A conversation with Elif Batuman, whose memoir takes us into the literary dreamlands of yesteryear Russia.
In trying to interview American writer and journalist Elif Batuman when she visited the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), I entered the particular universe her characters occupy in her book, The Possessed: a rarefied demi-monde, if ever there was one. In narrating a writer’s adventures with Russian classics and showing how real life rubs up against them, the book — moving from Tashkent to Moscow to San Francisco — is constituted of a world of scholars and specialists, philosophers and prosodists, linguists and librarians, with a logic and impetus of its own. It’s easy to become one of the possessed.
A staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributor to n+1, The Guardian and London Review of Books, 35-year-old Batuman has earned a steady readership devoted to her learned quirkiness. Currently writer-in-residence at Koç University, Istanbul, Batuman was one of the festival’s insider favourites, when she visited.
Mining how literature continues to make sense of our world, The Possessed (nominated for several major book awards such as The Guardian first book award), defends monomania even as it champions serendipity. As it unfolds, Babel’s daughters prove themselves batty, Tolstoy scholars soil themselves, ice palaces of former empresses are recalled. A consistent and wonderfully clumsy dialogue emerges between present truths and past wisdoms. So, it was fitting that engaging with the author herself followed a similarly whimsical path.
I hadn’t finished Batuman’s book when she was around the press terrace and wanted to interview her authentically so I held back; after a couple of days, I ambushed her after her 10 am session, then let her be when I realised she was more exhausted than I was, at this relatively early hour. I had friends who were chatting with her, but held back, not having had “the interview”. Finally, I pinned her down on email, where I felt like I might be impinging less on her time. In the odd way that emails are today intimate, I sent her my questions, and could sense she’d reply within the next 24 hours.
The next evening, in came her responses, hot off her fingers: here was 21 century literary dialogue. We had spoken only briefly at Jaipur, but through her book and various writings — ranging in subject from women’s theatre in rural Turkey to life after producing a best-seller — and now this, it seemed we had communicated much more profoundly. I felt like Chekhov was watching somewhere, and smiling.
At what point did the book become non-fiction, and not the novel you intended?
I originally tried to submit the Tolstoy murder story to Harper’s as a short story, and then my editor was like “Wait, we’re publishing this as nonfiction.” I was initially upset because I had been hoping to disguise people’s identities a bit more, and not alienate the international Tolstoy scholars’ community — but Harper’s made it clear they were only going to publish it as non-fiction. So I went back and changed everything (retaining only a few little changes in names, nationalities, etc.), and it was fact-checked, and that’s how it was published. That was I think in 2008. The same thing happened with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an American book publishing company who published Batuman, also known as FSG).
How did you organise the structure of The Possessed?
My editor at FSG, Lorin Stein (now editor of The Paris Review), helped a lot with the structure. The book was really his idea. I’d wanted to write The Possessed as a novel (“a retelling of Dostoevsky’s Possessed set in a present-day Stanford-like graduate literature program”) and nobody was interested in it, and I was negotiating with my agent about possible alternative book projects, and at a certain point Lorin was like “Listen you already have a book of pieces you wrote about Russian literature.”
At that point I already had the Babel and Tolstoy pieces and half of Samarkand. At first, I had been thinking I wanted my Possessed book to be one continuous story instead of episodes — but then when I was thinking about Babel’s story cycles, I decided that trying to write a series of episodic, theoretically self-standing narratives that feel like a larger story, a Russian story, would be more fun and interesting. That’s when I wrote the final chapter/ essay “The Possessed” (using the premise I had originally planned to use as a novel).
Your most unusual choice to my mind is the spreading out of the three parts of “Summer in Samarkhand”, with the “Tolstoy” and “House of Ice” chapters in between. Can you explain this choice?
The decision to break up Samarkand was based partly on symmetry (it would be weird to have one chapter three times longer than all the others), and partly because Lorin and I both thought it would be funny. One of the themes of “Summer in Samarkand” is how long and inescapable it was, and we thought it would be funny for the reader to be like “Oh my god I thought that was over” but surprise, they’re back again! We also thought it was funny and somehow true to life to have nearly half of a book about Russian literature take place in Uzbekistan.
And was there something you had to leave out which you wish you could put in, two years post publication?
There were some other Russia-themed articles I wrote during what I think of as the “possessed” years (one about Russian church bells in The New Yorker, and a profile of Timur Bekmambetov for Snob magazine), which I thought could be chapters, because there were various back-stories I could have told about them, but in the end they didn’t fit into the arc.
Tell us about the novel you are now writing...
It’s called The Two Lives and it’s about a non-fiction journalist for a New Yorker-like publication, and how her personal life intersects/ interacts with the lives of the people she writes about. It’s also told in self-standing essayistic chapters, like The Possessed. The title is from Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog”, about the man who realises he’s living two lives. (In The Possessed, Batuman says: “I especially remember the passage about how everyone has two lives — one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other ‘running its course in secret’ — and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one.”)
I feel like you might have been more at home in 1980s India than in 1980s America, in your love for Russian classics. Was there any version of this kind of interest in Russian literature when you were growing up; any literary cult that preceded university?
There’s definitely a culture of Russian literature in Turkey. And in the US too, to an extent — especially Dostoevsky.
How does one balance the desire to read classics with the desire to read contemporary literature? How did you balance the two in the writing of this book?
It’s hard. I didn’t read a lot of contemporary literature while I was writing the book.