Elif Batuman & The Possessed

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 754 : Mar 11–17, 2010

You’re extremely critical of modern fiction—and particularly of the American short story. Are there contemporary fiction writers you do enjoy?
Yes, absolutely! My favorite living writer is Haruki Murakami, which I can’t fully explain, but there it is—I even read and enjoyed the book about his running diary! I also really like Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Franzen. In the past year I read and enjoyed Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives.

My issues with the American short story are really more about a certain institutional pedagogic aesthetic than about individual writers or works. Living Americans whose short stories I have read and enjoyed include Keith Gessen, Damion Searls, Aleksandar Hemon, Donald Antrim, James Salter and Joyce Carol Oates. Also some Canadians, like Alice Munro and David Bezmozgis.

You and your group of graduate school friends resemble characters from a Russian novel—you’re all perpetual scholars, earnest, unlucky in love, prone to discussing your improbably vivid dreams at length. Was it this sensibility that attracted you to the Russians or was this a consequence of reading so many Russian novels?
That is what we in graduate school used to call a “tangled hierarchy”! I think it’s impossible to say which came first, the affinity or the influence.

The Possessed covers Russian authors, but I lost count of the Conan Doyle references. He’s clearly an important writer for you too.
Yes, definitely. A big part of my dissertation was about hero-narrator pairs like Boswell and Johnson, Onegin and Pushkin, Swann and Marcel, Nick and Gatsby…. Part of my story was that these kinds of narratives, especially Boswell’s Johnson, were always about relentless pursuit of the mystery of the human, so it’s fitting and beautiful that this narrative structure gave rise, with Holmes and Watson, to the first real detective stories.

You write that in the “eternal debate” of Tolstoy vs. Dostoyevsky, you’re in the Tolstoy camp—which I found surprising given that your obsession with Russian literature seemed so Dostoyevskian to me. Why are you attracted to Tolstoy?
Intellectually/abstractly I think Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are either equally or incomparably interesting, but I like Tolstoy better.

It’s a bit like comparing film and theater—and I would usually rather watch a movie than go to a play, although it’s not like I think movies are “better” than plays.

Dostoyevsky’s novels are so schematic, so exaggerated, so over the top—there’s relatively little scenery, relatively few things—everything is pared down to foreground these crazily heightened scenes of drama and “scandal.” People are constantly falling down in hysterics, fainting, having nervous breakdowns, giving speeches, committing murder or suicide, having seizures, going on trial, writing insanely long letters and declaiming them in public spaces. Reading Dostoyevsky is like sitting in a room watching a small group of actors who are all trying to make eye contact with you and provoke some cathartic reaction. It’s not meant to be realistic—you know, like Oedipus Rex isn’t about killing your father and sleeping with your mother—it’s a play that depicts certain universal dramas and tensions through the bizarre and hyperbolic example of a king who kills his father and sleeps with his mother.

These kinds of dramatic exaggerations are incredible and powerful and fascinating—but personally I enjoy more the more cinematic, more historically conditioned, more realistic representations of Anna Karenina and War and Peace where you’re surrounded by detail, by the stuff of daily life. For Dostoyevsky, the important thing is dialogue and psychology, and it doesn’t really matter if the setting is a garret or a monastery or a pool hall or a forest grove or a prison cell or a charity ball—on Dostoyevsky’s stage, the costumes and set aren’t that important. For Tolstoy, on the other hand, if an encounter takes place at a train station or the horse races or a battlefield or an opera house or a hunting ground, that encounter is also in some sense really about horse racing or trains or battles or opera or hunting, and I really like that. The sets are real and very expensive. To me, Tolstoy’s novels really capture the experience of what it’s like to be alive on planet Earth—not by the kinds of exaggerated examples that invite us to look into our souls or whatever, but in a straightforward mimetic way.

To look at it another way, Dostoyevsky was, like his “Underground Man,” a “sick” man—a gambler, an epileptic, an exconvict—with a great interest in sick people, in the most extreme cases of human behavior. Tolstoy, by contrast, was more interested in how normal people should live their lives, how to operate in health, how to find a modus operandi that works day to day—which for me is a more interesting problem.

It’s interesting too that Tolstoy was himself almost diabolically healthy (with the tennis and the bicycling and the weight lifting and the horses)—there’s something so moving and frightening in the way he clung to life. As a biographical figure I find him tremendously interesting—his intractability, extremism, vitality and contradictions. It’s almost like Tolstoy didn’t have to invent crazy exaggerated situations, or put Greek masks on his characters, because he was so extreme in his own real life—he was a dandy and a gambler and a monk and a patriarch and a count and a peasant and an athlete and a farmer, he constantly lived with this compulsion to know and be everything. Dostoyevsky—by all accounts a much easier, gentler person to get along with than Tolstoy—was more abstract, intellectually and spiritually.

In The Possessed, I was conscious of both of the two drives embodied by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky: the drive to experience everything concretely and literally (e.g. by going to Tolstoy’s house) versus the drive to follow abstract ideas to abstract extremes (e.g. by restaging the psychological trauma of The Demons). But I still feel more of an affinity or affection for Tolstoy than for Dostoyevsky.

You’ve written a very funny and self-deprecating blog detailing The Possessed’s publication process and your transformation from “D-list to C-list” writer (despite publishing your work in such august magazines as The New Yorker). Given that The Possessed has been receiving uniformly rave reviews, is a promotion to (at least) the B-list in order?
I started the blog in fall 2007, right after I finished grad school at Stanford and decided to become a writer. The point was mostly to have an external site to announce whenever I got anything published, so I wouldn’t have to keep spamming my friends and loved ones. I wanted there to be some kind of narrative, so it wouldn’t be abject self-promotion, so I borrowed the conceit of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List. I wrote about it here.

A running joke is that Griffin has to appear in various venues “where you would never see Nicole Kidman”: She sells a steam cleaner on the Home Shopping Network, hosts the Gay Porn Movie Awards, performs at a prison facility and promotes an under-booked show in rural Michigan by visiting some fans at their house (the fans are really drunk). Watching these comic situations unfold, one realizes that Nicole Kidman not only doesn’t have to perform at a prison or visit her fans at home; she probably couldn’t do these things, even if she wanted to. And neither could an ordinary, non-D-list person—which makes the D-list a unique and exhilarating vantage point onto the human condition.

For Griffin, the D-list is less a metric of success than a certain aesthetic, a certain sense of diversity and surprisingness, relative to the smaller and more homogenous A-list. (If she were literally a D-list comedian she wouldn’t have her own show on Bravo to begin with.) That’s what I tried to re-create on my blog, and that’s how I have experienced my career so far. Like the time at the bilingual “Krautgarten Loft” event that dragged on from 6:30pm until nearly 1am, and I was reading second-to-last, and there was nothing to eat, and I was trying to buy a banana but the banana wasn’t for sale. Like I said on the blog, probably if you are Philip Roth you don’t get in these interesting conversations where you’re trying to buy a privately owned banana at your own reading.

In short, to answer the question: I’m really thrilled about and grateful for the many kind reviews of The Possessed, and I’m so proud to have finally clawed my way to the C-list—but I think it’s a bit premature to talk about anything beyond that. Not just because I’m self-funding most of my book tour and staying on people’s sofas, but because that’s still how I see the world and my position in it. It would be wonderful to make it to the B-list someday—and yet, for a writer, much more I think than for an actor, success and “establishment” status are mixed blessings, and maybe shouldn’t come too fast. I was just rereading Somerset Maugham, and my favorite Maugham novella, Cakes and Ale, is basically all about a novelist who is ruined by the A-list. It’s very poignant and should be a lesson to us all.

This book is haunted in a way by the book you didn’t write—the novel you abandoned in order to finish graduate school. Will we ever see that novel or has nonfiction got you in its thrall?
You have already seen parts of that novel! I lifted a few passages from it in the introduction (e.g. the descriptions of the philosophy of language class about Martians, and the adolescent boys’ leg contest). It was a very, very autobiographical novel. I remember trying to “fictionalize” things, and really struggling, because the truth was often more interesting to me, and seemed less arbitrary, than whatever I managed to invent—I think this struggle is one of the reasons why I abandoned that novel.

In the period of time narrated in The Possessed I definitely experienced some kind of disillusionment with the idea of fiction, combined with a new recognition of and respect for the surprisingness and beauty of historical truth. However, I’m still really struggling with the question of what it means to “fictionalize” true material, e.g. in order to incorporate it into a novel: What are the gains and the losses—what is the point?

One gain is that by “fictionalizing” you can disguise people’s identities and reduce the risk of revealing personal things about real people. For that reason, if for no other, I think my next book will be a novel (or at least an attempted novel)—even though the material I want to work with is, as in The Possessed, a core of memoir and literary-theoretical texts

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