When I was learning Italian, asking our teacher how to express this or that commonplace concept would often elicit a gaze into the distance followed by the firm declaration: "In Italian ... we don't say."
Anyone who's ever learnt a foreign language eventually reaches the zone of the untranslatable; the realisation that you are not just swapping one set of signifiers for another, but entering a different mode of being. In Elif Batuman's entertaining book, the translation is a double one. The book details her adventures in Russian literature, among the Russian people, and within the eccentric community of scholars. But a deeper theme emerges: how life translates into literature; how literature in turn informs and modifies life.
The book explains how she managed to spend "seven years in the Stanford comparative literature department", the result of a fascination ignited by "the first Russian person I ever met". Maxim, her Manhattan violin tutor, possessed a strange psychic hinterland that caused him to behave in unfathomable ways. He "produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition", a condition she diagnoses as Russian.
A clue to the book's loose structure can be found in the note "Some of these essays have appeared, in slightly different form, in Harper's Magazine, n+1 and The New Yorker". Repetitions creep in here and there, another sign that the book is made up of discrete pieces casually slung together, whether Batuman is studying Old Uzbek poets in Samarkand, attending conferences on Isaak Babel and Tolstoy or navigating campus affairs. They are slickly and sharply written, giving a faint sense that life and character is being compressed for comic effect. Her eye for detail is superb; in St Petersburg to write a piece about a replica of a crazed Tsarina's ice palace, she remarks on a hotel chandelier which hangs "not from the centre of the ceiling, but almost in a corner, like a sleeping bat". It's a neat, Gothic touch that subtly supports her assertion that "Petersburg is a scary place", so often, in literature, the scene of a murder.
Chastely written, the book nevertheless features a good deal of romance, as in the bravura final section which combines a fascinating reading of Dostoevsky's novel Demons and its anti-hero Stavrogin with an account of a Croatian scholar who briefly inspires Stavrogin-like levels of adoration among Batuman's coterie. (Fortunately, without that novel's savage denouement.) Elsewhere, we learn that William Cowper wrote lyrically about Empress Anna's ice palace in his poem "The Task", that Tolstoy loved tennis, that there are 100 words for crying in Old Uzbek, and that Babel interrogated the future producer of King Kong.
"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again," says Batuman in a final paragraph of summation. This clever, life-loving account of a love affair with language transcends its jumbled origins to become an eloquent defence of the book.