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

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:


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

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

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.”


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

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

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

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.

Elif Batuman: “Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

"Why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way."

I somehow missed the kerfuffle about Mike Daisey’s “monologue” about the terrible working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Another chapter in the long history of fabricated memories, which became the subject of a painful retraction last month.

Over at The Rumpus, author Elif Batuman had a very different take on the matter.

Is the truth more compelling than any attempt to fictionalize it?  “That’s what I always tell myself when I’m being fact-checked, and some detail I was attached to turns out not to be true,” she told interviewer Sean Carman.  “I’m initially disappointed, and maybe discouraged that now there’s more work for me to do, but I know that 99.9% of the time there’s actually something there, in the truth, that’s more interesting than whatever I or anyone else can make up.

“When you invent something, you’re drawing on reservoirs of knowledge that you already have. It’s only when you’re faithful to the truth that something can come to you from the outside.  … something maybe less neat but richer and stranger.”

In general, she’s more interested in the audience for fibs, rather than the fibbers themselves, and  “figuring out why and how anyone believed it – why they needed to believe it”:

He did his homework. (Russia's first color portrait, 1908)

They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want.  The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth. But I mean, why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way.

When you’re reading a novel, I think the reason you care about how any given plot turns out is that you take it as a data point in the big story of how the world works. Does such-and-such a kind of guy get the girl in the end? Does adultery ever bring happiness? How do winners become winners?

Just because a book is labeled as a novel, you don’t assume it happened in La La land and has nothing to do with reality. It just means that the novelist has processed, consolidated, or edited his experiences and observations, to tell a story. Which obviously happens in a memoir, too. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. That’s why I find it weird when you walk into a bookstore the most privileged distinction is between fiction and nonfiction.

When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he did a ton of historical research about Napoleon – he spent ages in archives, reading letters and diaries, many of them written by his wife’s relatives. In general, in his career, he borrowed a lot of plot details from the lives of his in-laws. I bet if Tolstoy was writing now in America, there would be a lot of pressure on him to do War and Peace as a nonfiction book – like, tracing the domestic and personal life of his wife’s grandmother through journals and letters, interwoven with his own philosophical musings about the Napoleonic wars. But Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.

Final excerpt:

We hear a lot these days about two opposing tendencies in literature. On the one hand, there’s a tendency away from the novel, toward nonfiction. On the other hand, there’s a tendency away from objective journalism, toward memoiristic or essayistic nonfiction. They’re opposing tendencies, but they both reflect an anxiety about how much we can trust facts. We expect facts to give us objective truth, but objective truth keeps eluding us. We move away from the novel, because the novel isn’t factual; but in our nonfiction writing, we feel constantly compelled to cast doubt on our access to objective facts. We hire teams of fact-checkers to track them down. Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.

Read the whole thing here.


Elif Batuman takes the leap…

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

The old Elif

With her characteristic esprit, Elif Batuman has leapt into the twitterdom – but not without a little trauma, first.

Gregory Cowles wrote this in The New York Times Book Review a week ago:

There was a time, three or four years ago, when it seemed every novelist had a blog, and why not? Blogging gave writers another way to reach readers, to promote their work or air their grievances or test their ideas in mini-essays that played to their strengths. But technology evolves, and despite some notable holdouts (Elif Batuman is one) Twitter has killed the blogging star. Now writers connect with their publics in 140 characters or fewer.

The new Elif

“It’s hard for me to convey how seriously my world was shaken by these lines,” she writes.  “I had NO IDEA until I read it in the Times that writers had stopped keeping blogs!! Three or four years ago—that’s just when I started blogging! And now I’m one of the last ones left?? How did this happen?? When?? I became obsessed by the phrase ‘notable holdout.’ ‘Notable holdout,’ I kept thinking to myself. ‘Notable holdout.’ Sometimes it sounded good; other times, not so good. I went through a long period of fruitless thinking. I looked up ‘holdout” in multiple dictionaries.”

Then she turned over a new leaf. “OK human history – I can take a hint. You can find me on Twitter.”  Look for her at @BananaKerenina.  Among her first tweets:  “I can’t believe @BananaKarenina wasn’t taken!” ” I HEART GREG COWLES” and “Did I mention that hat took me a REALLY LONG TIME?”

She’s leaving her blog up for the occasional post that takes more than 140 characters to explain.

We think she has another reason for throwing her blog on ice:  “I swear every day I get +100 comments from some crooked robot trying to sell me used term papers.”

Join the club, Elif, join the club.


Elif Batuman in Hell and Paradise

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

OK.  I surrender.  Now I’m a hopeless fan.  I’ve just finished Elif Batuman‘s “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” in the September Harper’s Magazine.

True confessions:  I never really read The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them beginning-to-end; just in bits and snatches, the way I seem to read everything nowadays.  I’ve heard, frankly, that the book was more or less assembled in bits and pieces, so this is not as sacrilegious as it may sound.

But Elif’s Italian journey can be read in one go.  It’s funny and brilliant and intoxicating, and I’m sure I’ll save this copy of Harper’s till the paper is in tatters, rereading it. Of course, the topic is unbeatable:  Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy.

Her journey begins like this:


During the Dante Marathon in Florence, the entire Divine Comedy is declaimed by readers in color-coded jerseys emblazoned with their canto numbers. Readings proceed in concentric circles, with the Inferno beginning on the outskirts of the city, and Paradiso ending on the steps of the Duomo. In the spring of 2009, notwithstanding my poor Italian language skills, I participated in this marathon.

Wearing an Inferno-red 33 jersey, I read the canto in which Dante and Virgil cross the frozen floor of hell, where traitors are punished. …

I first learned about the Dante Marathon from a student in a thesis-writing workshop I was teaching at Stanford. The student, an aspiring operatic soprano, was writing a thesis about vocalization in Dante. In class, she spoke in a throat-preserving, emotionless whisper. It was only much later that I heard her sing – the utterly unfamiliar voice, so pure but so knowing, unfurling like some gorgeous endless fabric out of her tiny Chinese body.

Elif’s saga takes her through Florence, to Pisa, where she meets the forensic paleontologist Francesco Mallegni, who has reconstructed a facial likeness of Dante based on a “bootleg model” of the poet’s skull when the skeleton was exhumed in 1921. Mallegni also found and studied the body of the Inferno‘s imprisoned Count Ugolino, presumed cannibal who devoured the bodies of his own children in hunger.  His conclusion? “The septuagenarian count, not having a tooth in his head, couldn’t possibly have eaten a child, let alone four grown men,” Elif writes.

On to Verona and (inevitably) Juliet’s balcony, and the estate of the most recent generation of Dante’s descendents, on a paradisiacal estate. This leads to her concluding meditation on Paradise:

...not this

Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante‘s afterworld, based  in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Believe me, if that’s how the cards fall, I’ll be the first to congratulate Dante on his eternal happiness – even if I have to do it from the sixth circle in a flaming coffin with Epicurus and the rest of the heretics. But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution.

You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest; it’s not online.

Bad news for me, though.  According to Mallegni, Giotto painted the real Dante – Botticelli got it all wrong. “But Giotto’s Dante looks like any Renaissance youth, and Botticelli’s looks like someone who has been to hell and back,” wrote Elif.  Botticelli’s profile of Dante rather resembles mine – at least in the nose.  I had liked to think that Dante and I had at least that in common.

Postscript on 8/20 (with a hat tip to Dave Lull):  On her own website, Elif has elucidated this edifying language point:

Forward-thinking readers! You don’t need me to tell you that our language is a living, growing organism. So, in an effort to stay with the times, I recently attempted to use the word “douchebags” in print. The context was an essay on Dante, which is scheduled to run in the September issue of Harper’s, albeit probably with some minor revision to the following sentence: “Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence.”

Read the rest here.

What’s the worst great book you ever read?

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Stick to "The Dubliners"

A cadre of leading authors and critics are on a roll over at Slate, dissing the great classics.  It’s over here.

Disses are always fun to read, so here’s a potpourri:

Poet and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy says he would put himself first on the list, if he were rated at all, but then he characterizes Virginia Woolf as “noxious smoke and dusty mirrors.”

“Not far behind, and for completely different reasons, William Carlos Williams: So little depends on stuff lying around. The absolute worst, the gassiest, most morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily studied and worshipped … that’s an easy one. Ezra Pound.”

James Joyce takes a drubbing more than once.

Author Lee Siegel confesses “I just can’t do Finnegans Wake”:

“As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read Finnegans Wake but to have understood it and I took another futile stab at it. I realize now that they were all frauds who later went to work in the subprime mortgage industry.” He concludes: The adult realization that whatever sublime beauties of language and idea are in Joyce’s novel, I have to let them go. Just as there are sublime places—Antarctica—that I will never visit. As I learned from Joyce’s Ulysses, the mystery of everyday life is fathomless enough. There is still a world in a grain of sand.”

"Lame" himself

Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, adds to the pile-on: “what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all…it’s more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats.”

J.D. Salinger?  Forget it.  Author Tom Perrotta recalls:

“On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that’s been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it’s ‘just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.'”

Not unsurprisingly, the most generous words come from Elif Batuman:

Generous spirit

Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don’t think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (“I’m so lazy/uneducated”) or the canonical books (“Ulysses is so overrated”). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don’t either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.

FYI on Elif:  Her The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was plugged by Imitatio here. (hat tip, Dave Lull). Why the a surprise?  Imitatio is the organization founded to study the ideas of René Girard, and some consider her book to be a spoof of those same ideas, with an obsessed  and charismatic graduate student so unable to break the chain of mimetic desire that he finds peace and happiness only in a monastery.  My own opinion:  she has done a lot to revive an interest in his ideas for a new generation.  The site links to the glowing Guardian review that notes the hit memoir’s “detailed engagement with René Girard’s theory of the novel and mimetic desire.”

René told me he hadn’t read it, but when I explained the plot story about the graduate student, he chuckled sagely.

The “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Patrick Kurp over at Anecdotal Evidence has written about the same Slate piece today, with his own nominations for the overrated – it’s here.

Meanwhile, in the comments section at Slate, Terrence Wentworth offered this: “Cool idea, but reading author after author being bashed got depressing by the end. It was surprising how many respondents were willing to pass judgment on books they hadn’t finished. Saying “I couldn’t finish it” is not a very powerful argument for a book’s inferiority. And I thought being well read entailed knowledge of books one didn’t like or find agreeable. I think a call for praise of un-PC works would have been much more daring. But how many contemporary critics are even willing to look for beauty in, say, Ezra Pound?