Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Also from this book: Dennis the Dentist
On the day of my flight to Moscow, I was late to the airport. Check-in was already closed. Although I was eventually let onto the plane, my suitcase was not, and it subsequently vanished altogether from the Aeroflot informational system. Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you. Because there are no clothing stores in Yasnaya Polyana, I was obliged to wear, for four days of the conference, the same clothes in which I had traveled: flip-flops, sweatpants, and a flannel shirt. I had hoped to sleep on the plane and had dressed accordingly. Some International Tolstoy Scholars assumed 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.
“We will hear more about these very interesting editions on Thursday! … if we are still alive.” It was fashionable among International Tolstoy Scholars to punctuate all statements about the future with this disclaimer: an allusion to Tolstoy’s later diaries. After his religious rebirth in 1881, Tolstoy changed his practice of ending each diary entry with a plan for the next day; now, he simply wrote the phrase: “if I am alive.”
A few days later, Tolstoy received a letter from Chertkov and refused to let Sonya see it. Sonya flew into a rage and renewed her accusations about the secret will. “Not only does her behavior toward me fail to express her love,” Tolstoy wrote of Sonya, “but its evident object is to kill me.” Tolstoy fled to his study and tried to distract himself by reading The Brothers Karamazov: “Which of the two families, Karamazov or Tolstoy, was the more horrible?” he asked. In Tolstoy’s view, The Brothers Karamazov was “anti-artistic, superficial, attitudinizing, irrelevant to the great problems.”
In a final period of lucidity on November 6, he said to his daughters, “I advise you to remember that there are many people in the world besides Lev Tolstoy.” He died of respiratory failure on November 7.
On the third day of the Tolstoy conference, a professor from Yale read a paper on tennis. In Anna Karenina, he began, Tolstoy represents lawn tennis in a very negative light. Anna and Vronsky swat futilely at the tiny ball, poised on the edge of a vast spiritual and moral abyss. When he wrote that scene, Tolstoy himself had never played tennis, which he only knew of as an English fad. At the age of sixty-eight, Tolstoy was given a tennis racket and taught the rules of the game. He became an instant tennis addict. “No other writer was as prone to great contradictions,” explained the professor, whose mustache and mobile eyebrows gave him the air of a nineteenth-century philanderer. All summer long, Tolstoy played tennis for three hours every day. No opponent could rival Tolstoy’s indefatigable thirst for the game of tennis; his guests and children would take turns playing against him. The International Tolstoy Scholars wondered at Tolstoy’s athleticism. He should have lived to see eighty-five—ninety—one hundred! 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 an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,” Chertkov noted at that time. “Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?”
The Dukhobors—literally, “Spirit Wrestlers”—were a Russian peasant religious sect, whose tenets included egalitarianism, pacificism, worship through prayer meetings, and the rejection of all written scripture in favor of an oral body of knowledge called the “Living Book.” When they were persecuted for their refusal to fight in the Russo-Turkish war, Tolstoy donated all the proceeds from his novel Resurrection to finance their immigration to Canada in 1899.
Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908
"After we finished the cotton production textbook, Muzaffar started making up his own grammatical texts, usually featuring one of those recurring characters: President Karimov and poor Muzaffar. I especially liked to hear about poor Muzaffar’s troubles as a graduate student. One morning, for example, Muzaffar went to the library to get books for his dissertation. Samarkand State University had a closed-stack library which had never been fully catalogued, so you just had to write what kind of books you wanted on a request form and hope for the best. Muzaffar turned in his request at opening time. It hadn’t been processed yet by lunch. The library was closed for an hour and a half, at which point the librarian disappeared altogether. Several hours later, he was discovered asleep in some corner, and was dispatched to the philosophy stacks in the basement, where he again vanished. The library closed for the day, and Muzaffar had to go home. Two days later, he rushed to the library in response to a phone call, and there was a big pile of books waiting for him … written in Arabic script, which had been discontinued in 1928. Muzaffar had to get his grandfather to read him the books. “But my grandfather isn’t interested in philosophy. He would read to me only after I spent all Saturday pulling weeds from his cabbage garden. It was a particularly hot day …"
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.
- Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
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.”"