By Maya Palit
Until the grand old age of 21, the Turkish-American author Elif Batuman was morbidly anxious about going into academia. She was convinced that good writing stems from lived experience, not from poring over novels. Theory is stale and cold, reductive and superficial. And literary history is the worst of the lot.
“Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place, like that an earlier author had been influenced by a later author?” she remembers wondering, in her introduction to The Possessed, her 2010 book of essays, which explains wryly how she backtracked and eventually became a scholar of Russian novels. Batuman’s lived experience then became like something out of adolescents’ wish-fulfillment fiction. The book is full of odd, funny and unlikely scholarship – delivering a paper at a Tolstoy conference in Russia and speculating whether he was murdered, for instance – and became an odd, funny and unlikely bestseller. Even her very first piece of journalism made it to the New Yorker.
Batuman’s doubts about literary history may have left her – since The Possessed she’s written several pieces that indulge her passion for it, from Vladimir Nabokov’s side hustle as a butterfly illustrator to the plausibility of Ebenezer Scrooge as a psychotherapy patient – but it’s not been so for the rest of us. I can’t remember how many times I, as a Literature undergrad comparing sources for Shakespearean tragedies, had the suspicion that what I was studying was morbidly obscure. Or that when it was related to ‘real life’, it was also parasitical, ridiculously elitist, and deeply unhelpful. These were, back then, nagging thoughts not easily alleviated by Forbes articles instructing Science students to read Literature because it will help them navigate through life. (A recent piece in The Wired, which points out that academic work around issues like discrimination might be more helpful than data based on algorithms, is more convincing.)
I realise that I’m not alone in this muddle. Recently, a former Philosophy student turned activist and lawyer was relating what she hated about academia: “They use too many big words, they are too elitist and upper caste and often have no connection with people from a different class. They think institutional recognition is the same as intelligence.” Another friend, and a lawyer who abandoned NGO work and is about to begin teaching law chipped in too: “They have too many pimples and they never turn up for anything political, even if they agree with it – what’s that about? They’re always changing their opinion based on funding, but always say ‘The money is coincidental.’ They always look for building chelas, they keep employing people they like in positions and ensure there are always people who’ll agree with them in places.”
How did Batuman overcome her qualms? It was more a process of elimination, really, she has said. She puts it down to one summer when, hoping to run from the impending doom of a PhD., she wrote 75 pages from the perspective of a dog and was accepted into a fiction-writing workshop. But she also developed a suspicion of the program director’s gruff ultimatum: “Well if you want to be an academic, go to graduate school… If you want to be a writer, come here.” Instead, she embarked on a seven-year tryst with the formidable masters of Russian literature. And her book reveals how literary history can be anything but boring.
The Possessed takes you on a literary tour through Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Ankara in Turkey, and Moscow in Russia, all from the perspective of a keen and somewhat lost researcher. In the hilarious Tolstoy story, she explains how the neat divide often made between stuffy literature and scintillating life doesn’t always hold up. For one thing, Batuman answers her own question about the point of establishing relationships between long-dead writers as she tells you Chekhov showed up at Tolstoy’s house to make an impression, but was instead taken along to an ablutions session, and intimidated by the magnificence of Tolstoy’s beard.
While Batuman pinpoints the absurd, farcical quality of studying certain literary minutiae (you are privy to a never-ending discussion between 70-year-olds about whether or not Tolstoy had read Alice in Wonderland before 1893), she also introduces you to a host of nutcase literary enthusiasts and engaging details about the history of Russian literature. An old Scotch-loving Czech researcher shits his pants on the bus but won’t throw them away because he is a die-hard Tolstoyan who wants to wear the same pair of clothes. A Russian textologist punctuates her speeches with “if we are still alive” because that phrase surfaced in Tolstoy’s later work. All along, Batuman herself remains distracted with a conspiracy theory about Tolstoy being murdered, and walks you through entertaining digressions about his state enemies, bloodthirsty heirs, dodgy editor with an agenda, and ferocious wife Sonya (she might have been hell-bent on poisoning him with a toxic plant called stinking nightshade).
The Possessed took its name from a Dostoevsky novel about intellectuals descending into madness, and when you read her book you see why. But her obsession becomes a spring-well which throws up little-known facts about the weird and stormy lives of canonical authors, and the pleasure you get from reading it is not because these are sensational stories. It is simply the pleasure of reading the work of someone who is invested enough in her work to have plumbed the depths of a seemingly obscure subject and unearthed incredible details. I get the same feeling when I read authors like the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexeivich, who writes a sprawling history of Socialism but based entirely on the emotional lives of individuals living under its grip.
But if The Possessed reaffirmed my faith in literary research, Batuman’s new novel The Idiot (2017), did exactly the opposite.
The new book follows Selin, a Harvard literature undergraduate through her Freshman year. The tone is tongue-in-cheek and incredibly deadpan, and attempts to poke fun at the self-indulgent misery of adolescence (Selin’s eternal struggle to feel like ‘part of something bigger than I was’, followed by her falling in love with a Hungarian student and agonising endlessly over it). It also satirises the unbelievably pretentious situations students of Literature tend to find themselves in, from being surrounded by students who deconstruct the symbolism of a burrito (“… so the burrito is obviously a phallus, a human phallus: it’s simultaneously taboo… and yet it’s something that has to enter your body”) to the cryptic classes: “In Constructed Worlds, we took turns presenting our constructed worlds”, Selin narrates wearily.
I was reminded of the time a lovely Mathematics student erupted into giggles when I pulled out a book called Thiefing Sugar, and announced that it would help me write about the history of sugar plantations. I’d borrowed it from the library three minutes before closing time, so like a moron, I had missed the subtitle inside the book: ‘Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature’. I never lived down how much of a faffer I could be.
Despite it being comical in parts, and an exaggerated parody, The Idiot brought back several of the questions hurled at me, which I in turn I hurled at my discipline, as an undergraduate. That the subject encourages you to live inside your own head and perpetuates a reliance on pompous jargon that you don’t even want people to comprehend (a Physics student I shared a house with once read a prescribed essay for my course, and for the next six months, asked me every evening how much I had ‘negotiated’ and ‘mediated’ that day). That as a writer, academia can make you precious and agonise over your writing because you are trained to believe that every syllable counts, even though it doesn’t.
But then I remembered a professor of mine who looked perpetually amused at naïve undergrad students yapping about their eagerness to break the ‘bubble’. Each time, in the same resigned world-weary tone, he would tell us how he had been super pumped about ‘the real world’ too, which led him to quit academia and became a war reporter. Then he realised all the vices he had put down to academia existed in different ways but in the same proportion in the media world: its own incomprehensible jargon, its lack of humanity, the tendency to ventriloquize and peruse other people’s pathos for the purpose of an enthralling story, the arrogance of assuming you’re contributing to something by deigning to bring it into your purview.
Another less jaded story of a return to academia I heard recently from a friend who left public archiving to do a degree in History. This is her ‘sorted’ explanation for how studying the subject in depth will actually assist her in building heritage projects that need to be accessible to the public: ‘The exhibitions and brochures are usually dependent on academic work but need to be catchy and succinct. But I felt that to do it well you need a specialised knowledge of history. You have to be okay with doing quick research, but also have a deeper understanding to begin with. So I went back to academia to be able to dig deeper. There’s some joy I get from just knowing a lot of specific details about a focussed area.”
How do you get around these dilemmas? I haven’t yet, I just took the most convenient route and fled academia for a brief while.
But maybe you could stay afloat by not subjecting yourself constantly to the existential agony of wondering whether your work means or does something to someone else. By resisting the urge to box your discipline into the watertight boxes its critics will undoubtedly warn you about. By channeling Elif and not Selin.