Friday, March 18, 2011

Book review : that annoying, ubiquitous, book by Elif Batuman

There are flashes of charm in this book, counterbalanced by some very tedious patches indeed. Elif Batuman is apparently well-connected enough to have Roz Chast do the artwork for the book cover. She also seems to have a remarkable talent for self-promotion. This book has generated a considerable amount of buzz, and some near-hagiographic reviews.

I don't quite understand why. If one wanted to view things uncharitably, Ms Batuman spent seven somewhat aimless years as a graduate student in comparative literature at Stanford without ever really figuring out why she was there. She did prove quite adept at ferreting out travel grant money, which she used to make various trips to Russia and other former Soviet republics. This book is essentially a travel memoir - the record of those trips. Like most travel memoirs, it is interesting only in spots. Two of the book's seven chapters are quite well-written and manage to sustain the reader's interest (the author's attendance at a conference about Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate, a trip to Saint Petersburg to visit a reconstruction of an ice palace first built in the reign of Catherine the great).

But that's as good as it gets. Ms Batuman once spent a dismal summer visiting Samarkand. Inexplicably, she insists on telling us all about it. In excruciating detail, spread over three chapters. It takes up almost half of the book and is indescribably tedious. As a general rule, other people's travel memoirs are most interesting when things go wrong, but Ms Batuman's account of her summer in Samarkand almost made me stick pencils in my eyes, just to make it stop. Fortunately, the Kindle has an off switch. Two other chapters, the author's ruminations on Dostoyevsky prompted by a trip to Venice and an account of a conference devoted to Isaac Babel that she helped organize at Stanford, were readable, but not particularly interesting. Ms Batuman, or her editor, should have realized that departmental gossip, though it might be catnip for graduate students, is of almost no interest to anyone else.

One point needs to be addressed. Elif Batuman does not want you to think of this book as just a collection of travel pieces. Seven years in graduate school have apparently given her higher aspirations. So she places this really bizarre section at the end of her introductory chapter, in which she essentially seems to be claiming profundity by association. This kind of thing:

What if you read "Lost Illusions" and ... 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?
That is the idea behind this book.

Say what now? Is Ms Batuman suggesting that simply attending a conference on Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate will provide deep insight into his work, or magically improve the quality of one's writing about Tolstoy? This seems charmingly naive, not to say stupid. Or is she just trying to assign some kind of retrospective meaning to her seven years at graduate school?

At any rate, the book is studded throughout with Batuman's assorted drive-by thoughts about various authors, most of them Russian. These are largely innocuous, with the exception of her "analysis" of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed", which is an embarrassment from start to finish. A plodding, blow-by-blow summary that stretches for pages is followed by a summary of what her Stanford professor told the class about it, leading in to her infatuation with charismatic classmate Matej, a smouldering Croatian cliche straight from central casting whose "narrow glinting eyes and high cheekbones" cause her to lose control altogether:

"a long-limbed, perfectly proportioned physical elegance, such that his body always looked at once extravagantly casual and flawlessly composed".

Matej alternates between smoldering and brooding, reducing his classmates (male and female) to a state of drooling concupiscence, eventually triggering some kind of epiphanic advance in Batuman's understanding of "The Possessed" (was the trigger his two-pack-a-day habit, the discovery that his great-uncle was a cardinal, or just the shock of finally landing him in bed?) It's to Batuman's credit that her discussion of "The Possessed" avoids the usual mind-numbing academic jargon -- an unfortunate side effect is that its utter banality becomes impossible to conceal.

I cannot agree with those more enthusiastic reviewers who suggest that Batuman offers particularly keen insights. She clearly enjoys reading, but is not especially adept at engaging the reader's enthusiasm. Unless you have a particular interest in obscure Uzbek poets, or the tedium of life in the former Soviet Union, this much-hyped book is likely to disappoint you.

(It seems only fair to add that a recent New Yorker article by Ms Batuman, about Turkish soccer fans, was everything this book was not - interesting, tightly written, and great fun to read)

1 comment:

  1. The plain people of Ireland: Here, this is very disappointing. We didn't come down in the last shower, you know. These last two entries are what - nothing more than recycled content available elsewhere on the web. One amusing YouTube video, and a book review that you've been getting mileage out of for over a week now on that other site. Where's the exciting new material that us loyal readers tune in for?

    WC management: Ah, so ye noticed that, did ye? Well, get down off yeer high horse. Eventually, there will be posts that do justice to yesterday's exciting mock trial of Napoleon, and the class trip to Belleville (regrettably devoid of triplets). But the fact of the matter is that I am currently laid up at home with a very nasty cold indeed. In fact, I think I feel a sneeze coming on .. Ah-... Ah--... AH---...

    PPoI: (scattering in disarray) OK, OK, we got it.