Archive for June, 2010

June 28, 2010

The Gaudiloquence of Elif Batuman

I’d been looking forward to Elif Batuman’s collection of essays about life studying Russian books, The Possessed, for quite some time, on the strength of the introductory essay which I linked to on this blog a few months ago. This despite the fact that I am shamefully underread in Russian literature.

The book is much as you would expect it to be based on that one piece. It’s self-centred and occasionally overly precious, but I loved it anyway.

It’s a bit uneven. The American and Russian sections are wonderful; Batuman can be an incredibly funny writer as well as a very moving one, and when she writes about things she knows and loves she’s a joy to read. The Samarkand sections though, despite being set in Samarkand, do not work for me. Apparently Batuman did not enjoy her time there, and so from the fond humour of the other sections we move abruptly toward this sort of thing:

The Uzbek soccer fans’ lack of identification with the Turkish national team was what finally made me see that Uzbekistan wasn’t a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness. Uzbekistan was more like a worse-off Turkey, with an even more depressing national literature. Even I, who was always making fun of Orhan Pamuk, could see that if Pamuk were magically ceded over to the Uzbeks, they would have cause for a national holiday.

On the whole, though, the sheer, joyous love that informs most of the book makes up for moments like this. It’s not perfect, but it’s highly recommended.

An edited version of the (tragically short) piece below appeared in Saturday’s Indian Express.

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In her introduction to The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman says of Cervantes’ Don Quixote that he “had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book”. The Possessed is a collection of essays which shows Batuman herself doing much the same thing, immersing herself in books, looking for parallels and answers to her lived experiences. Describing her own transformation into a literature student she asks “wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” Batuman speaks eloquently and joyfully of love and the experience of being obsessed.

This is not a book about Russian literature, but about Batuman’s love of it and her developing relationship with it. Batuman claims that what first attracted her to the Russians was a sense of half-understanding and absurdity, and this is reflected in the strange and hilarious forms that her study of the language takes. It is (like any love story) completely self-indulgent.

In “Babel in California” a conference on Isaac Babel descends into chaos. “Who Killed Tolstoy?” has her wandering around Tolstoy’s estates as part of an investigation into Tolstoy’s “murder” (a subject chosen more for the purposes of funding than for any beliefs the author might have). Missing suitcases, unrepentant airport staff (“are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?”) and incontinent old gentleman all play a part in a comic piece that also speaks thoughtfully of death.

“Summer in Samarkand” is divided into three parts that are scattered throughout the book. These sections do not deal directly with Russian literature – the essays are an account of a summer spent learning Uzbek – yet Batuman’s commentaries on Uzbek language and literature are very much in keeping with the rest of the book. If they jar with the rest of the book it is more because of the tone of humour. The affectionate delight in absurdity that characterises the portions of the book set in America and Russia is gone, and the writing suffers as a result.

The last piece, “The Possessed”, is named after a Dostoevsky novel and makes clear its parallels with Batuman’s graduate school circle. Things come together, and characters mentioned in passing in earlier essays come into focus. This is the darkest section of the book. Yet Batuman concludes “if I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” And if there are no answers, Batuman shows us that love can still be an end in itself.

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June 26, 2010

The Indian Blogger’s Genre Confusion

A Mills & Boon book has confused me.

As anyone who has ever read one knows, M&B publish short, uncomplicated romance novels. There are various subgenres (see Doctors or Sheikhs), but most of these books stick to a reasonably basic pattern, with minor variations that have set in with time. Some that come to mind: sex/no sex, sexism/less sexism, virgins/unfulfilled divorcees or widows/women who have had previous happy relationships. The pattern is as follows: man and woman meet – man is masterful and probably richer – there is antagonism – feelings develop – there is a misunderstanding – it all ends happily.

A successful Mills & Boon novel sticks to this model. It may be written well or badly, but once the name (and long-stemmed rose logo) of the publisher are on the book, this is all you expect it to be doing. And expectations do inform how one reads a text, what one looks for, and how one judges it.

Which leads to a (to me, interesting) question. Consider a hypothetical situation in which a book contains all the plot elements I mention above, but aspires to do more than simply tell the story which the reader of this genre wants and expects to read. Imagine this book is published under the Mills & Boon brand, with the same sort of title, the same sort of cover as the rest of the company’s output. How do you read and judge it?

It is unlikely that this situation would ever actually occur. M&B would not be the first publisher of choice for an author who sought to do something different, since the name would not attract the sorts of customers who might be interested. Plus it might alienate their existing buyers. As a romance reader I’m quite conservative myself, and can well imagine that a sizeable chunk of readers in the genre feel the same.

But reading Susan StephensThe Italian Prince’s Proposal I have to wonder if this is that book.
On the surface it contains all the conventions of the genre – the title follows the “the something someone’s something” pattern of many recent titles. The plot involves a hot, arrogant prince who needs to marry quickly and chooses a pretty English girl who is desperate for the money. Love happens. They fight. She returns to England. They are reconciled. So far so familiar.

Except it isn’t. Right from the start something feels off about this story, and then, around the 100th page, it all gets rather surreal. There is a sequence where both characters are half asleep and walking around the house, popping into each other’s bedrooms to take a look. There is a dreamlike sequence involving grape-treading (apparently the quantities of grape juice everyone is breathing lead to headiness). In my head this is actually all very filmable and could be gorgeous, but it would not be a realist movie. In this book, it feels completely out of place.

Add to this the gardener, an endearing old man who gives the heroine wise advice (and turns out to be the king) . His inclusion gives the story some of the feel of a fable. And then there’s the fact that the entire plot (what there is of it) revolves around the musician sister’s need to own a famous violin. It’s all very weird. With all this going on, the terrible plot seems like an afterthought.

At no point in the reading of this book did I find it particularly enjoyable. And I’m wondering now how much this had to do with the fact that it was sold to me (where “sold” involves stealing things from my mother’s bathroom) as a Mills & Boon book. Would I have found some merit in it if it had a different sort of jacket? Or was it just fundamentally bad?