notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
Possessed: what an astute name for the way we can become completely entranced by a book. It happens quickly; it only takes a few pages, or paragraphs, for us to forego the heaping pile of laundry, stay up five hours later than we should, and miss our train station due to being so wholly enveloped in an author’s words. Few works of literature really do this nowadays, sadly, and for a long time I felt I was unable to be possessed any longer by the written word. English professors analyzed works to death, forcing me and my classmates into either total boredom or a frantic paranoia induced by the continual reworking of metaphors into further metaphors into even more metaphors.
I am a woman possessed by Elif Batuman’s nonfiction book by that very name. It is described as “Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them,” which may alienate potential readers who’ve had depressingly frustrating experiences with Pushkin or Dostoevsky. My experience with Russian literature is erratic and brief, but a lack of knowledge for Russian novelists has no effect on a reader’s potential to enjoy Batuman’s prose. I read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina four years ago while living and teaching English in Slovakia. It seemed to fit the landscape–snowy, cold, dark. Most of the novel was read, ironically, on trains. I fell in love a little with Levin and believed I saw him in the various strong-jawed Slovak farmers I’d see in villages around the country. Lolita was one of those books I knew I had to read eventually as an English major, so I purchased a 25 cent used copy at a yard sale and read it in two days. I watched the Stanley Kubrick film shortly afterward and then reread the novel a second time, completely confused about my feelings towards Humbert Humbert and wondering if I was reading him, and Nabokov, correctly. And as a graduate student I studied nearly all of Anton Chekov’s short stories–my “Scene-Making” professor, Alan Cheuse, believed him to be a master of the short story, and after a dozen rereadings of “The Lady with the Dog” I know this to be true.
Russian writers aren’t really my “thing”–I’m more of a modern American lit kind of girl–but the cover looked cool (yeah, I judge books by their covers–you know you do the same) and I will pretty much read anything that focuses on the lives of authors. (Speaking of: one of my favorite books, The Secret Lives of Great Authors: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Famous Novelists, Poets and Playwrights, is chock full of dirty, weird secrets from Shakespeare, Kerouac and Alcott, among others. I recommend it.) Elif Batuman (she is Turkish, and currently lives in Istanbul) earned her Undergraduate degree in Literature from Harvard and went to graduate school at Stanford to study Comparative Literature, where she also taught. She’s basically pretty awesome, and I totally want to meet her.
I finished the Introduction on the hour-long train ride to work this morning, and not only did I almost miss my station, I was seriously tempted to cross the terminal, hop on the train going back towards home, and stay in bed all day enjoying Batuman’s book. Here’s one brief passage that I love:
The second time I read [the Russian writer Issac] Babel was in graduate school, for a seminar on literary biography. I read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Calvary cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.
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.
Rain, a virtually unknown Russian journalist, palm trees, chocolate cake–are you as smitten with Batuman as I am yet?