Category: Soviet culture

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: A love sonnet to literature and all its students

A long, pained decade of crudely administered austerity medicine after the global financial apocalypse of 2008 has left opulent scars on academia. Fewer students today choose to embark upon the study of humanities and, specifically, literature, than ever before in history of democratized access to education in the West. Countless pearls of our common literary heritage are lingering untasted and untested, all the while the increasingly dwindling number of PhDs, associate profs, fellows, and other knights of assorted regalia continue firing off essays, articles, and books that even fewer leaf through. It’s bleak and it sucks, and while the fine craft of belles lettres is ghosted by policy-makers who robotically herd the young’uns into science, tech, engineering, and maths, we’ve got Elif Batuman, her golden feather pen, and the kind of unwilting love of literature that makes one miss grad school with its all-nighters, caffeinated seminars, ulcers, halitosis, and overdue library books.

Elif Batuman takes us on a journey of her Russian literature studies, with some quintessentially academic self-congratulatory circle-jerking, plenty of beautifully phrased intertextual tapestry of Tolstoy, Babel, and Dostoyevsky, and a curious passeggiata through mythical Uzbekistan (birds, melons, and Timurids galore). In an inadvertent nod to the hilarious father of the campus novel genre David Lodge, much of all this literary analysis with the side of Derrida is steeped in a grad school cocktail of beer-cigarettes-infatuation. Like billiard balls, these academic pilgrims stumble into bits and morsels of knowledge, beautiful and fragile, holding it “like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.” Not in vain:

“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” 

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

In order to find these answers, Batuman’s character first needs to answer the two fundamental Russian problems (“What is To Be Done?” and “Who Is To Blame?” of course). She also has to figure out, after all these linguistic, literary, and logistical acrobatics, What Is Russia? Sadly, she never does, her gaze always already corrupted by the kind of apologist lens Nabokov himself would get pissed about when confronting some Oxbridge Russophiles who waxed poetic over Bolshevism. It’s all fun and games when your character dreams about playing tennis against Tolstoy, but when it comes to truly unpacking the toxic sediment of imperialism, colonialism, and a plethora of other -isms of the Russian Empire/USSR, The Possessed bashfully skirts around the hard stuff, and traipses away. Maybe next time. As such, the original question still stands very much open, even after some very sincere epistemological exercises:

“I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed

Words and ideas have no memory? The entire field of etymology (along with millions of post-colonial peoples of this planet) beg to differ. One shouldn’t fault Batuman’s character too harshly though. She is, after all, a student (and a bloody good one), passing the flaming torch to the next generation of curious spirits with appetite for learning and love of beauty. And that’s the point.

Image: Portrait of Tolstoy and Wife by Ilya Repin

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Soviet woes, immigrant angst, and women of steel

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine: Soviet woes, immigrant angst, and women of steel

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by the immensely talented and shockingly young Alina Brodsky, is just terrifying. And hilarious. And so outrageously similar to my own Soviet PTSD childhood that if I am ever fortunate enough to meet the author I’ll be sure to give her a suffocating hug and charm her into sharing a steaming hot cauldron of plov (look it up – it’s delicious, all that lamb and raisins and rice, mmm).

So what do we have in these 200-odd pages of tragicomedy… At the center of it all, in the middle of perestroika, the rationing and the bread lines, amid the collapse of cosmopolitan Soviet identity and a still birth of the old-new Tartar ethos, in the very throbbing nucleus of all this apocalyptic soup, there stands a Woman. In fishnet stockings and red lipstick. A narcissist, a stakhanovite, a gold-digger, an abusive mother and a loving grandmother, a shitty wife and a strangely charismatic lover, a master puppeteer and a savoury sex object with special popularity among  pasty-white and sometimes rich Westerners. Her ability to bombshell the lives of everyone around her is phenomenal, just like the depth of her sadomasocistic love for the very people she poisons, like a slowly seeping nuclear reactor. She is the penultimate Cronus, the mythical Greek god who devours his children out of fear and jealousy. A Cannibal-Mother that charges some hefty interest for giving you life, so hefty, in fact, that she chooses to repossess her selfless gift while her offspring writhes in pain and gasps for air. Freud would inevitably roll his eyes and sigh predictably.

She survives through all historical cataclysms that befall her generations (from being a post-war orphan to witnessing the death of the Soviet empire) with the grace of a swan and the evolutionary prowess of a cockroach. There’s a popular saying that characterizes the enduring strength and kamikaze courage of a Russian woman: she can “stop a galloping horse and run into a burning house.” Our main heroine is capable of that and more: bribery and extortion, homemade abortions, making preserves, contraband, forcing men to marry one’s daughter, immigration, Yiddish food, Tartar food, Russian food, breaking up marriages, driving German cars, flirting with ski instructors, and living, always living through it all with clenched fists and snapping teeth, always pushing through obstacles in classically Darwinian fashion.

Nothing is off-limits in this book, because nothing is off-limits in real life. The worst thing that can happen will happen, and no amount of good graces with God, Karl Marx, or Uncle Sam will ward off the corrosive stench of failure. Our characters, oscillating between Tartar and Soviet identities, pilgriming to the better side of the Berlin Wall in search of McDonald’s and bubble gum, all come off of the totalitarian conveyor belt with a potent “tough life” vaccine. Will it be strong enough to preserve them against the infections of the Western kind? Do you get a rationing card for your very own Happily Ever After once you cross that international border? Might as well spit three times over your left shoulder for good luck because, as the Russians say, “free cheese can be found only in mousetraps.”

Now, I may have painted a bleak landscape, but don’t get me wrong, the stuffing is, nevertheless, pure hilarity. We are treated to hours of laugh-out-loud humour, inappropriate, disturbing, awkward, and downright messed up. Don’t laugh too hard though for, as the darling Russians caution, “laughter without reason is a sign of imbecility.” Keep it dignified, keep it on the DL.

Image: Candidate for the beauty contest. Riga, 1988.