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Elif Batuman In Search of Accountable Time


Yuka Igarashi reports on author Elif Batuman’s recent lecture at the British Museum, and asks, at what price does a writer’s material come?

Last Monday, Elif Batuman took to the stage at the British Museum lecture theatre to explain what Don Quixote had to do with accounting.

The title of her talk, for the London Review of Books Winter Lectures series, sounds like a parody of scholarly obscurity: ‘Cervantes, Balzac and double-entry bookkeeping’. But readers familiar with Batuman’s book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them knew to expect something much more entertaining—and wide-ranging—than an academic paper. The Possessed is about Batuman's years studying for a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford. It’s been called a mix of memoir and criticism, and she herself has called her writing ‘literary fluff journalism’. Even taken together, though, these categories don’t nearly describe the book.

All academics are analogy-makers, but Batuman is a fearless, boundary-ignoring one. In a chapter on Isaac Babel, she compares the 'military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign' to the 'culinary embarrassment' of a cake she bakes; in her study of Dostoyevsky, she shows what the literary theory of mimetic desire has to do with an affair she has with a Croatian philosophy major. She uses a Tolstoy play as evidence in a Sherlock-Holmes-inspired mystery about the writer's death; she draws a parallel between her summer studying poetry in Uzbekistan and an excised chapter of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

Don Quixote

Although her presentation didn’t have the same idiosyncratically autobiographical focus, Batuman’s talent for analogies was still on display at the British Museum. The novel is like the account book (both forms of recording life arose around the same time, as paper became more readily available); the obsessive need to account for one's financial dealings is like the obsessive need for spiritual confession; Levin is to Anna Karenina what Leporello is to the opera Don Giovanni.

Batuman’s hyperlinking brain is engaging, even infectious: I couldn't help making my own connections. What tied this lecture to The Possessed—and in fact to everything I had read by Batuman—was her concern with how writers should live. She's interested in the connection (there it is again) between a writer's life and what they put of it in their writing.

In her lecture, she set up writing and life as a 'credit/debit' relationship: writing takes time, but you need to take time away from writing to have something to write about. So how do writers negotiate their time-accounts? To her, Don Quixote is about a guy who accrues a ‘credit’ of experiences in order to write a book like the chivalric romances he loves: ‘debit’. Proust's In Search of Lost Time is about a guy who has no real material (credit) and manages to write a seven-volume novel anyway (debit).

Where does material come from? Where should it come from? These questions become especially compelling when Batuman relates it to her ideas about ‘narratives of victimhood’.

Batuman didn’t discuss this topic in her lecture, but she touches on it in her book, and it makes up a large chunk of an essay she wrote for The London Review of Books last September. The essay, ‘Get a Real Degree’, is notorious as a critique of American Creative Writing programmes. She accuses MFA-educated writers of not reading enough and of being overly concerned with technique; she also argues that people are taught to believe that they can be writers ‘only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances’. Instead of universal literary value, she writes, literature is measured by ‘a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as “difference”’. Only victims—only the alienated—have stories to tell.

‘If you spend any time living in a ghetto or fighting in a war, might this be objectively the most narrative-worthy period of your life?’The essay was hotly contested, but even those who rushed to defend MFAs (here’s Adam Wilson in BlackBook, and Lincoln Michel in The Faster Times) agreed that she had a point about the cult of victimhood. I think her complaint is made much stronger by the fact that she takes writers' need for material so seriously. She quite cruelly makes fun of one contemporary novelist for building a career out of nine months in Vietnam, and is ‘deeply depressed’ that another one benefits from our ‘wound culture’— but then she turns around and asks: ‘If you spend any time living in a ghetto or fighting in a war, might this be objectively the most narrative-worthy period of your life?’

We want to hear stories we haven’t heard before. We want to hear new ways of telling them, of course, but we want the stories to be new, too. So maybe it’s inevitable that stories from foreign places, stories from previously unheard voices, are more exciting to read.

Listening to Batuman, I wondered if our issue on alienation risked privileging ‘narratives of victimhood’. Like poor Don Quixote, do all writers need to force themselves through ordeals to have something to write about?

Perhaps it’s a matter of expanding our definition of ordeal. Batuman reminds us that there’s more than one way to earn ‘credit’. She’s her own best example: she’s a Turkish-American woman from New Jersey who devoted her twenties to studying Russian novels, and who got incredibly compelling stories out of the experience. (Grad school, after all, is its own kind of ordeal.) It’s a good thing for writers to keep in mind, as they clutch their account books and venture through life, wondering how to balance their time. ■

Elif Batuman’s The Possessed will be published by Granta Books in the UK this April. It is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA.

cover image by Mikhail Lemkhin.

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Comments (12)

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