I am reminded of an anecdote about the folk hero Nasreddin Hoca. Walking along a deserted road one night, the story goes, Nasreddin Hoca noticed a troop of horsemen riding toward him. Filled with terror that they might rob or conscript him into the army, Nasreddin leaped over a nearby wall and found himself in a graveyard. The horsemen, who were in fact ordinary travelers, were interested by this behavior, so they rode up to the wall and looked over to see Hoca lying motionless on the ground.
"Can we help you?" the travelers asked. "What are you doing here?"
"Well," Nasreddin Hoca replied, "it’s more complicated than you think. You see, I’m here because of you; and you’re here because of me.”” — from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, p. .
“The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense. […] Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one damned after another…”— Aldous Huxley in The Genius and the Goddess (1955)
“Tolstoy had also been in his sixties when he learned how to ride a bicycle. He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son. Both the bicycle and the introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess what Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,” Chertkov noted at the time. “Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?””— from Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, p. 122.
Some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature. I still remember the passport control officer who stamped my first student visa. He suggested to me that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.” The resistance can be especially high when it comes to Babel, who wrote in an idiosyncratic Russian-Jewish Odessa vernacular—a language and humor that Russian-Jewish Odessans earned the heard way. While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her own suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for? On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.”
“Right,” I finally said. “As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”
He nodded. “So you see the problem.”
Though probably the wrong choice of book to begin on the eve of my doctoral program’s first year orientation, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed is probably the funniest book-about-books I’ve ever read. Seriously! It’s great. I also finished it yesterday at the exact moment that the subway doors opened at my stop, which seemed sort of providential, especially since I was heading to the library in an attempt (unsuccessful) to track down an apparently impossible-to-find-and-also-maybe-out-of-print book that I need to read (along with five others) by next Wednesday. In a backwards sort of way, knowing that it’s all downhill from here was actually rather calming.
Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.
In her rant against the MFA, Elif Batuman makes a few interesting points about the shame-culture of creative writing.
“The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether.”— Elif Batuman, “Get a Real Degree” LRB (via somethingchanged)
My two favorite sofa-related passages from the book I said I was looking forward to reading last week, The Possessed, by Elif Batuman…
“After three suicide attempts, [the eighteenth-century British poet William Cowper] wound up in an asylum where he began writing poetry. His most famous poem from this period is called “Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion.” “The Task” was commissioned in 1783 by Cowper’s friend the Lady Austen, who, presumably trying to steer him to more neutral topics, asked him to write a blank-verse poem about “this sofa.” Cowper complied “and, having much leisure… brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended… a Volume!”
“As Thomas Mann’s short story about Davos became The Magic Mountain, so did Cowper’s trifle about the sofa expand from its comic Virgilian incipit - “I sing the sofa” - into a six-canto book-length poem, taking the evolution of the sofa and the concept of leisure as a point of departure for musings on country walks, London, newspapers, gardening, thieves, laborers, domestic life, animals, and retirement. (Could the same book have been written in reverse: an anatomy of types of activity and leisure, which gradually turns into a meditation upon the sofa? Did Proust already write it?)”
“The person is never exhausted by his actions: there is always something left over. But what is that precious remainder - where do you find it?
“Reflecting upon the problem of the person, I was brought to mind of a novel I had always liked, but never quite understood: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblamov (1859), the story of a man so incapable of action or decision-making that he doesn’t get off his sofa for the whole of part 1. In the first chapter, Oblomov receives various visitors who are active in different spheres of human activity. In all these forms of activity, Oblomov deplores the absence of “the person.” A socialite rushes in, talks of balls, dinner parties, and tableaux vivants, and then rushes away, exclaiming that he has ten calls to make. “Ten visits in one day,” Oblomov marvels. “Is this a life? Where is the person in all of this?” And he rolls over, glad that he can stay put on his sofa, “safeguarding his peace and his human dignity.”
“The second visitor, a former colleague from the civil service, tells Oblomov about his recent promotion to departmental head, his new privileges and responsibilities. “In time he’ll be a big shot and reach a high rank,” Oblomov muses. “That’s what we call a career! But how little of the person it requires: his mind, his will, his feelings aren’t needed.” Stretching out his limbs, Oblomov feels proud that he doesn’t have any reports to write, and that here on the sofa there is “ample scope both for his feelings and his imagination.”
“I saw now that the problem of the person was the key to Oblomov’s laziness. So loath is Oblomov to be reduced to the mere sum of his actions that he decides to systematically not act - thereby to reveal more fully his try person, and bask in it unadulterated.
“Oblomov’s third visitor, a critic arrives in rapture over the invention of literary realism. “All the hidden wires are exposed, all the rungs of the social ladder are carefully examined,” he gushes. “Every category of fallen woman is analyzed - French, German, Finnish, and all the others… it’s all so true to life!” Oblomov not only refuses to read any realist works, but becomes almost impassioned. “Where is the person in all this?… They describe a thief or a prostitute, but forget the person, or are incapable of depicting him… The person, I demand the person!” he shouts.”