“Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!”


Elif Batuman

Who knew that comp lit scholars take so much abuse?

Elif Batuman (I wrote about her here and here and here) gave a reading of her The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, at Kepler’s Thursday night, and spilled about the angry letter-writers who attack her.  The subject came up as she was reading her introduction, and paused after the passage that gave away the ending of Eugene Onegin.  She apologized to her audience, and then described one correspondent who had written to complain.

“Why did you have to ruin Madame Bovary?” the writer whined. Commenting on Batuman’s well-known expertise in Russian lit, the irate penpal said she expected Batuman to ruin the endings of Russian novels — “that’s your job” — but why the French ones?  “I know you think that everyone has already read it because it was published in 1867, but I personally was doing other things and only got around to it now.”

Batuman, an appealing author with a slightly goofy manner and the self-deprecating slouch tall girls acquire in adolescence (she’s six-feet tall), seem an unlikely target for anyone’s wrath.  But she also recalled a peeved listener at a reading who interrupted when she compared the “horrible traumatic story I wanted to recreate for the reader”  to the episode in Anna Karenina where the heroine thinks she will die in childbirth, but doesn’t — a variant of Chekhov’s warning about the gun that had better go off by the last act.  “Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!” she was angrily admonished.

Explaining books came naturally to Batuman, whose career began, in a sense, with her Turkish mother asking her to tell her what these great novels “meant.”  Although her mother was thoroughly fluent in English, she was haunted by the sense that there was something missing in her understanding of books she read in English.

Batuman, whose book includes a large section on Samarkand, was interviewed by the Uzbek National Radio last week.  “Maybe I’ll get a lot of angry calls,”elif2 she worried.

During the question-and-answer period, she was asked if Russian novel-lovers fall into Dostoevsky-Tolstoy camps, where does she place herself?  Batuman answered that Dostoevsky is the literary equivalent to theater, with “allegory intensified 10,000 times.”  Tolstoy is the stuff of movies, with costumes, elaborate scenery, and orchestral score.  She falls for Tolstoy.  “Tolstoy is girlie — he wouldn’t like my saying that, but he’s not here anymore, any more than the the Uzbeks are.”‘

She was also asked if she is going to write a Russian novel.  “The Russians already did that,” she replied.

But Batuman is thinking about a novel next.  “Maybe see you all in another 15 years!”

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