Saturday, May 28, 2011

Elif Batuman – ‘The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them’

The version of War and Peace I read a couple of years ago wasn’t the one I’d grown up staring at on my mother’s book shelves. That one came in two volumes, with black spines, and their ‘WAR AND PEACE 1’ and ‘WAR AND PEACE 2’ seem iconic to me now. The edition of ‘The Cossacks’ in the picture to the left is in the same format, and Anna Karenin turned out, when it arrived in the post this week, to be a ’70s TV tie-in. There is a soft focus photo on the front of a woman in furs standing next to a locomotive wheel which is as tall as she is (it missed her that time, anyway). This was pretty disappointing, I wanted the black expanse and the small, white lettering of the non-TV version. The text is the same, Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation, and that is probably the main thing. I want to get away from the too-modern feel of Anthony Briggs’ War and Peace (very readable and energetic though it was), and what I read online of the modern Pevear / Volokhonsky Anna Karenina doesn’t sound promising.

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.


Chris said...

Coincidentally, I picked up a copy of The Possessed yesterday, drawn to it somehow, despite the terrible UK cover. I'd forgotten all about the LRB article until I read your post, but perhaps that was nagging at my subconscious. Regardless, it strikes me that it's come to something when one of us needs to keep a blog in order to remind him what he has read, and the other needs the same to explain to him why he has bought specific books.

I did read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago; and whilst I can understand and subscribe to the Lingua Franca view of it, I'm not sure that the more literal translation hampered my enjoyment. That said, it was my first experience of Tolstoy, and my expectations were so low that virtually any translation would have exceeded my expectations.

Chris said...

The UK cover hasn't graced Waterstone's Dundee, but it does look horrible online. Though it gets a bit better if you zoom in and notice Eeyore in a Tigger costume.

It took me a long time to get to Tolstoy too, he straggled in eventually after Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and even Turgenev. I was shocked to find myself preferring him to Dostoyevsky. Wonder what it is that made us avoid him?

Chris said...

I'd maintain that the second half of War and Peace explains, and justifies, our reticence perfectly well!

I always quite admired Doestoevsky's spiritualism as it was open-ended and rooted in humanist concerns: emotion, violence, uncertainty, angst. I think I instinctively rejected Tolstoy because his spiritualism, and entire ethos, seemed grounded in an almost hectoring righteous certainty. For the most part, Anna Karenina seems to deal with ambiguities that I'd always considered un-Tolstoy-ian (or whatever that term should be), which is partly what I loved about it. I suspect that Tolstoy viewed the final chapters as a suitable moral rejoinder to those ambiguities (and, by implication, my lax immorality), however.

I'm slightly shocked that you prefer Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, also. I await your next post explaining why Cliff Richard is better than Royal Trux.

Chris said...

Oh, it wasn't anything as ideological as that. I did enjoy both 'The Brothers Karamazov' and 'Crime and Punishment', several years and many years ago respectively, but almost nothing from either of them stuck, even quite soon after finishing them. They seem formless compared to 'War and Peace' (for the sake of argument, let's say the first half of 'War and Peace'). The comparison isn't really fair, given the time elapsed, but certainly Tolstoy was more unexpectedly funny, vigorous, contrary, varied. Dostoyevsky isn't too varied.

And - did Spare Snare ever cover a Royal Trux song?

Ben said...

Rosemary Edmonds is a goddess, yes, but the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation is excellent. Their more literal approach does expose Tolstoy's flaws, which have been papered over by more generous translators.

Surprised you regard Dostoevsky as 'formless'. His structure - his drama - makes him, I think, the tightest and most controlled of Russia's greats.

Try The Gambler, a short Dostoevsky novel, as an example: a novel in three acts which shows the author as dramatist.

Chris said...

Hi Ben, thanks for the tip, I may do just that.

Yeah, 'formless'... maybe that was the wrong word. What I found impressive about Tolstoy was that he could switch between registers so fluidly - y'know, the War and the Peace (as I think Elif Batuman says somewhere). Which isn't necessarily a structural thing, but more to do with range.

My (time-distanced) impression of Dostoyevsky is that he is great at compulsive, driving narratives of mayhem, malice and disintegration, but that he rarely steps outside the flow to take stock.

Ben said...

I think we probably have different opinions about Tolstoy, particularly War and Peace. Where you are impressed by his range in WAP, I sense the immaturity and lack of focus of a young writer.

Dostoevsky allowed his characters' torment and anguish to suggest different viewpoints so the reader can, as you say, take stock.

Tolstoy did move towards this structure in his last novel, Resurrection, in which the varying struggles - ethical, financial, social - of the nobleman and the maid explore different viewpoints.

Blog Archive