Life in exotic Palo Alto


Avowed Tolstoyan

Palo Alto is often portrayed as a boring and staid address, the southernmost fringes where hip San Francisco fades into the dull heart of Silicon Valley.  The most recent Times Literary Supplement to arrive in my mailbox makes it seem positively exotic.

Andrew Kahn reviews Elif Batuman‘s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.  He notes that Batuman is an “avowed Tolstoyan” who nevertheless gets drawn into situations of Dostoevskian hysteria.  Her book is filled with the “unlikely stories and eccentric characters that populate a post-Soviet globalized world from her doorstep in Palo Alto to Samarkand.”

“Few satirists since David Lodge’s campus novels have captured so sparklingly and sometimes cruelly the degree to which human banality (vanity, pettiness, spite, grumpiness) and idealism (selfless sacrifice, steadfastness, loyalty) vie in academic life”:

René Girard

“Her final chapter, initially an essay about Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, his twisted satire of Russian provincial life and nihilist conspiracy, becomes a group portrait of fellow graduates at Stanford who, just like that novelist’s characters, suffer from wasting passions, religious fervour and fits of torpor.  Behind their trysts lies the theory of the Stanford guru René Girard that a relationship between two people is mediated through an Other. His views were based in part on his reading of none other than Dostoevsky.  To be gripped by higher education in Batuman’s The Possessed is to be possessed by lovers possessed by Girard possessed by Dostoevsky.  Palo Alto might seem like an unlikely hothouse for a phalanstery of existentialists.  But who could possibly fault (well-funded) graduates for living out the texts they read?”

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