Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Wonderful Place to Be

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Elif Batuman: The Idiot (a novel)

I assigned my students the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Demons (aka The Possessed, aka The Devils). I assumed, incorrectly, as usual, that the fact that this novel had "changed my life" (as I told my wary class), that it would do the same for them. What I should have done was assigned Elif Batuman's witty essays on Russian literature instead; not only would the kids be having a lot more fun, they'd be learning that it's possible to love life-changing books and still be hip, funny, engaging, and cool.

If I had a cell phone I'd follow Ms. Batuman's tweets. @BananaKarenina is her code name.  One made me laugh out loud: twice-divorced birds.

I half-imagined The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them would provide me with some tips on turning young (non)-readers onto Dostoevsky's baffling and wonderful tale of political intrigue in Russia in the 1860's, just after the emancipation of the serfs. There's so much to enjoy in Dostoevsky's maze of a book--so much that illuminates Russian history and its contending Westernizers and Slavophils, its tendency to embrace both individualism and autocracy (see Masha Gessen's brilliant The Future is History). Her chapter on The Possessed captures all of the confusions and oddities of Dostoevsky's masterpiece, but, best of all, are the chapters on Batuman's sojourn in Samarkand studying Uzbek, a Turkic language (Batuman speaks Turkish), and having the kind of zany adventures in misunderstanding that Selin, the hero of The Idiot, has while teaching English in a Hungarian village.

A typical Batuman-Selin interaction with another human being involves misunderstanding, a deftly deployed mix of earnestness and klutziness, and self-abasement that would be pathological were it not so endearing, all rendered in a crisp, epigrammatic style that you will want to copy snippets of in your notebook. Batuman-Selin writes a lot down; she plans to be a novelist, but, more than that, her tendency toward second guessing each event in her life makes record-keeping a must. At some point one has to sort things out. I loved her voice, whoever she was imitating. So smart to see that the study of language has both everything and nothing to do with the living of one's life, with the understanding of other people. Selin, the "idiot" of the title of Batuman's novel, is Myshkin, that is, a truly good person baffled by her own impulses and, while eager to understand other people, especially the Chekhovian Ivan, too innocent to do so.

Ms. Batuman is wicked smart (as we say in New Jersey).  If you haven't read much Isaac Babel you should by all means read her fresh take on this great and doomed Ukrainian writer, murdered on Stalin's orders in 1940. Batuman is especially good on Babel's relationship with Maxim Gorky, Babel's sometime patron and protector.  (Batuman, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, isn't making anything up).

Babel's NKVD photo from the time of his arrest

The two weeks I spent reading Batuman's books were refreshing. Her quirky brain was a wonderful place to be. She does a lot of things well, e.g. write a really engaging and original novel about being in college--at Harvard of all places. When was the last time you read a decent novel about a college student? A novel in which there is no sex, drugs, or even, aside from a couple of beers, any drinking. Or a collection of essays on Russian literature that is as engaging as Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky?

I've been reading Ms. Batuman's New Yorker pieces when I can find them. She's got a gig there doing cultural criticism, whatever that means. A piece she wrote on Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is particularly good. When I finished it I had two thoughts: first, what a pain in the neck to not only have to read such an awful book but then to have to sit through the movie made of it, and then to have to write something intelligent about it--Batuman chose marriage as abduction. But then it occurred to me that the NYer will be paying Elif well enough so that she can finish up her new novel. I can't wait.


Absurdly, I've pledged--that is, I have written in my notebook--to read one hundred books this year. Fifty of them will be collections of poetry, so the total page count won't be impossible. All I wanted to say about this New Year's resolution was that one poet I wanted to "do," as in read all of, was Mary Oliver. I read three of her books this week--they're slim and easygoing--and my fondness for the simplicity and honesty of her poems, their quiet wisdom, was confirmed. Then I read an essay about Ms. Oliver in a back issue of the New Yorker (I knew nothing of her life), and I was surprised to learn that her work is disparaged by "serious readers of poetry," and by "critics." It appears her subject matters--nature, the inward life, even, god help us,  God--are out of style. I wondered if this condemnation would include other of my go-to poets--Maxim Kumin, Gerald Stern, Stanley Kunitz (also a long-time resident of Cape Cod), Wesley McNair and others who don't blanch at searching out deeper meanings. Strange this whole business of poetry criticism. With novels one might see the utility of reviews and critiques as a means of directing readers to books they might prefer, but with poetry, which already has so few readers, why disparage a poet who has won the Pulitzer Prize, who has pursued the craft for half a century, who has lived as a poet lives and not as an academic? Anyway, I'm baffled. How does one dislike Mary Oliver? And here's something else I love about Elif Batuman: she laughs without mocking.

George Ovitt (1/28/2018)

Sunday, January 21, 2018


To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm

So many great novels begin in disruption, with a sudden breach or fracture in what are otherwise equable, often commonplace lives. One day Tolstoy’s respectable Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky is discovered by his wife to be having an affair with their French governess; Thomas Bernhard’s captious intellectual hero, Franz-Josef Marau, receives a telegram one afternoon, informing him of the death of his parents and brother in a car accident, so that he is compelled to return home from his exile in Rome to the dreaded family estate of Wolfsegg; Nadine Gordimer’s Maureen Smales, a white middle class liberal in apartheid South Africa, is forced one night to flee her comfortable home under the protection of her black servant, July, in order to escape the revolution that is fast destroying her world; Ian McEwan’s Henry Perowne, involved one day in a minor car accident in London, finds himself helplessly ensnared in a confrontation with a mentally disturbed man named Baxter; Toni Morrison’s runaway slave, Sethe, living safely in the free state of Ohio at the novel’s start, is haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter, Beloved; and Franz Kafka’s innocuous, finally anonymous bank teller, Joseph K., is arrested one fine morning without having done anything wrong. 

Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s novel To the Back of Beyond begins much this same way. As described on the flyleaf: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out.”

Alternating between Thomas’ and Astrid’s perspectives, what follows is a gently philosophical, at points bewitchingly opaque novel about a middle-class couple adrift in the contemporary world. Beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann, the final pages virtually shimmer with light. 
Peter Adam Nash 

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Good Flower-Eye

The Gardener’s Essential by Gertrude Jekyll

It is often around this time of year, when the plants in the garden have withered, gone to seed, and the last of the trees have shed their leaves, that I find myself thinking of the great English horticulturalist and gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, in particular of her book, The Gardener’s Essential, which I keep on a shelf by my desk. Understand, I myself am no gardener. Much as such books interest me I usually do not read them. Still, there is something about her books, this book, there is something about her sensible, no-nonsense approach to gardening, to flowers and shrubs and trees, to their color and pattern and scent, an outlook so earnest and forthright, so eminently reassuring, that I cannot help but imagine that one day I too might develop what she calls “a good flower-eye”. Here, from the opening of her book, from a section called “A Gardening Credo”, is Jekyll herself:

I lay no claim either to literary ability, or to botanical knowledge, or even to knowing the best practical methods of cultivation; but I have lived among outdoor flowers for many years, and have not spared myself in the way of actual labor, and have come to be on closely intimate and friendly terms with a great many growing things, and have acquired certain instincts which, though not clearly defined, are of the nature of useful knowledge.

Her language, when she writes of gardening, is distinctly moral. She speaks often and with conviction of her own “critical garden conscience”, of the need to resist “mental slothfulness”, and of “the just appreciation of the merits and uses of all our garden plants.” Indeed of gardens and their worth she speaks with an all but  missionary zeal. 

Born into a prosperous family in London in 1843, at the height of the British Empire, friend and cohort to various  leaders and thinkers of the time (including the Pre-Raphaelite artist and textile designer, William Morris, the architect Edwin Lutyens, and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who—so it is widely accepted—borrowed the family name, Jekyll, for his story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), she grew up confident in her belief that the British not only did things well but better than any other people on earth. Horticulture and gardening were no exception. 

Yet for all of her national-cultural pride, there is a frankness and humility to her, a willingness to learn and change and grow, that quickly endears one to her and her vision of what is beautiful, worthy, and good.

One of my favorite sections to reread each year is the part, near the opening, in which she writes about the importance—to any good gardener—of being attentive, aware. “Throughout my life I have found one of the things most worth doing was to cultivate the habit of close observation.” Indeed so much of the book is ultimately about training oneself to see, to see more and more truly, that is, with less dependence on experts and trends. At heart it is about learning—in time and with patience—to rely on one’s instincts, to trust and nurture one’s own good flower-eye.
Get a copy of this book—or of any of her other books. You are sure to be charmed.

Here is the official website for her and her estate: gertrudejekyll.

Peter Adam Nash