Monday, November 15, 2010

The protagonist’s struggle to transform her arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as her favorite books - Elif Batuman's novel

Last week I wrote about a couple of Laura Ingalls Wilder books as if they were fiction.  I know that they are often read otherwise, as memoir, as non-fiction.  They are mostly true.  True in outline.  True in – what?  Wilder could have published a memoir, identified as such.  I read somewhere that she explicitly called her books “historical novels.”  The choice of fiction gave Wilder something she wanted – a freedom to rearrange or invent incidents, or to add artful detail.  Perhaps fiction simply removed her anxiety about accuracy.

Or is this all just marketing?  Last summer I read a memoir that seemed blatantly fictional, or partly fictional, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010).  Many reviewers have noted that the book’s subtitle (Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) is deceptive – I would guess that The Memoir of a Stanford Comparative Literature Graduate Student would dampen sales.  Batuman is funny and a skilled writer, and her graduate studies fortunately include two short trips to Russia and a summer in Uzbekistan, which gives her something to write about.  The Samarkand episode makes up over a third of the book, and was easily my favorite part, although please see this Language Hat post for an ethical objection that just about does in the novel.  See this post, too.

Did I say novel?  I thought it was a memoir.  Or a collection of essays.  Or of magazine pieces.  All of the above!  I don’t quite remember exactly where I became suspicious.  The first chapter spends a little too much time on Batuman’s failed efforts to write fiction, and ends with a revelation so idiotic it is evidently a gag, misdirection: “What if you wrote a book and it were all true?” (25).  What a novel idea, Elif!  Ha ha.  Pun intended.

Here’s a point where I was sure I was reading a novel.  Batuman is in Ankara:

As a child I was fascinated by these crackers, which do not contain almonds, but are shaped like almonds.  This was my first lesson in metonymy.  Here, stopped at a red light, the driver half turned to face me.

“Would you like an apple?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I said.

“I picked these apples myself,” he said.  “With my own hands, from my own garden.”

From a plastic bag on the passenger seat, he produced a small apple.

The apple was hard, green, and misshapen, like the answer to some pointless riddle. (86-7)

And then, white space, a break in the text.  Kinda odd, I thought.  And it’s odd because it isn’t.  It’s a perfectly ordinary incident made strange simply because it is singled out.  That “pointless riddle,” especially, made me wonder.

Fifty pages later, apple #2, in Russia, this time:

The garden was empty but for the conference organizer, who was making a video recording of Chekhov’s apple trees, and the Malevich scholar, who stooped to pick up an apple, stared at it, and took an enormous, yawning bite. (136)

And – white space.  Huh.  At this point, I was absolutely certain that I would find one more apple.  We need three to fit various fairy tales and myths.  That’s how fiction works, right, the author overlays symbolic patterns on otherwise prosaic events?  But I began to despair.  Maybe I had misjudged.  I am on the next-to-last page - where's that third apple? Never mind - here it is:

One way to interpret [Chekhov’s] “The Black Monk” is as a cautionary tale about academic scholarship as a form of madness.  This madness affects not just Kovrin but also the horticulturalist, whose articles on seemingly “peaceful and impersonal” subjects – intercropping, the Russian Antonovsky apple – invariably devolves into invective against other horticulturalists. (289)

Language Hat, in the first post linked above, wonders why Batuman ends the book with this Chekhov story (and he’s right, the last chapter is weak).  We should now see why – she has to get that third apple into the book, and it has to link back to the second apple, from Chekhov’s apple tree.  How it fits with the first apple – the answer to the “pointless riddle”  – I will leave to future Batuman scholars.

I could have skipped all of this.  Batuman says, as directly as possible in this kind of postmodern screwing around, that her book is a novel:

Several years later, while writing my dissertation (about European novels), I formulated a theory of the novel: the novel form is “about” the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books. (94)

The book I had been reading for 94 pages is “about” “the protagonist’s etc.”  Batuman defines the novel as the book she wrote, the book I was reading.

I don’t actually care that Elif Batuman’s memoir, presumably mostly true, mostly non-fiction, is also partly a novel, and partly fiction.  W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982) are also mostly true – almost entirely true – but are called, by their authors, novels.  Much fiction is true, much non-fiction is false; much that is false is valuable, much that is true is not.  And why should I depend on publisher’s labels to tell me how to read a book?  However a book is marketed, keep your eye on the apples.


  1. Now you throw out Batuman? From the summer? Any thoughts on Gessen's book? We're on a roll!

    In my brief sprint through these guys--very early, mid-2010 kinda stuff, as it turns out--I didn't make it through Kunkle's Indecision, which was the first of "these books."

    Any thoughts on the novel that Batuman abandoned? The version of The Possessed that is set at the Stanford Grad department? She seemed to tell the story without telling it in describing the "mad monk" towards the end of The Possessed (her version).

    Ah, these youngsters. The serious ones are so intriguing.

  2. Oh, I haven't read any other n+1 books, although figuring out the conection was sure as heck another clue as to what Batuman's book is. Kunkel gave the book a blurb that makes him sound like a hack and sycophant of the highest order. "To call her one of the best writers of her generation is only stating the obvious." Log-rolling garbage. Batuman didn't email him to say "Geez, Ben, tone it down"?

    I think the travel pieces are or were part of the novel somehow, too, but I'll bet you're right, that the Black Monk / Stavrogin stuff was the core. In which case - thank goodness she wrote this book instead! It's funny! Except for that dreary chapter about the Black Monk / Stavrogin!

  3. A brilliant article. You approached it with far more humour and insight than I did. As you may know I am an avid reader of Sebald but see his work as fiction - the narrator is a wholly fictional version of himself I feel.

  4. Absolutely - the Sebald (or the Bolaño) who appears in S. (or B.) novels is a character. The intrusion of fiction into all of the factual matter of The Rings of Saturn, for example, is an enormous complication. I suspect that Batuman aspires to that sort of complexity, but then she or her publisher balked - for marketing reasons? - at labeling her work fiction. And who are we kidding, the factual standards for non-fiction are pretty porous these days. Of course, her fiction or nn-fiction is not all that complex. Kind of glib or "cheap," as you say in your piece.