May 2010

Arts & Letters

Faraway tales

By Robert Dessaix

Elif Batuman’s ‘The Possessed’

I was a small child when I first read Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood. Or was it the sequel, The Magic Faraway Tree? It had a stylish Art Nouveau cover and featured among other characters two small children called Fanny and Dick. One day on a ramble in the wood they discovered a wonderful tree from whose topmost branch you could jump into a magical land amongst the clouds. Today it might be the Land of Take-What-You-Want, tomorrow the kingdom ruled over by Dame Slap. It was important to jump out again and go home before the magical land blew away, taking you with it; it could take an awfully long time for it to get snagged again in the upper branches of the enchanted tree and let you scramble off.

After reading Elif Batuman’s tale of her escapades in Russia, Uzbekistan and, briefly, Hungary – where she judged a boys’ leg contest – I am now willing to admit openly that The Enchanted Wood is my Urtext. I no longer feel ashamed. As I grew older, I moved on to works of greater substance – Biggles Gets His Men, for instance, and eventually even Middlemarch – but I can now see, thanks to Batuman, that everything I have ever written actually has its origin in those adventures of Fanny and Dick (unaccountably renamed Frannie and Rick in more recent editions). It is vital for writers to correctly identify the sources of their inspiration: not life, but art. Or, if you have to mention things that have happened to you, life lived through art. (And in Batuman’s case, I suspect this means Frasier and Arrested Development as much as War and Peace.)

I mention this flash of understanding because The Possessed is subtitled, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It is nothing of the kind. In the first place, half of the action in the book takes place in Uzbekistan. It’s here that Batuman, a tall Turkish–American woman, spends a disastrous summer amongst mildly deranged Tajiks and a few melancholy Uzbeks, trying to study the Uzbek language, which has 70 words for ‘duck’, and Old Uzbek poetry, well known for such lines as: “Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled your soul— / Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?” The themes of Old Uzbek poetry range from the thousand-toothed qaqnus bird to saints who talk to vegetables. Needless to say, it interests nobody, not even Uzbeks. For that matter, it has not even been established, as Batuman points out, that such a thing as ‘an Uzbek’ exists. ‘Uzbeks’ are a mishmash, like this book – which, I take it, is one of the reasons for including them in it.

In the second place, Batuman does not have anything of any significance to tell us about either Russian books (few are mentioned) or the people who read them. On the subject of the Russian novel, for example, the only new insight she has to share with us is that Isaak Babel once met the creator of King Kong. Like a line from Seinfeld, this is entertaining, but not interesting in itself. Batuman’s readers of Russian books tend to be academics trying to outsmart each other at conferences. She is lethal on the subject of academic conferences, deftly capturing their peculiar atmosphere of acrimony shot through with boredom: I give a paper on lawn tennis in Anna Karenina, you give a paper on the notion that Tolstoy was murdered with doses of henbane, we all have morning tea and then, if we have flown Aeroflot, stand around wondering when our luggage will turn up. I have been to dozens of conferences over a lifetime, yet remember only one thing from any of them: that ‘cow’ and ‘bull’ have the same Indo-European root. Fascinating stuff, but hardly worth going to Latvia for.

And in the third place, Batuman has more interesting things to talk about than Russian literature or the people who read it. What is thought-provoking in The Possessed is her underlying theme of what fires a writer’s imagination.

Batuman has formulated an intriguing theory of the novel. The novel form, she explains, is “about” the protagonist’s struggle “to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books”. There is no doubt much to be said for this theory with regard to any kind of literary narrative, even if it is masquerading as “adventures with Russian books and the people who read them”. Batuman considers other theories of the novel, and in particular those of René Girard, who taught that truly great novels track the “illusory and pernicious quality” of the hero’s desire to be like someone else (Napoleon, say, or Abélard or Héloïse – someone read about, not met with). She even refers briefly to some particularly fatuous ideas of Foucault’s, but eschews Derrida. However, it is her own theory that makes sense of The Possessed – her own book, that is, not Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, also known as The Devils. In line with her theory, The Devils only makes sense to her as narrator to the extent that it informs, or even creates, her fixation on a Croatian fellow-student, “a textbook Catholic intellectual from Zagreb”, who is the spitting image of Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin.

Batuman is interested in shape. “Events and places succeed one another like items on a shopping list,” she writes, speaking of a particularly disordered day on the Danube, featuring the winner of that leg competition. “There may be interesting and moving experiences, but one thing is guaranteed: they won’t naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book.” Batuman’s actual life is like an endless Mad Hatter’s tea party. It doesn’t, as she says, add up to anything. The people she meets mostly shout past each other like a roomful of the unhinged deaf. Her book, on the other hand, is an attempt to find a literary form for saying so. In fact, her aim goes even higher: it is to break down the very distinction between life and art – in both life and art, naturally.

The theoretical question she does not pose, however, is why anyone would want to read this book. Hardly any theorists do investigate this question of why we care about the characters in some books, but not others. Americans, as is well known, have a penchant for reading books involving other Americans. Turks, on the other hand, do not want to read at all. But why? It is a question that needs further study.

There is a long account in The Possessed of Batuman’s involvement in an Isaak Babel conference in California, attended by Babel’s two daughters, his widow, two Chinese film-makers and the odd Hungarian. Predictably, it turns into a complete nightmare. There are ill-tempered arguments about how Yiddish terms in Babel’s writing should be translated and a discussion of whether or not cats can talk. I can grasp the similarity between this kind of writing and Chekhovian or Gogolian farce, and the reliance on what Russians call alogizm (the breakdown of logical connections to humorous effect), but as the reader of an extended narrative I want to be not just amused, but also to care. Zaniness is all very well – The Simpsons, for example, can be chaotically zany – but to keep its edge art needs to be rooted in something dangerous – the satire of established values, for instance, in the case of The Simpsons. There is satire in The Possessed, but not of anything fundamentally rotten.

There is a whole chapter on the 2005 replica of Empress Anna’s ice palace in St Petersburg. In keeping with the general mayhem surrounding both the original palace and the replica, there is a swirling assortment of dwarves, monsters and children born with their eyes under their nose, together with guest appearances by a range of historical figures from Peter the Great to Coleridge. It is clever, well researched, droll and has its roots – in line with Batuman’s theory – in her reading of Russian literature. Yet it fails to make me care. Something is missing from the mix. A cabinet of curiosities can make for a diverting half-hour visit, but it doesn’t make a book.

Many readers will enjoy this romp in the fun park of Russian and Uzbek literature, but others will surely hanker after a little more anchoring of the frolic in new insights and serious thought.

René Girard speculated that truly great novels (Don Quixote, say, or Madame Bovary) spring from an obsession that has been exposed as illusory. Perhaps Elif Batuman’s great book is waiting for her obsession with Russian literature to be transcended.

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

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