Elif Batuman is the author of a new and completely charming collection of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper’s, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Nation, and n+1. She currently lives in San Francisco and teaches at Stanford University.
The following passage from the Los Angeles Times review illustrates why this is a must have, must read book for serious readers who insist on being entertained as well as enlightened:
…Her first book of essays, The Possessed, dances between autobiography, travel-writing and literary criticism with dazzling flair and originality. “While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone of planet Earth . . . is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering,” she writes in Babel in California, “one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to make comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for?”
Among the things literature’s good for, Batuman illustrates, is to provide a small number of very smart people with academic ground that must be protected and peed all over, and thus with boundless opportunities to demonstrate the nature of human absurdity.
Babel in California tells how Batuman fell in love with Isaac Babel, the most electric of Russian writers, then shows that idealized literary love bumping up against actual life in the hilarious, chastening shape of a Babel conference at Stanford organized by her mentor, the great Babelogist Grisha Freidin. Batuman helps with an exhibit and discovers in the bowels of Stanford’s Hoover library a true wonderland of previously hidden connections between Babel and the 1933 movie King Kong. She’s sent to the airport to pick up Babel’s second wife and one of his daughters, two tired Russian women who keep firing questions about the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit, hanging from the mirror of the car that Batuman is driving.
Conference panels end in pandemonium; Russian scholars, upset by the presence of two Chinese filmmakers preparing a script from Babel stories, mutter “We don’t mess with your I-Ching;” and there’s a dinner “straight out of Dostoyevsky” in which Batuman and Freidin get the evil eye from a vain English translator in whose acclaimed Babel collection edition they have discovered mistakes. Yet even this isn’t the marvelous climax of the dinner, which comes when Babel’s daughter by his first wife stares at Babel’s second wife and shouts “THAT OLD WITCH WILL BURY US ALL.”
More information about Elif’s life and thoughts can be found on her blog, My Life and Thoughts. (http://www.elifbatuman.net)