Elif Batuman's The Possessed.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 24 2010 6:55 AM

A Comedian in the Academy

Who knew studying Russian literature could be so funny?

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This is pretty broad humor, almost Sacha Baron Cohen-esque. But Batuman clearly has a deep respect for Dilorom—as she does for the scholarly enterprise itself, no matter how ludicrous it can be. After all, scholars are funny for the same reason clergymen have always been a staple of comedy—because of the contrast between their human flaws and the noble ideals they serve.

It's not just that Batuman writes about her affection for Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky's Demons (whose original title in translation was The Possessed), remembering the role these books played in her own development. That kind of love-letter to reading ("Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection ...") is common enough. What's really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman's praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.

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It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: "Anna's lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna's maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna's son and half brother were both Sergei." Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed "remarkable, surprising, and true to life." Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: "As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. ... The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual."

Experiences like these help to convince Batuman, who started out wanting to be a novelist, that the academic study of literature is not the end of literary pleasure, but a new, deeper beginning. She even argues that theory can help us navigate our own lives. When Matej, a charismatic grad student, wreaks emotional havoc on Batuman and her female colleagues (and some of the males, too), she makes sense of him by invoking Rene Girard's theory of "mimetic desire." Beyond all the jokes, this may be the most important contribution Batuman has to make in The Possessed. By fusing memoir and criticism, she shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived—at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime.

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.