What She Did For Love
The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I love books about books. More particularly, I love books in which the author describes where their love affair with books has led them. Elif Batuman started out her higher education as a linguistics student, but gradually discovered that linguistics didn’t provoke the same passion that literature did. As a student, she believed that “the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many other novels.” But gradually, her views changed.
After reading an essay on Don Quixote by Michel Foucault, she found a new model. Foucault taught her that “Don Quixote is a figure who had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book.” She points out that although the received reading of Don Quixote has it that, to cure the Don’s madness, his friends burn his library because reading romances is stupid and dangerous, in fact they actually only burn fourteen of the thirty books, while fourteen are officially pardoned, reflecting “the balance between life and literature in the plot.” Batuman realizes that “Don Quixote could only have been written by someone who really loved chivalric romances, really wanted his life to resemble them more closely, and understood just what it would cost.”
But also from her reading of Cervantes, she began to ponder whether there might be another way to bring her life closer to her favorite books. Seeing that from Don Quixote onward, the method had been mostly imitative, she wondered what would happen if one tried study instead of imitation.
“What if you read Lost Illusions and, instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, having love affairs—instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions, in order to someday write the same novel for twenty-first-century America—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?”
And this is what Batuman proceeds to do, although it is Russian literature and not French that has captured her heart. Her progress through graduate school is guided by both heart and head. Although many of her decisions are made based on where she will actually be able to get a job and/or some grant money, the realizations she has about love’s urgings are the more enlightening ones. She finds her attraction to Russian language and literature prefigured by her childhood Russian violin teacher, and by a summer vacation spent lying on her grandmother’s couch in Turkey, reading War and Peace.
Turkey, she later reasons, should have had her heart. She worries that it is wasteful for her to be devoting herself to Russian studies when Turkish had already been given to her through the chance of her ancestry.
Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on the least convenient things—and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that’s the wonderful gift right there.
Later, when she realizes that the Uzbek people, among whom she is at that time living, are rooting for the Brazilian soccer team against the Turkish team, despite their close linguistic connections to the Turks, she makes a related discovery that “no geographic location, no foreign language, no preexisting entity at all would ever reconcile “who” you were with ”what” you were, or who you came from with what you liked.” This can be a liberating thing to know.
I haven’t even touched on Batuman’s penetrating insights into Russian literature, so, please–go out and find a copy of this wise and often very funny book yourself.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.