The humanities have long been the target of criticism for becoming too obscure, theoretical and self-reflective. These attacks seem unfair, although we humanists also know it is our job to change the public's view. Elif Batuman may have been trying to do just that, but for this reader her project has sadly misfired.
The best thing about this book is its wonderful cover - but don't judge the book by it. It's a rocky read from there, complete with highs, lows and expanses as arid as some of the landscapes Batuman encounters during a summer spent in Samarkand, and ultimately as chilly as the night she never spends in "The House of Ice" - perhaps the most interesting item in her cabinet of curiosities.
Batuman affects an ironic, witty tone that frequently lapses into a kind of otiose snobbery that becomes brittle and monotonous. She does not achieve the successful merging of journalism with literary insight found in, say, Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001). Instead, as one of my colleagues quipped, this is "multiculturalism gone awry".
Batuman offers a mosaic of insights: we learn that Tolstoy's collected volumes weigh as much as a beluga whale, that Isaak Babel's surviving family members were old and ridiculous, that conference papers are often irrelevant, that university archivists don't understand their materials, that many Russian Tolstoy scholars are overweight, that one elderly North American scholar lost control of his bowels in an embarrassing accident. And she has a chuckle at those who tried to help him.
We learn that she had a canny way of persuading her department at Stanford University to finance her somewhat cynical projects with its meagre funds. Had she turned this screed into fiction, she might have found a way to season her spite with compassion. The result could have been a wildly funny novel in the spirit of Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge. Unkindest of all is her disdain for other aspiring writers who make the mistake of entering creative writing programmes - long a tired subject for humour, but Batuman wants her say, too. She cheerfully inveighs against writing workshops, contemporary fiction writers and the view that part of writing is a craft.
The book is a kind of tease for its final chapter, "The Possessed". Don't read this chapter for any real insight into Dostoevsky - as with Babel and Tolstoy, various biographical snippets abound, followed by an elaborate plot summary of this difficult novel. But it is a summary that denudes it of tragedy, political canniness and prophecy, of mordant dark humour and intense readability, and renders it ridiculous instead.
There is, however, a nexus of interest in this chapter. We learn, finally, that Batuman is meditating on friendship and love. Her thoughts on friendship are mediated through a passage in Dostoevsky's novel about an odd friendship between two middle-aged characters and through a passage from Proust: "'after a certain year,' extremely close friends, as if by agreement, 'cease to make the necessary journey or even to cross the street to see one another, cease to correspond, and know that they will communicate no more in this world'". If only Batuman had decided to ponder more such compelling moments from the Russian writers, especially Babel, that she loves.
The other searching meditation - on love - emanates from her reading of Rene Girard's Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (1961). Virtually everyone who reads that seminal text succumbs to a literary version of medical-student syndrome, namely the fear that one is experiencing symptoms of precisely the disease being studied. Batuman does the same, and a few sparks of something more than the drumbeat of ironies begin to emerge. One hopes she will more deeply enter the worlds of the books she admires, and leaven her hunger for irony with compassion.
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman
Granta, 304pp, £16.99
Published 7 April 2011