Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Horrors and Obsessions of Russian Literature

In her delightful debut nonfiction book “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them”(FSG, $15) the writer Elif Batuman explores the eccentrics, the obsessives and the romantics like herself who study the dark works of Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

In 2001, Batuman was a recent college grad struggling to finish a novel. A broken arm and several other occurrences led her to enter a Ph.D. program in comparative literature at Stanford University. Batuman became immersed in the melancholy world of Russian studies. Mixing hilarious personal stories with astute observations on the the world of academia, Batuman chronicles a California symposium on the murdered writer Isaac Babel, whose elderly daughters are fighting tooth and nail, a conference at Tolsoy’s farm in Russia filled with professors and lunatics and a trip to an ice palace in St. Petersburg. Batuman recounts the comic summer she spent in Uzbekistan, as well as the psychodrama of graduate students at Stanford acting out the tortured love stories in Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed.”

Batuman, 32, was raised in New Jersey, and got her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford, where she still teaches. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in San Francisco.

Q. Could you tell us what draws people into studying Russian language and literature?

A. By the time I got to college, the Cold War was basically over. Even for my generation, the appeal was that Russia was the only place in the world that was exactly like America, but everything was opposite and everything was secret. The difficulty of the language attracts ambitious people, but also people who are attracted to things that will always be hard and challenge them.

As for the literature, the darkness and depressing nature is a big part of it. I grew up in New Jersey, in Florham Park and Summit. In high school, my friends and I were always phenomenally depressed, even though we weren’t Russian. There was something about the (Chekov play) “The Three Sisters,” where the sisters were trapped: “Oh, someday, I am going to go to Moscow.” There was something very familiar to me about growing up in the suburbs. It was a very strange place, where nothing was accessible. New York was very close, but it was also somewhere else.

Q. You won a grant to study the Uzbek language in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, but found out the language wouldn’t help your academic career. You were told if you rejected the grant, you would never get another one, so you and your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend went to Uzbekistan for a summer. Why?

A. There is a Henry James line, “You should never regret a generous error.” That has been a policy of mine. When in doubt, it is better to do the less conservative thing and to err on the side of the more colorful, possibly terrible mistake. That comes from thinking of yourself as a writer. Even if I have a completely horrible time, I will have some material I wouldn’t of had otherwise. The mid-twenties is also such a bad time in your life. You will probably be depressed and miserable anyway. If you are in a breakup, you might as well go all the way and spend the summer in Samarkand, with no air-conditioning, learning a language you have no use for. At least it adds some romance to a depressing situation.

Q. Led by a charismatic Croatian grad student, you and a small group studied Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” and accidentally mimicked the unhealthy love triangles in the book. What happened?

A. We were all very young, but we were all graduate students and used to analyzing and overanalyzing everything. The creepy quality was how we all played out our roles, even though they were potentially very damaging and even though we knew better and knew what was happening.

Brady Udall's Harried Polygamist

In his sweepingly beautiful novel “The Lonely Polygamist” (W.W. Norton, $27), the writer Brady Udall explores the many problems of Golden Richards, a Mormon polygamist living in 1970s Utah with four wives, 28 children and a failing contracting business. Golden also has the misfortune of falling in love with a violent client’s wife, endangering himself and his family.

The book is a darkly comic work laced with tragedy. Golden’s life is a mixture of a warped “Father Knows Best” and “King Lear” at the same time, where the patriarch is deluged with requests to unclog toilets, give time to unhappy wives and provide for his family. Golden Richards comes off as an extremely sympathetic character, doing the best he can, facing death and dealing with his overpowering responsibilities.

Udall, 40, lives in Idaho, teaches at Boise State and is the author of a previous novel and a short-story collection. Udall spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by phone from Philadelphia.

Q. Why did you write an epic novel about polygamy?

A. I am descended from polygamists, though I was raised in a nonpolygamist household. My great-great-grandmother was my great-great-grandfather’s second wife. Without polygamy, I am not here. I was asked to do this Esquire piece in 1998. They wanted to have me write about my religious background as a Mormon, but it was more interesting to write about polygamy in a modern context. I found it to be a fascinating and vibrant subculture, and something that hadn’t been written about in fiction.

Q. Why do polygamist Mormon families live “the Principle,” adding new wives, which some families can barely afford?

A. It’s an almost ironic way of punishing oneself, learning to live in a very difficult way, where this sanctifies you and makes you better. The polygamists, both wives and husbands, learn to be more God-like by taking on more responsibility. It’s very American--if we have problems, we add more land, more assets.

Q. How did Golden Richards come to you through seven years of writing?

A. I wanted someone who grew up outside “the Principle,” who wasn’t prepared for the responsibilities and obligations. I saw him as the quintessential American dad. We are all unprepared to take on the responsibility of fatherhood, but multiply his problems by six or seven times.

Q. How would you describe your novel?

A. It is equally dark and comic. One of the tasks I set for myself was making the novel extremely comic and extremely tragic at the same time, pushing the limits of that. Even in the most heart-wrenching moments, like the funeral of a child in the book, you have to be ready to look for that comic moment. Humor and comedy give perspective to everything. I have little use for books without comedy.

Q. With four wives and 28 children, how can Golden be lonely?

A. In his situation, his wives live in three separate houses and not one of them belongs to him in a real way. He goes among these houses like a traveling salesman, leaving no trace. He’s the figurehead, the patriarch, but has no safe place.

Q. The death of Golden’s daughter Glory still devastates him three years later. What role does the grief play?

A. It’s the driving force of the novel, which is the grief parents face when they lose a child. For me as a father of four, it’s playing out my own fears in fiction. Literature is a safe place to face the death of a child, where the reader can make sense of it in an intimate way.

Q. At the end of your novel, what is the meaning of a happy family?

A. It is a hard question, but a worthy one. “Happy” is a relative thing. In the end, I think, all that you can hope for in a family is that you can rely on each other.

This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in June 2010.