and Stalin presumably had bigger fish to fry. What tipped the scale?
The Nazi-Soviet pact might have played a role: because of Babel’s close ties with the French Left, his continued existence was necessary to maintain Soviet-French diplomatic relations—which became a moot point once Stalin sided with Hitler. Some evidence suggests that Babel was arrested in preparation for one last show trial that was to accuse the entire intellectual elite, from the film legend Sergei Eisenstein to the polar explorer Otto Schmidt, but which was called off in September when Hitler invaded Poland.
Some scholars attribute Babel’s arrest to his bizarre relationship with the former people’s commissar Nikolai Yezhov: Babel had had an affair in the 1920s with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, Yezhov’s future wife, and it was said that, even in the 1930s, Babel would visit the couple at home where they would all play ninepins and listen to Yezhov tell gruesome stories about the gulag. When Lavrenty (“Stalin’s Butcher”) Beria came to power in 1938, he made a point of exterminating anyone who had ever had anything to do with Yezhov.
Others insist that Babel was arrested “for no reason at all,” and that to say otherwise is to commit the sin of attributing logic to the totalitarian machine.
When Babel’s box in the KGB archives was declassified in the 1990s, it became known that the warrant for his arrest had been issued thirty-five days after the fact. Following seventy-two hours of continuous interrogation and probably torture, Babel had signed a confession testifying that he had been recruited into a spy network in 1927 by Ilya Ehrenburg and for years systematically supplied André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation—the last detail apparently borrowed from Babel’s late screenplay, Number 4 Staraya Square (1939), which chronicles the byzantine intrigues among scientists in a plant devoted to the construction of Soviet dirigibles.
“I am innocent. I have never been a spy,” Babel says in the transcript of his twenty-minute “trial,” which took place in Beria’s chambers. “I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others . . . I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.” Babel was executed by firing squad in the basement of the Lubyanka on January 26, 1940, and his body was dumped in a communal grave. Nineteen forty, not 1941: even the death certificate had been a lie.
The first time I read Isaac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even “realized” the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
In this class we were assigned to read “My First Goose,” the story of a Jewish intellectual’s first night at a new Red Army billet during the 1920 campaign. Immediately upon his arrival, his new comrades, illiterate Cossacks, greet him by throwing his suitcase in the street. The intellectual, noticing a goose waddling around the billet, steps on its neck, impales it on a saber, and orders the landlady to cook it for his dinner. The Cossacks then accept him as one of their own and make room for him at the fireside, where he reads them one of Lenin’s speeches from a recent issue of Pravda.
When I first read this story in college, it made absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose? What was so great about sitting around a campfire, reading Lenin? Among the stories we read in that class, Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog” moved me much more deeply. I especially remember the passage 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, the secret one. In fact, this theme of a second, secret life is extremely important to Babel, but I didn’t figure that out until later.
The second time I read Babel was in graduate school, for a seminar on literary biography. I read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Cavalry cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.
There are certain books that one remembers together with the material circumstances of reading: how long it took, the time of year, the color of the cover. Often, it’s the material circumstances themselves that make you remember a book that way—but sometimes it’s the other way around. I’m sure that my memory of that afternoon—the smell of rain and baking chocolate, the depressing apartment with its inflatable sofa, the sliding glass door that overlooked rainy palm trees and a Safeway parking lot—is due to the precious, almost-lost quality of Babel’s 1920 diary.
The diary starts on page fifty-five—Babel lost the first fifty-four pages. Three days later, another twenty-one pages go missing—a month’s worth of entries. “Slept badly, thinking of the manuscripts,” Babel writes. “Dejection, loss of energy, I know I will get over it, but when?” For the next couple of days, despite all his efforts, everything reminds him of the lost pages: “A peasant (Parfenty Melnik, the one who did his military service in Elisavetpol) complains that his horse is swollen with milk, they took away her foal, sadness, the manuscripts, the manuscripts . . .”
The diary isn’t about war, but about a writer during a war—about a writer voraciously experiencing war as a source of material. Viktor Shklovsky, who invented the theory that literary subject material is always secondary to literary form, was a great admirer of Babel. “He wasn’t alienated from life,” Shklovsky wrote. “But it always seemed to me that Babel, when he went to bed every night, appended his signature to the day he had just lived, as if it were a story.” Babel wasn’t alienated from life—to the contrary, he sought it out—but he was incapable of living it otherwise than as the material for literature.
The epigraph to the 1920 diary could be the famous phrase from the beginning of Don Quixote: “since I’m always reading, even scraps of paper I find in the street . . .” In Brody, in the aftermath of a pogrom, while looking for oats to feed his horse, Babel stumbles upon a German bookstore: “marvelous uncut books, albums . . . a chrestomathy, the history of all the Boleslaws . . . Tetmajer, new translations, a pile of new Polish national literature, textbooks. I rummage like a madman, I run around.” In a looted Polish estate, in a drawing room where horses are standing on the carpet, he discovers a chest of “extremely precious books”: “the constitution approved by the Sejm at the beginning of the 18th century, old folios from the times of Nicholas I, the Polish code of laws, precious bindings, Polish manuscripts of the 16th century, writings of monks, old French novels . . . French novels on little tables, many French and Polish books about child care, smashed intimate feminine accessories, remnants of butter in a butter dish—newlyweds?” In an abandoned Polish castle, he finds “French letters dated 1820, nôtre petit héros achève 7 semaines. My God, who wrote it, when . . .”
These materials are assimilated and expanded upon in the Red Cavalry stories, for example in “Berestechko,” whose narrator also finds a French letter in a Polish castle: “Paul, mon bien aimé, on dit que l’empereur Napoléon est mort, estce vrai? Moi, je me sens bien, les couches ont été faciles . . .” From the phrase “ nôtre petit héros achève 7 semaines,” Babel conjures the full precariousness of time, a point as delicately positioned in human history as a seven-week-old child, or a false rumor of Napoleon’s death.
Reading the whole Red Cavalry cycle after the diary, I understood “My First Goose.” I understood how important it was that the suitcase thrown in the street by the Cossacks was full of manuscripts and newspapers. I understood what it meant for Babel to read Lenin aloud to the Cossacks. It was the first hostile encounter of writing with life itself. “My First Goose,” like much of Red Cavalry, is about the price Babel paid for his literary material. Osip Mandelstam once asked Babel why he went out of his way to socialize with agents of the secret police, with people like Yezhov: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers? ‘No,’ Babel replied, ‘I don’t want to touch it with my fingers—I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like.’ ” But of course he had to touch it with his fingers. He had to shed blood with his own hands, if only that of a goose. Without that blood, Red Cavalry could never have been written. “It sometimes happens that I don’t spare myself and spend an hour kicking the enemy, or sometimes more than an hour,” observes one of Babel’s narrators, a Cossack swineherd turned Red Army general. “I want to understand life, to learn what it really is.”
The imperative to understand life and describe it provides an urgent, moving refrain in the 1920 diary.
“Describe the orderlies—the divisional chief of staff and the others—Cherkashin, Tarasov.”
“Describe Matyazh, Misha. Muzhiks, I want to penetrate their souls.”
Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always “what,” not “who.”
“What is Mikhail Karlovich?” “What is Zholnarkevich? A Pole? His feelings?”
“What are our soldiers?” “What are Cossacks?” “What is Bolshevism?”
“What is Kiperman? Describe his trousers.”
“Describe the work of a war correspondent, what is a war correspondent?” (At the time he wrote this sentence, Babel himself was technically a war correspondent.)
Sometimes he seems to beg the question, asking, of somebody called Vinokurov: “What is this gluttonous, pitiful, tall youth, with his soft voice, droopy soul, and sharp mind?”
“What is Grishchuk? Submissiveness, endless silence, boundless indolence. Fifty versts from home, hasn’t been home in six years, doesn’t run.”
“I go into the mill. What is a water mill? Describe.”
“Describe the forest.”
“Two emaciated horses, describe the horses.”
“Describe the air, the soldiers.”
“Describe the bazaar, baskets of cherries, the inside of the tavern.”
“Describe this unendurable rain.”
“Describe ‘rapid fire.’ ”
“Describe the wounded.”
“The intolerable desire to sleep—describe.”
“Absolutely must describe limping Gubanov, scourge of the regiment.”
“Describe Bakhturov, Ivan Ivanovich, and Petro.”
“The castle of Count Raciborski. A seventy-year-old man and his ninety-year-old mother. People say it was always just the two of them, that they’re crazy. Describe.”
Babel’s “describe” in his diaries shares a certain melancholy quality with Watson’s mention of those of Sherlock Holmes’s cases that do not appear in his annals: “the case of the Darlington substitution scandal,” the “singular affair of the aluminum crutch,” “the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra . . . for which the world is not yet prepared.” All the stories that will never be told—all the writers who were not allowed to finish! It’s much more comforting to think that, in their way, the promises have already been executed—that perhaps Babel has already sufficiently described limping Gubanov, scourge of the regiment, and that the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is, after all, already the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Babel does return to the Raciborskis in Red Cavalry: “A ninety-year-old countess and her son had lived in the castle. She had tormented him for not having given the dying clan any heirs, and—the muzhiks told me this—she used to beat him with the coachman’s whip.” But even with the Zolaesque note of hereditary vitiation, the Turgenevian kinkiness of the coachman’s whip, and the hinted Soviet rhetoric of a knightly Poland “gone berserk” (a phrase from Babel’s own propaganda work), the “description” is still just two sentences.
• • •
One of the most chilling relics to emerge from Babel’s KGB dossier was the pair of mug shots taken upon his arrest in 1939.
Photographed in profile, Babel gazes into the distance, chin raised, with an expression of pained resoluteness. Photographed face-on, however, he seems to be looking at something quite close to him. He seems to be looking at someone who he knows to be on the verge of committing a terrible action. Of these images, a German historian once observed: “Both show the writer without his glasses and with one black eye, medically speaking a monocle haematoma, evidence of the violence used against him.”
I felt sorry for the German historian. I understood that it was the inadequacy of “without his glasses and with one black eye” that drove him to use a phrase so absurd as “medically speaking a monocle haematoma.” The absence of glasses is unspeakably violent. You need long words, Latin words, to describe it. Babel was never photographed without his glasses. He never wrote without them, either. His narrator always has, to quote a popular line from the Odessa stories, “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Another famous line, spoken by Babel’s narrator to a nearsighted comrade at a beautiful Finnish winter resort: “I beg you, Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.