Any reader seriously interested in Russian literature should approach this book with caution. Clearly, Elif Batuman is a Russophile. But in these "adventures with Russian books and the people who read them", as she casts her eye over her favourite authors, the project seems largely driven by a search to find new, improbable "angles". In the pursuit of Tolstoy's murderer or the relationship between imagery used by Isaac Babel and the movie King Kong, Batuman sheds little light on the authors or their books, while wringing maximum comedy from the pursuit.
"What if", the author asks, "you read Lost Illusions and instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews and having love affairs –instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions... what if instead you went to Balzac's house and Madame Hanska's estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him – and then started writing?" Batuman answers her own rhetorical question: "That is the idea behind this book." The claim is puzzling. Many people do work at understanding an author in the way Batuman outlines: scholars and/or literary biographers.
Batuman has no aspirations of this kind, and total immersion has nothing to do with the hectic itinerary of The Possessed. The joke, that young novelists set out to write a novel that has already been written (and live an artistic life already led), is a good one, but the paragraph has a hollow core. It leaves the reader still not knowing why this book demanded to be written.
Many other works of fiction besides Russian novels feature in The Possessed. The free-ranging enthusiasm for literature produces refreshing encounters with texts, but sometimes on familiar theoretical territory. So boundaries between fiction and reality are fluid, and books are about other books?
This is old news, and requires a high degree of stylishness to be worth re-reading. Batuman elsewhere admits to being a novelist manqué. However, an autobiographical novel is what The Possessed in its most (apparently) honest moments resembles. We learn about the writer's mother in Ankara, her student life at Stanford, her travels, friends, lovers, teachers, and her usually successful efforts at raising research grants and pitching articles: all this is lively and interesting.
Batuman's writing is at its most entertaining when recording what readers must presume to be her experiences, and most dull when paraphrasing plots, or re-hashing biographical facts and scholarly opinions. Central to the book is a sprawling but interesting essay on the experience of learning Uzbek, "Summer in Samarkand". It has been torn into three parts, and interspersed with other material, presumably to encourage the reader to go on believing that this is really a book about Russian novels. But it contains her most original writing.
Batuman has a sharp eye for the absurdities of academics while benefiting, one can't help feeling, from their gullibility. She writes funny accounts of various literary conferences, though her humour can seem brashly cruel when directed at the old and infirm.
Dostoyevsky and autobiographical demons meet in the final chapter. In Florence "to research a magazine article about a Dante marathon," Batuman spots the house where Dostoyevsky finished The Idiot. So she plunges into an account of the novel whose title, Demons, was once mistranslated as The Possessed. Dostoevsky's political and philosophical themes are largely set aside in a reading that takes its theoretical position from René Girard, and finds the characters surrounding the protagonist Stavrogin to be victims of mimetic desire.
Put simply, this theory says that we do not wish to have, but to be, those whom we desire. It would account for the idea that writers try to live like the writers they admire, and write versions of the same books.
Batuman has almost as much fun with the creative-writing workshop as the literary conference, and she is rightly scathing of the kind in which the members read nothing but one another's efforts. But perhaps if she had learnt a little more about craft (a word she associates with wicker baskets) she might have produced a more cohesive book. And, as a stylist, she might have learned to resist cliché. In the chapter called "Babel in California" there is a paragraph in which Babel finds himself "on increasingly thin ice" and "Stalin presumably had bigger fish to fry." It concludes "What tipped the scale?" Whatever did, I doubt that the Cape Cod Writers' Workshop would let one of their number get away with such fishy writing.
Carol Rumens's 'De Chirico's Threads' is published by Seren