Are comical things more likely to happen to funny people, or is funniness simply the ability to make ordinary things seem comical? Reading The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, the smartly comic new memoir by Elif Batuman, makes you wonder. Countless people have gone to graduate school—as Batuman did, in Russian literature at Stanford—and almost as many have spent some time studying abroad—as Batuman did when she spent a summer learning Uzbek in the Central Asian city of Samarkand. Even if you haven’t done either, you already know the clichés about both—the unfinishable dissertation, the weird host family.
It may seem unpromising for a writer as young as Batuman (she was born in 1977) to attempt a memoir based on such a conventional CV. Yet in writing about her own education, Batuman manages to make it sound wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat. What makes this possible is her wry, detached sense of humor, always on the lookout for scholarly absurdity, and the understated wit of her writing. Just as important, Batuman is not too cautious to name names; few professors or would-be professors would say so much about their colleagues’ foibles without using the protective cover of fiction.
Take “Babel in California,” a chapter describing an international gathering of Isaac Babel scholars that Batuman helped to organize at Stanford. To most of the attendees, this was probably just an academic get-together like any other. In Batuman’s hands, it becomes a snowballing series of absurdities worthy of Kingsley Amis. When she tries to put together an exhibition of Babel-related materials from the Hoover Institution archives, its staff keeps insisting that she make the display more accessible by including irrelevant “three-dimensional objects”: a fur hat (“I’m afraid it’s not quite authentic. Someone picked it up at a flea market in Moscow. But it looks, you know, like a Russian fur hat”), or a Cossack costume (“OK, the problem is that it’s child’s size. … But that’s not entirely a bad thing. I mean, because it’s in a child’s size, it will definitely fit in the case. …”). Then there’s the fear that Batuman is being politically incorrect about Cossacks: “Please call ASAP regarding portrayal of Cossacks as primitive monsters,” reads one of her phone messages. When Batuman replies that “the likelihood of any Cossacks actually attending the exhibit was very slim,” the exhibition coordinator tells her, “you never know in California.”
The high point—or low point, depending on your perspective—comes when Nathalie Babel, the writer’s aged daughter, arrives in Palo Alto and turns out to be a terror. Recording a conversation between Nathalie and a professor named Janet Lind, Batuman makes perfect use of comic capitals:
“JANET,” Nathalie said finally, in her fathomless voice. “IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?”Janet Lind turned to her calmly. “I beg your pardon?””IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?””I can’t imagine what makes you say that.”
“I say it because I would like to know if it is TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME.””That is an extremely odd question. What gives you an idea like that?”
And on it goes: Lind’s refusal to deny the charge amounts to agreement, but she never says anything explicit enough to risk a formal breach of protocol. Academic protocol, in fact, is what makes Batuman’s comedy possible; she knows that scholars observe a system of deference and politesse as rigid as at Versailles, and often as insincere. You see that decorum in action at another Russianists’ conference, this time at Yasnaya Polnaya, Tolstoy’s estate. When Aeroflot loses Batuman’s luggage, she is forced to spend the whole time wearing the clothes she flew in, “flip-flops, sweatpants, and a flannel shirt.” This might happen anywhere, but only at a Tolstoy conference would Batuman’s fellow scholars simply “assume that I was a Tolstoyan—that like Tolstoy and his followers I had taken a vow to walk around in sandals and wear the same peasant shirt all day and all night.”
This comedy of politeness is combined, when Batuman spends the summer in Uzbekistan, with the comedy of backwardness. Dilorom, Batuman’s Uzbek tutor, teaches her about Bobur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, with special emphasis on his hemorrhoid problems:
“Every one of us does two things. We do them every day in the bathroom. … Hey, God! Forgive me for mentioning these words in front of respected Elif!” Dilorom went on to describe a certain affliction of the large intestine that caused great difficulties in one of the two things we do every day in the bathroom, involving swelling and pain and the passing of hard particles through the anus. In short, the Timurids, as passionate horsemen, suffered chronic hemorrhoids. Luckily, such was the refinement of their culture that they had a special grain that, when cooked with fat, water, and sugar, made a special porridge; when you ate it, you never had to defecate. “Oh, if I could taste it even once!” Dilorom exclaimed.
This is pretty broad humor, almost Sacha Baron Cohen-esque. But Batuman clearly has a deep respect for Dilorom—as she does for the scholarly enterprise itself, no matter how ludicrous it can be. After all, scholars are funny for the same reason clergymen have always been a staple of comedy—because of the contrast between their human flaws and the noble ideals they serve.
It’s not just that Batuman writes about her affection for Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Demons (whose original title in translation was The Possessed), remembering the role these books played in her own development. That kind of love-letter to reading (“Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection …”) is common enough. What’s really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman’s praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.
It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: “Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and half brother were both Sergei.” Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed “remarkable, surprising, and true to life.” Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: “As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. … The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual.”
Experiences like these help to convince Batuman, who started out wanting to be a novelist, that the academic study of literature is not the end of literary pleasure, but a new, deeper beginning. She even argues that theory can help us navigate our own lives. When Matej, a charismatic grad student, wreaks emotional havoc on Batuman and her female colleagues (and some of the males, too), she makes sense of him by invoking Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire.” Beyond all the jokes, this may be the most important contribution Batuman has to make in The Possessed. By fusing memoir and criticism, she shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived—at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime.