How many people does it take to make a gang? I would guess that it would be more than two, usually, and so I was surprised when Elif Batuman, in a footnote to her amusing and piquant essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, mentioned the “gang of thugs” who accost the unfortunate protagonist of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” I taught this last semester, as it turns out, and my Penguin edition does seem to indicate that it’s two thugs. But then I quickly realized that Batuman has almost certainly read Gogol in Russian, which I have not, and even details her finding errors in other translations. For all I know, this is a translation artifact, and I am completely out of my depth. What am I doing even writing about this book, with its evidence of commitment to comparative literature far beyond what I could imagine (Samarkand, Uzbek) and its somewhat hothouse intellectual atmosphere (particularly in the last chapter)? I feel pleased with myself for reading a German translation of Lem’s “Provocation,” for example, and here I found myself wistfully imagining the vastness of the Hoover collections and the unfettered opulence of a university that allows graduate students $2500 grants for overseas field work—in Slavic literature. We can’t imagine the shape of our fate, that’s for sure.
But the book is very funny. I first read Batuman when I was putting together the Graphs, Maps, Trees discussion (soon to come to you in book form!), and I was filled with envy after reading her essay ”Adventures of a Man of Science”, which manages to be both illuminating and humorous, when all I could do when talking about the book in my little essay was probe ideologemes and morphogenesis. (I’d love to hear what she made of the Empson, though, having gone on quite an Empson kick myself in the last year.) I think it would make an excellent assignment in an “Introduction to Graduate Study” course, for example, or a course designed to introduce English (or, even more appropriately, of course, comparative literature). I’m teaching both of these courses in the fall, as it turns out, so maybe I’ll try it.
I enjoyed the Babel chapter. I was assigned Red Cavalry in a class I took with the writer Kevin Canty my senior year, along with Portrait, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Man in the Holocene, At Swim-Two-Birds, Street of Crocodiles, and a Fellini film. (There were probably other texts, but I can’t bring them to mind at the moment.) There were mostly graduate students in the class, as I remember, and one of them, a kindly woman who wrote lucid feminist editorials for the student newspaper,* gave me a chapbook of the Duino Elegies one day before class. I owned the Mitchell translation, as it turned out, and had even copied one of the Sonnette in a sort of love letter two summers before. (The recipient had pragmatically gone to the Wake Forest library, found the translation, and responded, with what seemed to me to an alarming straightforwardness, about why I would send her something in a language she couldn’t read that she couldn’t have understood to begin with. I was reminded of Mitchell’s remark in his introduction that Rilke was terrified by the idea of mental health [or was it hygiene?])
I bring this up because the way in which literature first orders the lives of those who read it or feel it strongly, and who only later, with experience, begin to learn from it, seems to be one of the ideas that’s explored, with considerable wit and sophistication, in Batuman’s book. Some of it seems very much like an academic essay in parts, especially when she describes her encounter with Girard. The parts that went through the Harper’s or New Yorker editorial process are noticeably different, I think, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.
*The incongruity of this could best be compared with Brit Hume, say, reading “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” at the beginning of his newscast.