MY LETTER TO THE TIMES.

The first letter I’ve ever written to the NY Times Book Review was published today, exactly as I wrote it (except that they added a paragraph break and a hyperlink); the link goes to the published version, and here’s what I sent them:

To the Editor:
I enjoy Elif Batuman’s writing and her take on Russian literature, but
I have a couple of bones to pick with her review of Olga Grushin’s
“The Line” (April 18) She mentions its “resonance with earlier
literary works,” but ignores the work most likely to occur to a
Russian reader, Vladimir Sorokin’s first novel, whose title Sally
Laird translated as “The Queue” but which could equally well be
rendered “The Line.” Elaine Blair wrote that it “is set in an
enormous line that forms one summer afternoon in the 1980s in Moscow,
a line that about 2,000 people eventually join, over the course of two
days, in order to have a chance to buy–something. It’s never entirely
clear what they’re so eager to buy.” I’m pretty sure Sorokin is more
relevant here than Platonov.
And Batuman ends her review by saying the book reminds the reader of
Nabokov: “maybe still the early, Russian Nabokov, not quite the one we
love yet, but nonetheless a writer of tremendous talent and promise.”
Speak for yourself! I have read Nabokov in both Russian and English,
and I assure those who can’t do so that his best Russian work,
especially “Dar” (“The Gift”), which I, like others, consider one of
the great novels of the twentieth century, is at least the equal of
“Lolita” or “Pale Fire,” and I personally love it more — the wordplay
is less obtrusive in his native language, the characters are utterly
real, and the author poured into it all his deep understanding of the
history of Russian literature. Nabokov’s early poems have “promise”;
his stories and novels of the 1930s are full-fledged masterpieces.
Stephen Dodson
Hadley, Mass.

I hope Ms. Batuman isn’t too annoyed; I really do like her writing, as I’ve said here, but I couldn’t let the slight to Nabokov’s Russian work go unanswered.

Comments

  1. Actually, I was never quite sure if you had read The Possessed. I’m guessing (really guessing) that her Russian isn’t yet as good as yours. I loved her book, though; especially the bit about Dostoyevsky, towards the end, but really all of it.

  2. If I read The Possessed, it was so long ago (in college) and I retained so little of it that I might as well not have; when I get around to it in Russian, it will either seem familiar or not.

  3. No, I’m talking about Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed, not the Dostoyevsky one she named it after.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned Sorokin’s The Queue, which I also thought of as soon as I saw the Grushin title. I’ve heard good things about Очередь and need to read it one of these days.

  5. Oh! No, I haven’t, but I am looking forward to it.

  6. I’m glad someone has rewritten The Possessed. I’ve always thought that that was a weak link in the chain which needed replacing. Pretty much all of Dreiser and Zola could be rewritten too as far as I am concerned, but since no one ever reads anything by them but An American Tragedy and Germinal, she should start with those. (And Sister Carrie, I suppose). If she were to redo Balzac’s Human Comedy and unwrite about a hundred of them, that would be a real contribution too.

  7. mollymooly says:

    Balzac was ahead of his time. “Human Comedy” would work better as a Showtime series, with tangential parts as webisodes and box-set extras.

  8. Mark Etherton says:

    Don’t people who read Zola read Nana as well as or instead of Germinal? Not to speak of Au Bonheur des Dames and La Débâcle. And why ask for books to be unwritten: all you have to do is not read (or stop reading) them.

  9. Balzac wrote too goddamn many books.
    I’m out of touch as far as which Zola books to not read. Primarily though I don’t read Germinal.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I have read only a few of Zola’s books (as a student) and did not particularly care for them until I realized that he wrote about the generation of my (great-)great-grandparents who lived in Paris or the immediate surroundings, which were still largely rural at the time. One great-great-grandmother coming up to Paris managed to set up her own laundry, like Gervaise of L’Assommoir – very hard, unhealthy and dangerous work, which was about the lowest rung of respectable employment for women outside of domestic service – and she later moved up to a sweatshop, and in both of them her three daughters worked as soon as they were able (the oldest one, who became my great-grandmother, started at the laundry at the age of 11): twelve hours a day, no days off or vacations in those days, except perhaps New Year’s Day or the rare family celebration, and no pity for women having to earn a living and sometimes raise children without a man around – or even with one, if he drank, for instance, or disappeared like my shadowy great-great-grandfather, whose name is the only thing we know about him. Those other family members survived and managed to improve their lot, but many people didn’t. Zola may not be the greatest writer in a literary sense, but he understood how people actually lived and what could happen to them.

  11. You really ought to read it, Language. You’re missing something really fun. And interesting, in equal parts. It’s only $8.65 at Amazon marketplace (new). That includes the cover by Roz Chast. Sure, that’s the same price as 12 boxes of CESAR BISTRO Dog Food (postage included, any variety, in coupons, bought on ebay), but you don’t even own a dog, so why waste all your money on dog-food coupons when you could be reading something about Russian literature? I guess you have your own personal reasons.

  12. Brendan Byrne says:

    I appreciate the defense of Nabokov’s Russian work. My own grasp of the language is minor, but the English translations still resonate especially, as you mention, ‘The Gift.’ I’m also quite found of ‘Despair’ and its nastiness.
    As for Ms. Batuman… well, knowing that you hold her in high esteem I will attempt to investigate further. I’ve been avoiding her ‘The Possessed’ up till now since it appears insular, congratulatory (as in, ‘Aren’t we readers all so elevated?’), and more than a little twee. But maybe this is just the marketing campaign and less the work.

  13. LH,
    I completely agree with you about Nabokov’s Russian work. In fact, I would probably go further than you and say that his Russian work is unequivocally better than his English output. Much of the preciousness and distance some readers find annoying in his English work is absent from his Russian novels, which seem to me far more humane and sincere. Then again people who love the games and post modernism of Pale Fire probably find Dar too personal.
    You’re probably right that Sorokin’s novel is more relevant than Platonov, but Batuman is certainly not the only one who would miss that reference. I remember countless Russians reading and talking about Platonov in the 90s when I lived in Russia. But I, for one, have never even heard of Ochered’ before. When I think of Sorokin I think of his short stories or Goluboe Salo. That may well be just a large lacuna in my understanding of Russian literature, but I don’t think Sorokin resonates very widely in the general population.

  14. “….until I realized that he wrote about the generation of my (great-)great-grandparents who lived in Paris or the immediate surroundings, which were still largely rural at the time.”
    Well, “Main-travelled Roads” and “Main Street” are about my ancestors, but French college students aren’t forced to read about them. French cultural imperialism.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    JE, I don’t understand your comment, whether serious or joking. I was not reading Zola as foreign literature, any more than “Main Street”, etc were foreign to you. Are you saying that you yourself were forced to read Zola? But if so, it was not the French ministry of education that was telling you to read his work. When I studied American literature as part of a degree in English (as a second, not first language), of course I had to read American works.
    My point was that I could not relate to what Zola was describing until I realized that it was directly relevant to what I knew about my own ancestors of a few generations ago. I would not have brought this up if others had not been commenting on the merits of his work.

  16. weevil beans says:

    Booyah eat a bagle booyah yeah! What’s a cat doin’ on yo’ head? Get ready for the smackdown two-sticks Johnson!

  17. chemiazrit@gmail.com says:

    I’m glad someone has rewritten The Possessed. I’ve always thought that that was a weak link in the chain which needed replacing.

    I’m not sure if this is intended to be purely facetious, but the only thing Batuman’s book actually shares with the Dostoevsky novel is the title (which, at one point late in the book, she notes is really a poor translation of the Russian title Бесы). Indeed, the connection of Batuman’s book to Russian Lit. is somewhat tangential: she happens to have been a student of Russian, but on a more basic level the book is about the experience of being a grad student in literature at a major university. This does, indeed, sound offputting and possibly “twee,” but the book is well-written and avoids turning into the navel-gazing excercise it might easily have become.

  18. It was all facetious, folks. All of it. I just don’t like naturalist/ realist fiction much, and the idea of rewriting classic novels that have serious flaws got me thinking.

  19. the only thing Batuman’s book actually shares with the Dostoevsky novel is the title
    Well, that’s if you don’t count pages 151 – 167, where she relates the entire story, explains that it’s now called Demons and analyses it by way of René Girard and mimetic desire (“Although I am unconvinced that mimetic desire is the fundamental content of the novelistic form, or that humans’ mimetic desires can be channeled productively only by imitating Christ, Girard’s theory unquestionably explains a great deal in the work of certain novelists, particularly those such as Stendhal and Dostoyevsky, who were deeply engaged with Christian thought and the practice of a Christian life.”)
    the connection of Batuman’s book to Russian Lit. is somewhat tangential: she happens to have been a student of Russian,
    Huh? Apart from one chapter (The House of Ice) that takes place in Moscow, and the two chapters about her trip to learn Uzbek, in Samarkand, THE WHOLE BOOK is about Russian literature, with special reference to Tolstoy, Babel and Dostoyevsky (one chapter each). It’s really more like “she happens to mention that she’s a grad student”, although that’s not fair because she manages to weave the Stanford bits in and out skillfully & wittily.
    I don’t know how anyone could describe this book as twee, that’s just a total lie. “Twee” is a: British adj. from the early 20th century representing a child’s pronunciation of “sweet” and meaning excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, dainty, or sentimental. It’s “twee” in the same sense that Roz Chast’s cover is “twee”; i.e. not at all, but if you were a complete moron, you might confuse her portrayal of tweeness with the thing itself.

  20. I don’t know how anyone could describe this book as twee
    But what chemiazrit said was that a cursory description of the book might sound twee but in actuality it’s not. At least, that’s how I read it. Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to the book when I dig out from under the current stack of reading.

  21. Very sorry, Chemiazrit. I shouldn’t have been rude. There was someone before who said it was twee, though, wasn’t there? Yes, Brendan Byrne, although he does admit he hasn’t read the book.
    So, are Chemiasrit and I the ONLY PEOPLE HERE who have read The Possessed (by Erif Batuman)? This is a disgrace.

  22. ….certain novelists, particularly those such as Stendhal and Dostoyevsky, who were deeply engaged with Christian thought and the practice of a Christian life.
    Seriously this time: Stendhal? Deeply engaged in the sense of ridiculing it whenever possible, maybe.
    [Yes, that's what Girard says, so Batuman is off the hook. She's smart enough to footnote Stendhal.]

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Like JE, I am puzzled to find Stendhal “deeply engaged in Christian thought and the practice of a Christian life” along with Dostoyevsky. Has Girard actually read Stendhal?
    I confess I had never heard of “mimetic desire” – does it mean “desire to mimic”?

  24. From what I’ve been reading, Stendhal was one of the very few authors of his era who maintained the atheist traditions of the enlightenment. (Prosper Mérimée is the only other one I remember). Back when I was studying him I don’t remember reading about his having been devout at an early age, either. Stendhal was a late bloomer and was older than almost all of his literary contemporaries, and he had adult memories of the revolutionary and imperial periods.

  25. She says it’s like in a vodka advertisement, where you buy the lifestyle of the famous person in the picture, rather than the booze itself. Here’s the Wikipedia explanation, (though I bet there’s one at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy too): Mimetic desire & René Girard, although I must say Elif Batuman explains it a lot better than this, and also its relation to novels and Christianity. Girard went on to develop it as a theory of anthropology, apparently.
    Note that she doesn’t say Stendahl was a Christian; in the footnote John mentioned she says Girard counted him as an atheist, “even though Stendahl’s two greatest novels begin in a seminary (The Red & The Black) or end in a monastery (C’house of Parma). Moreover S.’s personal and vehement rejection of the Catholic church is itself a form of engagement with Christianity.”

  26. marie-lucie says:

    I realize that the statement about Stendhal is not Batuman’s but Girard’s.
    I did not know of Girard, but I have just followed AJP’s link to the (English) Wikipedia article about him. Interesting, but his notion of the nature of “primitive religion” reminded me of Freud’s postulation of the “primal horde” of the sons killing the father – both are myths, that is explanations imagined in order to explain the present order of the world. From a foundational myth one can derive all kinds of consequences for the present, but since the myth has itself been derived from actually observed conditions (even if those observations took place in the remote past when the myth was elaborated), there is always some circularity.

  27. The term “too clever by half” pops into my head. What would a French novelist have to do to not be engaged with Christianity?
    Apparently, not even mention anything Christian at all ever. But how could someone do that without systematically excising all the incidental Christian furniture from descriptions of French life — which would certainly be engagement of a rather extreme sort.
    Maybe bump through life for 60 years not even noticing that there are Christians around, and then at the end of your life say “Oh! So that’s what that stuff was all about! I thought those people were acting weird for some reason”.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    JE, I intended to make just about the same comment at the end of my previous entry but could not think of how to phrase it in just the right way at the moment. Thank you for doing it for me.
    Any serious European author of the first half of the nineteenth century would have had to go out of their way not to mention anything Christian (not only Christian, but a specific branch of Christianity, in this case the Catholic Church). You might as well try to write a novel about contemporary America without ever mentioning the automobile. Possible, perhaps, but hardly representative of current society if that is your goal. On the other hand, starting your novel with the main character working in a garage would not necessarily imply that you as the author were particularly “engaged with the automobile”.

  29. J. W. Brewer says:

    Re John E.’s last point, I don’t know how it would apply to Stendhal specifically, but certainly the problematic French style of laicite does have an aspect of being unable-to-shut-up-about-the-thing-you-yourself-don’t-buy-into that is perhaps not found as frequently among American non-believers. It’s, shall we say, a little more aggressive than benign indifference to the foibles of others. Nabokov, OTOH, seems to have almost completely lacked any religious sensibility whatsoever without being all jerky and militant-atheistic about it, which I think might be as tough for a Russian as a Frenchman? (Although in the introduction to some late anthology of his own translations of his early Russian poems — not at hand but per wikipedia it’s probably Poems & Problems I’m remembering — he tries perhaps a bit too hard to explain away some religious-sounding themes as having been purely a stylistic exercise of the sort that might occur in anyone’s juvenilia.)

  30. m-l: Like JE, I am puzzled to find Stendhal “deeply engaged in Christian thought’
    JE: Stendhal was one of the very few authors of his era who maintained the atheist traditions of the enlightenment.
    EB: Girard counted him as an atheist (Qed)

  31. In France around 1830 the secular and economic power of the church and their involvement in politics as allies of the royalist ultras were enormous issues. It wasn’t mostly about faith and symbolism or even about theology and metaphysics.
    Catholic converts like T.S. Eliot and the others had it extremely easy. They were as Catholic as they wanted to be and scarcely had to deal with the institutional Church at all if they didn’t want to. In a seriously Catholic society, even many of the devout hate the institutional church. So in that sense, Stendhal was more Catholic than Eliot. But I don’t think that justifies Girard’s stretch.

  32. To go on, some of the Anglo-Catholic converts had a special problem: they were English chauvinists and really didn’t want to be too much involved with the Irish and Poles and Italians and other lesser races. They belonged to a church which had gone almost extinct around 1540.

  33. J. W. Brewer says:

    Uh, Eliot was Catholic only in the sense in which that word was used for self-identification within the “higher” factions of the Church of England. And even then I don’t know if he used it unhyphenated. The standard self-identifying Eliot quote is “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” The institutional Church was certainly socially ubiquitous and largely dysfunctional in England as well in the same period Stendhal had been writing in, but e.g. Trollope could write about it with a certain satirical exasperation that never quite spilled over into unproductive bitterness.

  34. That’s what I meant. Eliot was an Anglo-Catholic so he could avoid rubbing shoulders with the dirty actual Catholics, and so he could be Christian without actually having to deal with a real Church.
    I don’t think that the Anglican Church was ever an independent political force in England the way that Catholic Church was in Restoration France. Samuel Butler remained an Anglican, IIRC, precisely because there was so little to it that his cynicism was fully satisfied.

  35. That’s right. “Anglo-Catholic” is by definition not “Roman Catholic”. It’s known as High Church in England, and has the swinging of the incense, but it ain’t Roman, it’s part of the C. of E.. If you’d care to invoke instead Evelyn Waugh and his many associates in Farm Street (Elizabeth Longford etc.), THEY were RC converts.

  36. I don’t think that the Anglican Church was ever an independent political force in England
    What are you, joking? You couldn’t even get into university or parliament if you weren’t C. of E.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: In French society at the time of Stendhal, the presence and power of the Catholic Church were hardly a matter of “the foibles of others” or of private convictions but were inescapable in the social and political context. Le Rouge et le Noir is subtitled Chronique de 1830 and takes place just before the revolution that put an end to the reign of Charles X, a brother of Louis XVI whose policies were especially reactionary.
    Coming from a lower-class family, the hero (or anti-hero) would have had a chance for social mobility and rapid advancement in the armies of Napoleon if he had been born in a previous generation, but for him now the only choice is to hide his own convictions and join the church. The hero is never troubled by religious dilemmas, only by how best to navigate in order to advance himself, but he is only human and has to be rescued by others from catastrophes of his own making. The way he achieves peace at the end is not through a religious crisis but because he finally decides to be himself, no longer a part of the society which will execute him. This could be interpreted as “redemption”, but it is a personal, psychological one, not a religious one. Of course the book contains an attack on the church, but not just the church, and I don’t think it reveals a neurotic obsession with religion on the part of the author.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t think that the Anglican Church was ever an independent political force in England
    - What are you, joking? You couldn’t even get into university or parliament if you weren’t C. of E.
    I think that the operative word in the first sentence is “independent”. By its nature the C of E was (and still is) institutionally linked with and subservient to the English government. In Catholic countries the Church was in effect a parallel hierarchy, officially independent of the governments even where it was the official religion. This allowed the Pope to intervene more or less publicly in those countries’ internal affairs. Napoleon tried to reduce the Church’s power in France by kidnapping the Pope and forcing him to agree to have the government intervene in church affairs, for example by appointing the bishops, but that agreement did not survive his empire.

  39. J. W. Brewer says:

    Pardon me if I feel no compassion for the dilemma of a hero/anti-hero who does not have opportunities for “social mobility and rapid advancement” via the rape and pillage of foreign countries (and of course he could have just as well provided “rapid advancement” opportunities for others by getting himself killed by one of his would-be victims). Why couldn’t he have just emigrated to North America like normal 19th-century people dissatisfied with their existing options in Europe did? (Yes, I realize finding the way to avoid seemingly insoluble dilemmas doesn’t make for good novel-writing.)

  40. I don’t think the Cof E was subservient to the government before about 1830. Rather, in some matters, vice versa.

  41. (I’m thinking in particular of Roman Catholic emancipation.)

  42. Mr. Brewer, there was a bit of pillaging going on in the US around 1930 too.

  43. chemiazrit says:

    Huh? Apart from one chapter (The House of Ice) that takes place in Moscow, and the two chapters about her trip to learn Uzbek, in Samarkand, THE WHOLE BOOK is about Russian literature, with special reference to Tolstoy, Babel and Dostoyevsky (one chapter each).
    Disagree completely, and not just because “The House of Ice” takes place in St. Petersburg (natch), there are actually three chapters–accounting for nearly half the book–about Uzbekistan, and the “Tolstoy” chapter is almost entirely about Tolstoy the eccentric crypto-religious figure, not about Tolstoy the novelist (War & Peace and Anna K. are mentioned only in passing). The WHOLE BOOK is about studying literature, a good deal of which happens to be Russian…but much of which also happens to be Uzbek and French. There are, naturally, some canny insights into Babel and Chekhov and Dostoevsky to be found in the book, but really what she is describing throughout are the rewards and foibles of a life in the literary annex of the Ivory Tower.

  44. Well, if you’re living that kind of grad-student life yourself, which it sounds like, then you get what you want from it. However, it’s not a question of disagreement, of different opinions, it’s one of facts. See my previous comment.

  45. (Sorry I’m being such a swine today, maybe I’d better go to bed).

  46. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: Pardon me if I feel no compassion for the dilemma of a hero/anti-hero who does not have opportunities for “social mobility and rapid advancement” via the rape and pillage of foreign countries
    I was trying to respond to Girard’s idea (apparently) that the novel in question is a Christian novel. I was summarizing the plot of the novel and the (anti-)hero’s ideas and motivations, not passing a modern judgment on them. Besides, few people join the army thinking: “Gee, now I can rape and pillage to my heart’s content, and I can get killed or maimed too, hurrah!”, most of them discover the awful truths afterwards.
    Have you read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? It takes place during the Napoleonic wars, and the heroine’s love interest is a navy officer, at first penniless, but who returns from the wars having made it good from capturing French vessels – to the acclaim of everyone he knows.
    Why couldn’t he have just emigrated to North America like normal 19th-century people dissatisfied with their existing options in Europe did?
    In that case, the majority of dissatisfied people were not “normal”, otherwise several countries would have been severely depleted. Actually, quite a few French people emigrated to “Louisiana” before the Louisiana purchase (1803), but not so many afterwards. (If it had not been for Napoleon, the current US would not exist, and the continent would probably be divided into three nations, speaking respectively English, French and Spanish, in very different proportions than nowadays. So thank Napoleon for greatly increasing the territory of the United States, through a financial transaction, not through battles).
    In 19th century French literature there is sometimes a mention of l’oncle d’Amérique who will come back having made a fabulous fortune which will ultimately be distributed to his expectant nephews and nieces (he never has a family of his own), but very rarely does this character show up in person. In one of Maupassant’s short stories one family has great expectations from this nebulous character, who has not been heard of from many years. He is eventually discovered living the life of a bum in a French port city, too ashamed of himself to ever contact his relatives.
    JE there was a bit of pillaging going on in the US around 1930 too.
    You probably mean 1830, as in the novel.

  47. If it had not been for Napoleon, the current US would not exist, and the continent would probably be divided into three nations, speaking respectively English, French and Spanish, in very different proportions than nowadays. So thank Napoleon for greatly increasing the territory of the United States, through a financial transaction, not through battles
    While one can never be sure about historical might-have-beens, I would feel comfortable betting large amounts of money that the U.S. would look exactly as it does now, Napoleon or no Napoleon. There is simply no chance the expansionist U.S. would have allowed all that choice territory to remain in other hands.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I was being facetious, to counteract JWB.

  49. Several of Jane Austen’s novels exhibit a great respect for the Royal Navy and its captains, but I believe that m-l is thinking of Persuasion rather than Sense and Sensibility.

  50. During much of history military plunderers have been highly honored by the successful nations of the world. Only in the last couple of hundred years has booty lost its significance.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Ø, you are probably right. I read most of the novels as a student and must have got those two mixed up. The girl is called Anne, she is persuaded to say no to his proposal, spends years regretting it, but he shows up again and they get married in the end.

  52. chemiazrit says:

    Well, if you’re living that kind of grad-student life yourself, which it sounds like, then you get what you want from it. However, it’s not a question of disagreement, of different opinions, it’s one of facts. See my previous comment.
    Not only are all of your “facts” patently, demonstrably untrue (as my prior post explained in some detail, if you’d bothered to read it) you’re also an extraordinarily bad guesser. I’m not going to play the put-down game with you, however, so goodnight and good luck.

  53. bruessel says:

    “The girl is called Anne, she is persuaded to say no to his proposal, spends years regretting it, but he shows up again and they get married in the end.”
    Ø is right, that’s Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility has two heroines, Elinor and Marianne.

  54. I’m sorry I was rude, Chemiazrit. You’re right, I ought to have said that The House Of Ice chapter is set mostly in St. Petersburg. You’re also right that we have different opinions here. You originally wrote:
    the only thing Batuman’s book actually shares with the Dostoevsky novel is the title (which, at one point late in the book, she notes is really a poor translation of the Russian title Бесы). Indeed, the connection of Batuman’s book to Russian Lit. is somewhat tangential: she happens to have been a student of Russian, but on a more basic level the book is about the experience of being a grad student in literature at a major university.
    As I said, she takes 16 pages to tell the entire story of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and then analyse it by way of René Girard. So, to say “the only thing Batuman’s book actually shares with the Dostoevsky novel is the title”, is completely untrue. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but she ends the book by comparing this (rather brilliantly) to events in her own life that took place at Stanford.
    You say:
    the book is about the experience of being a grad student in literature at a major university
    and
    really what she is describing throughout are the rewards and foibles of a life in the literary annex of the Ivory Tower.
    Well, that’s one way to read it. I never studied literature and I certainly don’t see myself reflected in the author’s description of her life — or only to the extent that all her readers probably could. I don’t think this book is about being a grad student in literature at a major university. I think it’s “about” her life, parts of which take place in the Russian department at Stanford and parts of which don’t. There are three chapters (of the seven in the book) in which she’s in Samarkand, with her boyfriend Eric, learning Old Uzbek and about Uzbek literature. When she is observing her two teachers and her landlady and their lives in Uzbekistan, or repeating over and over that Old Uzbek has one hundred words for crying, she happily tells us as much about her own inquisitive and sardonic self.
    It’s true that the Tolstoy chapter tells the story of a bus trip to an academic conference at Yasnaya Polyana, about a presentation on Anna Karenina and lawn tennis, and about Batuman’s interest in Sherlock Holmes and Tolstoy’s possible death by poisoning. We aren’t only reading about Russian literature here, you’re right. There is a touch of whimsy at times that I found didn’t help the book, but I certainly did not read The Possessed as a life-as-a-grad-student book. The only example I can remember of that genre is One L: the Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, by Scott Turow, who subsequently wrote some good detective stories. That was interesting to read when I was thinking about graduate schools myself, but in other circumstances it would be a shallow experience and it wasn’t remotely comparable to The Possessed. However, it was passionate about the law, if I remember rightly and Elif Batuman is equally passionate about Russian literature.
    So, Chemiazrit, it’s not that I’m just picking a fight with you; it’s more that I think your description of The Possessed made the book sound much less interesting and worth reading than I found it to be.

  55. When I hear “очередь” I think of Sharikov in Bulgakov’s ‘The Heart of a Dog’. One of the first things he says after transformation into a human is “get in line, you son of bitch” (в очередь, сукины дети).
    But isn’t it an argument of opinions? and as such, needn’t be that argumentative? What she’s saying is not a statement of fact, Batuman is entitled to an opinion.
    “Dar” (“The Gift”), which I, like others, consider one of the great novels of the twentieth century, is at least the equal of “Lolita” or “Pale Fire,”
    I agree about ‘Dar’. ‘Lolita’ is great in English, but when I read it in Russian, after having read it English, I was struck by the sloppiness of the language, it doesn’t work at all, it’s clumsy and full of anglicisms. I got the impression he just didn’t bother to treat the Russian version seriously. How did he work on it? Is English the ‘original’ version?

  56. Yes, even Batuman is entitled to an opinion.

  57. If it had not been for Napoleon, the current US would not exist
    I thought it was Sarah Palin.

  58. I believe that Nabokov made it his task to become an English-language writer, so that the original of “Lolita” was in English.

  59. But isn’t it an argument of opinions?
    Well, sure. That’s half the fun of an argument!
    Is English the ‘original’ version?
    Yes, and I believe in the preface to the Russian version he apologizes for the decline in his Russian abilities. I’m pretty sure he didn’t consider it in any sense an equivalent to or replacement for the English original, but he didn’t want the translation done by someone else.

  60. Just to clarify, I don’t think she was “wrong” not to mention the Sorokin novel, I just thought it an omission that deserved remedying. If you’re going to bring up an author (Platonov) who would appear to have nothing much to do with the novel except that you were reminded of him somehow, why not mention a book with an almost identical theme? I do think she was completely wrong about Nabokov, and that’s what drove me to write the letter.

  61. I assume she’s simply never heard of the Sorokin novel. Maybe someone should send her a copy.

  62. Yeah, that was my guess as well.

  63. chemiazrit says:

    Very late, at this point, to reply further, but I can’t resist.
    As I said, she takes 16 pages to tell the entire story of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and then analyse it by way of René Girard. So, to say “the only thing Batuman’s book actually shares with the Dostoevsky novel is the title”, is completely untrue.
    Point taken. But it’s relevant that what Dostoevsky’s The Possessed ends up being for Batuman is, quite explicitly, a metaphor for academia. It is, in fact, one of the reasons I say the book is about the study of literature, not Russian literature itself.
    It’s also worth noting that Dostoevsky’s novel and Babel’s Red Cavalry are the only two Russian works discussed at any significant length in the book, accounting for, perhaps, 40 pages of a 300 page text. Other Russian authors / works are touched upon, but only glancingly. I think anybody approaching Batuman’s work purely for insights into Russian literature is likely to come away very disappointed.
    So, Chemiazrit, it’s not that I’m just picking a fight with you; it’s more that I think your description of The Possessed made the book sound much less interesting and worth reading than I found it to be.
    This is unfortunate, but probably more reflective of your own biases than anything else. I don’t know why a lively memoir of life as a grad student should be inherently less appealing than any other sort of well-written memoir.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Chemiazrit: the book is about the experience of being a grad student in literature at a major university. This does, indeed, sound offputting and possibly “twee,” but the book is well-written and avoids turning into the navel-gazing excercise it might easily have become.
    I have not read the book, only the comments here, but I agree with AJP’s reaction: apart from the word “well-written”, this description does not sound very promising for the reader – it did not give me a desire to read the book. AJP does not come across as “biassed”: he is not saying that a grad student’s life cannot be interesting to read about, but that your own description did not give an inkling of how interesting he actually found the book. Perhaps you did not realize how restrained you sounded: your earlier wording seemed to predict a rather more sober work than the “lively memoir” you now describe.

  65. I say the book is about the study of literature, not Russian literature itself
    I’m finally forced to agree with you.

  66. (Joke.)

  67. does anyone want to pick an argument about the genre?
    Sorokin’s Line at 25 thousand words is about twice as short as Grushina’s Line. I’ve just read it and it feels more like a short story than a novel. Though the line itself seems to be longer in Sorokin.

  68. … read Sorokin

  69. Nabokov, Lolita
    I’m pretty sure he didn’t consider it in any sense an equivalent to or replacement
    I think so too – and that is what puzzles me. Tolstoy once asked to have a translation of one of his works back-tranlsated into Russian and was very upset when he saw how little of his own writing was preserved. Even if it were about copyright or, as you say, guarding your work against someone else translating it in your own language, I’d thought that natural creative instincts would have kicked in when Nabokov was re-creating Lolita in Russian – and he wouldn’t have allowed himself the sloppiness that it shows. When I write in English first, and then do a version in Russian, I feel that pressure to improve, to work more – and often go back to the English ‘original’ to edit it. Same thing happens when I write in Russian first. That’s how the brain works.

  70. Well, I do think Nabokov was trying for that; I haven’t actually read it in Russian yet, but I’ve seen discussions that point out felicities in the Russian that don’t correspond to anything in the English. I’m sure he had the instinct and wanted to do a good job, but he was just too rusty at writing in Russian after all those years. (Which brings up the whole question of why he switched over to English completely instead of adding it as another outlet while continuing to write in Russian; it seems like chopping off your right arm to make sure you develop your left.)

  71. … read Sorokin
    Several other people have recommended Sorokin’s Line to me, Sashura, so maybe I should finally read it!
    I completely agree with what Sashura says about the two versions of Lolita — I thought the English was very good but I couldn’t read it in Russian. I was ready to read it as a different book from what I’d read in English 15-20 years before, but the tone didn’t feel right so I didn’t get very far.

  72. thanks, Lisa, and since we’re on the eve of the 60th anniversary of VE Day – День Победы – one of the biggest holidays in Russian calendar, I’d also recommend Kiset (Tobacco pouch) which came up in this coffee shop a while ago. I compared it to HG Wells’s The Purple Pileus.

  73. Yes, I think “Кисет” is my favorite thing by Sorokin (not that I’ve read much of him so far).

  74. Thanks to both of you for recommending “Кисет” — I found it on Sorokin’s site (here, in case anybody else wants it). I’ll read it this weekend.

  75. That’s not actually the link to Sorokin’s site, though it’s there, too…

  76. As a реверанс to our beloved Marie-Lucie, Sorokin’s Queue was first published in the West in France, and made his name.
    Having just read it, I want to say how impressed I was with his mastery of dramatic technique. 25 thou. words, 160 pages of pure dialogue, not a single remark from the author – and not once I got confused as to who says what and where and what is happening, and the personnages all stand – or lie – clearly in front of you. Worthy of Chekhov, I say. I remember an anecdote from the early sixties, a (Russian) professor starts reading a dialogue (in English) to his students and asks them to indentify the author. ‘Hemingway!’ ‘Dos Passos!’ ‘Remarque!’, – they shout. The professor turns the book toward the audience. The cover reads: ‘English-Russian Colloquial Practicum’. Anecdote, but true, I think.
    Of course, there was no way he could have been published under the Soviet regime (satirising shortages, sex). But, thinking of Sorokin’s current immense popularity, when there are no shortages, but the state is still Kafkaesque, does it say something about the sophistication of Russian reading public?

  77. The cover reads: ‘English-Russian Colloquial Practicum’
    “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.”

  78. Excuse me, I meant:
    Дуб – дерево. Роза – цветок. Олень – животное. Воробей – птица. Россия – наше отечество. Смерть неизбежна.
    П. Смирновский.
    Учебник русской грамматики.

  79. Which brings up the whole question of why he switched over to English completely instead of adding it as another outlet while continuing to write in Russian.
    He seems to have had an either-or approach. According to one story (true, I think) he went into exile in Germany instead of France because he didn’t know German, and he didn’t want his Russian contaminated the way it would be in France or England.
    The logic of that would be seem to drive him to avoid Russian-speakers once he decided to be an English-language write, but I don’t think he did,

  80. John Emerson: yes, I heard that story too.
    LH: is that a true quote? I must copy that for my next lesson on why Russians don’t have an ‘is’in the present tense as featured in Point 2 in Lesson 1 in the Penguin Russian course. (Point 1 – no articles in Russian).

  81. Yup. See here.

Speak Your Mind

*