Posts Tagged ‘“Elif Batuman”’

Are ideological novels a thing of the past? And is today’s autofiction “an aesthetic edition of careerism”?

Monday, July 2nd, 2018
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Joe is right, as always. The late great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and his wife, the French mathematician Marguerite Frank. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Useful Idiots,” an essay by  over at The Point starts with Elif Batuman‘s novel The Idiot and then goes everywhere, but the nearly 4,000-word journey makes some interesting roadside stops in its discussion of “autofiction,” fictionalized autobiography of the kind Batuman writes, and “ideological novels,” the kind the author refers to in the title of her own recent novel. Here’s a sort of sampler from the essay.

On Stendhal, Dostoevsky and “novels powered by direct engagement with ideology”:

More than pawnshops and samovars.

Through their idiot protagonists these novelists and their readers became more intimately acquainted with ideology x than any believer: the plot generated by their protagonists’ pursuit of x’s tenets exposed the implications of x to an extent that the political discourse surrounding x, constrained by polemic opposition and assertion, never could. The quantum facts of daily life, the pawnshops, manors, samovars, Thursday evenings and horse-driven cabs, were to this novel what the skin is to the body: a surface of mostly dead matter whose purpose was informing, concealing and protecting all the other vital systems. They were necessary, and they were most of what could be seen, but to reduce the novel to them would be false, incomplete—literally superficial. The “reality” of this ideological realism was not inert material to be quarried and crafted, but animate: a triple collision between the individual conscience, the society in which the idiot operates, and the ideology (conquistador chivalry, Promethean science, Gnostic materialism, Napoleonic romanticism, revolutionary communism, Gatsbian romanticism, revolutionary communism, white supremacy) that would shape conscience and society according to its own dictates.

Where we are today:

Riffing…

To be fair, the horizons of collective belief were particularly unpromising for Batuman and her generation, who came of age and made careers during a period where it was easy to conclude that there was nothing bigger than the self left to believe in. The Cold War’s end coincided with a prolonged devaluation of ideological content. Libertarian logic colonized the cultural sphere. Torrents of on-demand data eroded any vision of the longue durée. As far as government went, expert-guided liberal democracy was the order for the foreseeable future; having taken care of communism, it seemed more than capable of taking care of itself. In literature as in much else, the tenor of the Nineties was set by the New Republic, where James Woods reviews of classic novels consistently dampened their ideological charge even as his reviews of contemporary fiction condemned deviation from a pinched conception of realism.

Wood’s influence was hardly decisive, but given that a similar hostility to ideology in narrative had dominated program fiction since its CIA-funded genesis in the postwar years, there seemed as little alternative to literary fiction sealed purely within the personal and empirical as there was to the flat world dictated by the empire of free markets. In such a self-defined environment, it was no surprise that the era’s modes of entertainment should correspond to its novelistic subgenres: the tourism of historical and overseas fiction, the animated films of magical realism. (The marijuana of standard-issue MFA realism—all forgettable inaction and enhanced tactile sensation.) Autofiction, a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism, was the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience: once all other recreations expose their artifice and exhaust their charm, what is left except to chart one’s own advancement through a world as fixed as it is real?

In conclusion:

Don’t forget the Frenchman!

These are unsettling times. Tensions and pressures formerly pacified by the prospect of endless growth now draw force from a state of permanent stagnation. Established institutions tremble with the resentful energies of dishonored promises; each crisis barely averted sows the seeds for more inevitable confrontation. Yet if literary history is any indication, an era of collapsing order offers fertile ground for novelists. Shaken by events out of inertia and conformity, they waken to a world teeming with open inquiries and untested solutions; whether facing the window, the mirror or the other, certainties dissolve. The pressing question is no longer how to fit in with the given, but how much must be changed. The temptation to wager one’s existence on an unrealized social ideal grows ever more alluring. So, too, grows the inclination to review one’s ideals and imagine their implications writ large. The unique quality of the novel catalyzed by ideology is its range, its capacity to simultaneously circumscribe the horizons of belief, exercise the full freedom to maneuver in society, and gauge its potential to foster individual maturity. It’s the best, if not the only, instrument left to us to understand what we are becoming.

“With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised,” Dostoevsky biographer and intellectual historian Joseph Frank concludes his chapter on The Idiot, “Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct.” It bears mentioning that the age of Dostoevsky was not an age of brilliant thinkers. The intellectual situation of Petersburg in the 1860s was jammed with third- and fourth-rate seminary dropouts butchering their recitations of second-rate Europeans. Given that the ideological matrix now is no more dismal than in the past; given that the universities, then as now, are turning out a new caste of intellectuals who, indebted and underemployed, have ample cause to rally around visions of a better world; and especially given that literate people today have access to 150 extra years of literary history beginning with Dostoevsky’s novels—given all this, is it really so inconceivable that some millennial author might arrive, like Dostoevsky, at a novel equal in magnitude to the disaster that helped give it form? And in the meantime, why shouldn’t the highly privileged writers of Batuman’s generation be able to afford the most basic, most essential luxury the novel can offer, that of critiquing their own articles of faith? Look closely and you’ll see: the only thing holding them back is their selves.

We miss you, Joe. As always. Read more about him here and here and here. Read the whole Frank Guan discussion here.

Leo Tolstoy: The Movie

Friday, February 5th, 2016
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tolstoyWe are still recovering from the Werner Herzog‘s visit to Stanford, and will have more to say on this later. My mode of recovery will be to go to the home of friends and watch End of the Tour again, a film that was greatly overlooked in this year’s round of film awards, despite Jason Segels top-notch performance.

What can I offer my readers? How about this short film clip of Leo Tolstoy, taken during his last days, before his death in 1910? At the age of 82, he made the unusual decision to leave his wife. Not content with traveling 26 hours to his sister Marya’s house in Sharmardino, where he had planned to retire to a small hut for his remaining days, he pushed on to the Caucasus, where he died at a train station at Astapovo.

Elif Batuman wrote about this curious demise over at Harper’s here. The topic came about during her Stanford years:

Once, when I was a graduate student, a paper of mine was accepted at the conference. At the time, my department awarded two kinds of travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a paper at an international conference or $2,500 for international field research. My needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field-research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that could only be solved at Tolstoy’s house?

I rode my bicycle through blinding summer sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s 700-page biography Tolstoy. I read with particular interest the final chapters, “Last Will and Testament” and “Flight.” Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside at the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop.

“Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of Astapovo, under what can only be described as strange circumstances,” I typed. “But the strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy’s life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to drop dead quietly, in some dark corner? And so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination.”

Read the rest here.

Film clip from the 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark,

Çapuling in Istanbul: Elif Batuman takes a break from her novel to report (updated with her photo from the park)

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
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batumanphoto

Elif’s photo from the barricades (figuratively speaking).

Events are outpacing our ability to describe them, so I thought I’d better not let more time roll by before I wrote about Elif Batuman‘s account of what’s happening in Istanbul, where the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is battling protesters. The report captures the moment, but that moment is already several days old: writing in the New Yorker, here, she says “over the course of the week, Occupy Gezi transformed from what felt like a festival, with yoga, barbecues, and concerts, into what feels like a war, with barricades, plastic bullets, and gas attacks.”

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Anti-tear gas gear in Istanbul: swimming goggles and Guy Fawkes masks.

The scene last Friday:

Thinking the demonstration was winding down, I went back home and tried to work on my novel. The demonstration wasn’t winding down. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were flooding the streets. I texted the photographer Carolyn Drake, a friend and colleague. We covered our mouths with scarves and set out to meet each other. I started walking up Siraselviler, the street that connects Cihangir, where I live, to Taksim Square. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans, some of them quite inventive. …

I got as far as the German Hospital, where the crowd became too dense to penetrate. Carolyn meanwhile was stuck at the northern edge of the park. I never did meet her, though she’s been sending me the pictures she snaps from her cell phone. During the twenty minutes I spent standing in front of the hospital, two ambulances came careening in from Taksim. The crowds climbed up on walls to let the ambulances by, almost drowning out the sirens with their chants: “To your health, Tayyip!” Later, everyone started jumping up and down, chanting “Jump! Jump! Jump or you’re a fascist!” I, too, hopped up and down a little, to signal my disapproval of fascism. I tried to strike up conversation with a demonstrator, a young woman in her twenties with a surgical mask around her neck, but I could see I was interrupting her tweeting. In fact, I realized that almost every person there was either typing on a phone or recording the scene on a tablet.

This is the image that will stay with me: ” At midnight, the street where I live was gas bombed. Demonstrators in gas masks and goggles marched below the windows, cheering ‘Spray! Spray! Let us see you spray!’ Pepper gas poured through the open windows and immediately filled my seventh-floor apartment. Around one, a tremendous racket broke out as people all over the city started beating on cymbals, pots, pans, and metal street signs; I saw one man looking around in vain for a stick, and then cheerfully starting to bang his head against a metal storefront shutter.”

Our reporter in Istanbul, taking a break from her novel.

Novel interrupted: Our reporter in Istanbul

She concludes, “On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing ‘Bella, Ciao’ on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.”

But that was already a few days ago.

I text messaged my Turkish friend, Eren Göknar, for her take on Elif’s article, and an update:  “I’m getting posts from friends of relatives showing people bloodied up by tear gas canisters thrown at them. There was a cell phone shot of Ankara police helmuts with their IDs taped up so they wouldn’t be identified. The violence to peaceful protestors is shocking. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the links with the ‘I am çapuling’ rap, but it’s hysterical. The protesters are playing on Erdogan’s accusation that they are mainly ‘looters’ or Çapuls in Turkish, or fringe elements of society.

“Frankly, I’m relieved to see ordinary Turks standing up to the prime minister, who has gone way too far by injecting his own morality into the mainstream. The alcohol prohibition is minor compared to the jailing of journalists and suppression of free speech, of course.” She reports that her father told her that restaurants get around the alcohol ban by having code words for “Raki” on the menu – “just like during Prohibition times here.”

“But to see young teens arrested for posting Twitter comments really underscores his lack of concern for freedom of speech, to say the least. Hopefully, these protests will put an end to his administration, because he’s not good for Turkey in the long run. He can’t run the country like a Saudi Arabian fiefdom, Turks are too independent. The protesters represent the other half of voters who want a say in urban planning, consideration for the environment, and Turkey’s secular history. I also doubt that he got his votes without buying them in some way. I heard tales of his giving gifts to poor villagers to vote for him. These protesters are saying they’re willing to tolerate others’ religious views, but they want full participation in a true democracy–and separation of government and religion. The Gezi Park bulldozing was even more symbolic because this is where wreaths were often laid at the statue of Ataturk during national holidays – and he said he wanted to build a mosque there. Kind of ironic, considering Ataturk wanted to separate religion from the government. Erdogan’s votes don’t give him an excuse to rule autocratically, it just isn’t going to fly.”

I could use a little Raki myself about now.

ErdagGoknarPostscript: Eren’s bro Erdağ Göknar of Duke University has an article here:  “This is not the outcome Prime Minister Erdoğan expected when he dismissed a handful of protestors in an Istanbul park just days before with his usual swagger. ‘I decided. It will be done,’ he quipped about the construction of a replica Ottoman barracks and mall in Gezi Park. Then, in telling irony, he left the country in chaos for a four-day ‘friendship’ trip to Arab Spring countries.  One of the signs that greeted Erdoğan in Morocco read, ‘We don’t want criminals visiting our country.’ This is a far cry from his reception fresh off the Arab Spring two years ago, when he was welcomed as a hero.”

Postscript on 6/6:  We’ve updated with Elif’s photo from the park, tweeted a few minutes ago.  Could I post it?  I asked.  “Absolutely!” she tweeted back.

An evening of bad sex…but is it bad enough?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
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She’s honored. (Photo: Elena Torre)

Some time ago, we announced the Literary Review‘s finalists for the one of the world’s most dreaded competitions – a prize for the most embarrassing passage of sexual description in a novel.  The awards ceremony for the 20th annual award finally took place last week at the In & Out (Naval & Military) Club in St James’s Square, where 400 guests raised a toast to the winner.

And the winner is … Canadian writer Nancy Huston, with her novel Infrared.  I know, I know … you want me to deliver the goods.  Well, here’s the Literary Review‘s version of why they bestowed the award on Huston:

“Sentences from the novel such as ‘Kamal and I are totally immersed in flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ caught the judges’ attention. One long passage in particular stood out:

‘He runs his tongue and lips over my breasts, the back of my neck, my toes, my stomach, the countless treasures between my legs, oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate…”

My goodness, I don’t think it’s all that bad.  Is that the worst they could do?  I think the other finalists were daffier – go here and see if you agree.  (By the by, John Updike received the lifetime achievement award in 2008.)

A friend recently protested against the Literary Review‘s anti-award, saying it inhibited writers from trying to describe sex at all.  I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.  Gone are the days when a writer like Henry James could describe the sexual fever of a hand brushing across the back of another.  Gone are the days when Jane Austen could convey more passion with a blush more than most of today’s writers can express with an orgy.  We’ve lost the ability to describe the range of nuances in affection, love, devotion, rejection in our haste to describe the relentless interlocking of body parts.

According to Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman, that’s exactly the reason why former editor Auberon Waugh founded the prize in the first place:  “He was genuinely convinced that publishers were encouraging novelists to include sex scenes solely in order to increase sales. The award’s remit was ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’.”  I couldn’t agree more.

The Paris-based Huston has received more conventional awards, such as the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens and Prix Femina, but she seems to hold a special place in her heart for her newest distinction.  In a statement read at the ceremony, she announced, “I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.”

To which we can only add:  Please no.  Not that.  Anything but that.

Huston is married to the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov.  On Twitter, Elif Batuman responded: “I just learned that the winner of this year’s Bad Sex Award is married to Tzvetan Todorov and it is ROCKING MY WORLD.”  No further explanation offered. After all, it was only a tweet.

 

The last days of Tolstoy – a defense brief, a video, and a murder mystery

Sunday, September 9th, 2012
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The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, about 1905, before the nutters took over.

We’re rather on a Leo Tolstoy kick over here, aren’t we? But how can we help ourselves? We just found these two film clips of the author’s last days.  Lots of snow and horses, as you’d expect – then Tolstoy in death, laid out on a bed with flowers, and the funeral procession, with what looks like thousands of peasants.

Sophia and daughter Alexandra in a portrait by Nikolai Gay

The first clip is taken from 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, and the longer, Russian clip is second (it includes earlier footage from 1908).  The 82-year-old writer died at the out-of-the-way rural train station in Astapova, weakened by his sudden decision to renounce everything and hit the road.  According to Sir Kenneth Clark in the video, “He left his wife, his comfortable estate and his wealth and traveled 26 hours to Sharmardino, where Tolstoy’s sister Marya lived, and where he planned to live the remainder of his life in a small, rented hut.”  (Thanks, Open Culture, for bringing the clip to our attention.)

Comfortable?  We think not.

Of particular note is the first clip’s comments on Tolstoy’s “demented” wife Sophia.  She’s taken a lot of bad press over the years, but she finally has a champion:  Alexandra Popoff, author of 2010’s Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, writes on her Sophia Tolstoy website: “She was central to his creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.”  According to the biographer:

Sophia was judged by her final year with Tolstoy and by people hostile to her — the great man’s disciples, particularly Vladimir Chertkov, a vain man who wanted to establish himself as the person closest to Tolstoy. He led a smear campaign against Sophia and described Tolstoy’s marriage as martyrdom.

To understand why there are still many misconceptions about Sophia and her role we need to know that for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish essential documents in her favor. …

The character of this remarkable woman was unlike the portrayals. She handled Tolstoy’s publishing affairs and their family’s business affairs, while also raising a large family. I was impressed with her capacity for hard work: a mother of 13, who herself nursed and educated their children, she was also a successful publisher, translator, and photographer. A lot of her labor went into Tolstoy’s novels, which she copied and produced. She also worked alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief.

The comment rather puts the lie to this one, by James Meek in a Guardian article giving Anna Karenina another reading: “I’m not sure Tolstoy ever worked out how he actually felt about love and desire, or how he should feel about it. He was torn between compassion and moral rigour, between lust and self-denial, between loving his wife and being bored by her. His uncertainty is reflected in the dual portrayal of his wife in Anna Karenina – as the virtuous, somewhat frumpy Dolly, worn out by childbearing, like the woman his wife was when he was writing the book, and as the feisty, pretty teenager Kitty, like the woman his wife was when he married her. They must have seemed to contradict each other, yet each was true to her time; and Tolstoy, for all that he was a master of time, was only a slave to truth.”

Surely if he were a slave to truth he would have noted that frumpy older wives hadn’t necessarily bargained for paunchiness, baldness, flatulence, snoring, and flourishing mid-life nose hair.

Meanwhile, way back in 2009, Elif Batuman wrote a riveting piece for Harper’s about the murder of Leo Tolstoy:

A literary Sherlock

As is often the case, Tolstoy’s enemies were no more alarming than his so-called friends, for instance, the pilgrims who swarmed Yasnaya Polyana: a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and desperados, collectively referred to by the domestic staff as “the Dark Ones.” These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity; a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial “simplicity” and who eventually had to be driven away “because he was beginning to be indecent”; and a blind Old Believer who pursued the sound of Tolstoy’s footsteps, shouting, “Liar! Hypocrite!”

Meanwhile, within the family circle, Tolstoy’s will was the subject of bitter contention…

“You are certainly my most entertaining student,” said my adviser when I told her my theory. “Tolstoy— murdered! Ha! Ha! Ha! The man was eighty-two years old, with a history of stroke!”

“That’s exactly what would make it the perfect crime,” I explained patiently.

Read the rest here. It’s marvelous, of course.

 

“Banana Karenina” (a.k.a. Elif Batuman) weighs in on new Tolstoy film

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012
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Elif's alter ego

The Telegraph seems to be going all-out for the new film of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, which premiered in London today. David Gritten‘s article on the film yesterday linked to a range of video clips and earlier articles.

Here’s Gritten’s verdict:

“Whatever faults Tom Stoppard may possess as a screenwriter and Joe Wright as a director, timidity cannot be counted among them. Their collaboration in bringing Tolstoy’s imposing Anna Karenina to the big screen is one of real audacity: even on the rare occasions it falters, you have to applaud the ambition.

“Between them, Wright and Stoppard have filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time, fashioning it into a swirling, swoony, achingly romantic tragedy. Stoppard’s witty conceit is to present the story of doomed heroine Anna literally as a piece of theatre, played out beneath a proscenium arch with its own backstage, curtain and audience. But magically and playfully, Wright’s cameras open up the confines of the stage to expansive, exterior vistas. It’s dazzling to watch.”

Keira Knightley imitating Banana Karenina

A few days ago we suggested Jude Law for Alyosha Karamazov.  Apparently, he’s more of a Tolstoy man; according to Gritten:  “Jude Law pleasingly reins himself in as her husband Karenin – a dull, virtuous public man.”

After reading it, I contacted Twitter’s “Banana Karenina,” a.k.a. Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, who is currently a writer-in-residence in Istanbul, for her views.  She got back to us this morning.

Says the Top Banana: “I think Jude Law as Karenin is casting genius! I’m curious if they chose him for his ears, and also if they did anything special to make them stick out more. I kept trying to freeze the trailer to get a better look, but the ears always got away! Maybe I need a new video card.”

“I also appreciate how, according to the Telegraph review, Wright and Stoppard ‘filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time.’ I think filleting a doorstep must have been an artistically exhilarating project. I hope very much that this phrase will soon be adopted into wider circulation.”

Read all about the doorstep here.