Leo Tolstoy, left, Isaac Babel and Feodor Dostoevsky. (Ecco (Tolstoy), Nancy Ohanian…)
Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $15
Elif Batuman teaches at Stanford University, and her first book of essays, "The Possessed," dances between autobiography, travel-writing and literary criticism with dazzling flair and originality. "While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone of planet Earth . . . is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering," she writes in "Babel in California," "one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to make comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?"
Among the things literature's good for, Batuman illustrates, is to provide a small number of very smart people with academic ground that must be protected and peed all over, and thus with boundless opportunities to demonstrate the nature of human absurdity.
"Babel in California" tells how Batuman fell in love with Isaac Babel, the most electric of Russian writers, then shows that idealized literary love bumping up against actual life in the hilarious, chastening shape of a Babel conference at Stanford organized by her mentor, the great Babelogist Grisha Freidin. Batuman helps with an exhibit and discovers in the bowels of Stanford's Hoover library a true wonderland of previously hidden connections between Babel and the 1933 movie "King Kong." She's sent to the airport to pick up Babel's second wife and one of his daughters, two tired Russian women who keep firing questions about the McDonald's Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit, hanging from the mirror of the car that Batuman is driving.
Conference panels end in pandemonium; Russian scholars, upset by the presence of two Chinese filmmakers preparing a script from Babel stories, mutter "We don't mess with your 'I-Ching' "; and there's a dinner "straight out of Dostoyevsky" in which Batuman and Freidin get the evil eye from a vain English translator in whose acclaimed Babel collection edition they have discovered mistakes. Yet even this isn't the marvelous climax of the dinner, which comes when Babel's daughter by his first wife stares at Babel's second wife and shouts "THAT OLD WITCH WILL BURY US ALL."
Beyond the deliciousness of this comedy, Batuman explores the enigma of identity, "the problem of the person," the piece of every writer, every human being, that lies concealed behind his or her most intimate act. How do we truly grasp the nature of somebody else? Who was Isaac Babel, really? These are questions that can make scholars nuts in their pursuit of understanding writing so good that it transforms lives -- writing that was nonetheless created by men and women who trod the same earth as the rest of us.
In her introduction, Batuman explains that, on graduation, she originally planned to write a novel, but she became disillusioned with the "culture" of creative writing, with writing workshops "and short-stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students." She contrasts such stories with the monolithic yet more impulsive genius of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and with Chekhov's beautiful story "Lady With a Lapdog," fictions that get at the essence of people and things while not needing to name them. "No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog," Batuman writes with superb wit.
The author never completely sides with the academics, however. In other essays she riffs on the lives of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov while her novelist's eye observes the terrain she travels and the foibles of the scholars she meets. At a four-day "International Tolstoy Conference" at Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana estate, Batuman plausibly hypothesizes that Tolstoy was killed by his wife and reads a paper about the double plot in "Anna Karenina." Yet her smarts are allied to a winning fondness for self-mockery, and she also tells us that, since Aeroflot had lost her bag, she had to wear, for almost the entire conference, the clothes in which she had traveled: "flip-flops, sweatpants, and a flannel shirt. I had hoped to sleep on the plane and had dressed accordingly. Some International Tolstoy Scholars assumed that I was a Tolstoyan -- that like Tolstoy and his followers I had taken a vow to walk around in sandals and wear the same peasant shirt all day and all night."