Elif Batuman: To Russia, With Love

Books Features Elif Batuman
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Hometown: San Francisco
Book: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
For Fans Of: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Roz Chast

“To think of Tolstoy eating a sandwich is intrinsically kind of funny,” Elif Batuman says. The 32-year-old author usually calls San Francisco home, but right now she’s sitting a continent and 10 time zones away in Istanbul, where she’s “saving on rent.” Through my Skype window I see a miniature picture of the dark-haired woman, who gazes slightly to the right and speaks swiftly as though she’s watching her words fly by a little too fast. “He’s this monumental figure, but he ate lunch.”

And according to Batuman’s first nonfiction book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, out this month, Tolstoy also played tennis, fought with his wife and contracted pneumonia. Then he wrote War and Peace.

The tension between random real life and the organized narrative form is central to The Possessed. Led to study Russian literature through a series of coincidences (a Russian violin teacher here, an attempted linguistics major there) Batuman writes, “[In life] there may be interesting and moving experiences, but one thing is guaranteed: they won’t naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book.” So the Stanford graduate decided she would pursue the legacies of her favorite authors, reading their works and traveling the world to meet their families and visit their former homes. What ensued was fittingly chaotic. She spent five days at Tolstoy’s snake-infested manor, examined Peter the Great’s collection of embalmed organs and attempted to sleep in a St. Petersburg ice palace. A collection of essays chronicling her travels, The Possessed is a pilgrim’s feverish diary—a devoted study of the Russian greats set against the backdrop of a tumultuous post-Soviet world.

But Batuman found that even by immersing herself in literature, she was unable to spell out her own narrative. “You base your actions on a projected ending, which you actually don’t know,” she says now, sipping tea in Istanbul. “However, when you reach the crucial point, and the pinnacle event doesn’t occur, you just need to go on and something else will happen.” The Possessed is the ideal chronicle of these unexpected “something elses,” which, as Tolstoy himself knew, actually make for a great story.

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