Elif Batuman wrote a really great article for the London Review of Books a while back, about something I’d never heard of (but which seemed to explain a lot) which she calls American programme fiction. She said something which chimed with an idea I’m not sure I’ve really expressed on this blog, but which has always lurked in the background: that nothing is achieved by striving for it. You have to strive for something else, and the thing you didn’t know you wanted will come along en passant, as if by magic or by accident. Why do I write about all these books? Partly to keep a record, and to be able to compare new reads to books whose contents I would otherwise have mostly forgotten. And partly in the hope that something unexpected will cohere. In the article, Batuman says:
The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of pre-existing literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against.Her ideal is for fiction to ‘capture real life by describing the disjuncture between pre-existing literature and the historical present’. Culture talks to itself, reacts against itself, it is constantly on the move.
The Possessed brings together previously published articles about being an academic studying Russian (and sometimes Uzbek) literature. It reads like a single work though, largely due to the three long ‘Summer in Samarkand’ sections, in which Elif and boyfriend Eric spend the summer in Uzbekistan, she to study the Uzbek language and what has been designated (which turns out to be not so straightforward) its national literature. They are at the mercy of their host, Gulya, who is both over-protective and cynical – late on in the stay the couple realise that the ant-infested vat of marmalade they get to use for their toast is used only by them: there is another kitchen which the family uses, and which has a sealed vat of marmalade. Incidental details of this sort are mixed in with academic activity – reading books, in other words, slots into life here much as it actually does. It’s a very engaging approach, and useful in the opportunities it gives for parallels. For instance, the character Stavrogin from Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (AKA Demons AKA The Devils) is ‘unspeakably elegant, irreproachably dressed, eerily handsome’ (p. 256) – everyone falls in love with him, he couldn’t care less and his whole circle ends up destroying itself in one way or another. This is neatly tied to a period of study under adherents of René Girard’s notion of ‘mimetic desire’, and to the similar effect that one of the students, Matej, has on Elif and the rest of the class. They can’t resist the stare. Via the study she works out why The Possessed makes more sense than its disordered emotional carnage would initially suggest, and via Matej she sees the effect this kind of charisma can have on a group. A combination of intent and accident gets her where she didn’t know she wanted to go.