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March 5, 2010

Book Notes - Elif Batuman ("The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is an essay collection that delightfully combines literary criticism with personal history. Batuman writes with crisp elegance and unfailing humor of the lives of the great Russian authors as well as the academics (including herself) who love them.

The New York Times wrote of the collection:

"Perhaps Ms. Batuman's best quality as a writer, though — beyond her calm, lapidary prose — is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she's feeling."

In her own words, here is Elif Batuman's Book Notes music playlist for her book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is the story of my experiences in the relentless pursuit of Russian literature, from Stanford to Samarkand. Here are some of the songs I listened to along the way.

The Smiths, "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others"

Graduate school isn't always a walk in the park, and nobody seems to feel the pain quite like Morrissey. As I relate in "Babel in California" (one of the chapters in The Possessed), I first realized the nontrivial truth of this mope-rock classic during a conference on the enigmatic Russian-Jewish short-story master Isaac Babel. This realization occurred as I was observing a tense dinner-table conversation between Isaac Babel's daughter, Nathalie, and one of the conference presenters, a much smaller woman, on the subject of whether she, the conference presenter, despised Nathalie Babel. "It wasn't just that Nathalie Babel's face was physically larger—it was somehow visibly clear that she came from a different place and time, where the human scale was different, and bigger." I think that incommensurability is what "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" is all about.

Leonard Cohen, "First We Take Manhattan"

The basic question of "Babel in California" is this: who or what was Babel? Babel was shot in the Lubyanka in 1941, and his last words to his wife were: "They didn't let me finish." In the 1990s, the KGB released the inventory of items confiscated from Babel's home at the time of his arrest: a heartbreaking list which includes, in addition to numerous lost manuscripts, some shaving cream and a pair of "old sandals." These items join the body of Babel's work as clues in an unsolvable mystery.

In The Possessed, my Stanford classmate Matej and I discuss the problem of Babel in the larger context of the philosophical "problem of the person." As Matej put it, when you're in love with someone, who or what is it, exactly, that you love? Obviously, the thing you love isn't a list of stuff… and yet, as anyone who has ever been in love knows, the loved one's belongings become so important!

The night I had that conversation with Matej, I happened to hear "First We Take Manhattan," a haunting song with the marvelous lyrics: "I love your body, and your spirit and your clothes." I think "body, spirit and clothes" encapsulates the problem of the person. We want to fathom Babel's body, spirit, and clothes—and yet, confronted by his old sandals, we find ourselves no closer to the answers we're seeking.

Duke Ellington, "Take the A Train"

This is the upbeat yet soothing track I put on the car stereo in "Babel in California" at the point when I started to run out of gas on the 101, heading back to Stanford from SFO with Babel's second wife and their daughter. Even though I guess it's a song about public transportation, it's really great for driving. I especially like the piano version—so reflective and calm and intricate. If it were possible to write the way Ellington plays the piano, that would be my dream.

Bulat Okudzhava, "Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin"

Bulat Okudzhava (1924–1997) was one of the first Soviet bards who sang their own poetry while playing the guitar: a musical genre known in Russian as "author's songs." Of Armenian-Georgian ethnicity, Okudzhava is perhaps best known for his witty, nostalgic, urban-folkloric songs about Moscow. Okudzhava died when I was first studying Russian in college. At a memorial program held in the Slavic department, I remember hearing this evocative, lovely song about Pushkin, in which Okudzhava manages to make "Alexander Sergeyevich," fit into something like two syllables. The lyrics are about how it's impossible to turn back time, "but all the same it's a pity that it's impossible to drop by [the restaurant] Yar, for even fifteen minutes, to dine with Alexander Sergeyevich." It captures a certain melancholy one gets from reading very beautiful books by very charming-seeming people, like Pushkin, who have been dead for more than a hundred years.

Outkast, "The Rooster"

Lest you all think The Possessed is one long mope-fest, here is one of the more bombastic songs I listened to during my studies of Russian literature. "The Rooster" really encapsulates for me the famous opening line of Anna Karenina—all unhappy families are unhappy after their own fashion—while conveying the power of art to transform that unhappiness into something universal: one of the central ideas in The Possessed. Clearly, Big Boi's family problems are very different from those experienced by Oblonsky in the first pages of Tolstoy's masterpiece; that said, "The Rooster," like Anna Karenina, opens with the family man waking up "very upset" on the sofa, trying to piece together the details of his problems with his wife and children and their collapsing household.

Tolstoy: "Everything was confusion in the Oblonskys' house… every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they."

Outkast: "Luther Vandross couldn't make a home out of this house that we smooshed."

Dado, "Allora" ("Benom")

Part of The Possessed takes place in Samarkand where I accidentally ended up studying Uzbek literary culture for two months. Dado consists of two brothers, Rustam and Alisher Madumarov, and I first heard "Allora" at a music-seller's kiosk in the Samarkand market in 2002. I immediately bought the cassette and listened to it many times on my last Sony Walkman before the onset of the mp3 age.

The album did include some techno-party dance numbers that weren't my cup of tea; I remember particularly one that opened with a Madumarov rapping: "Ba-ba-ba-back with a number-one track,/ We got a party going on, just like that,/ As we come around again, hit you with the next tune,/ Everybody what's up, salom alaykum." But I still really like "Allora," which sounds like the work of an Uzbek Manu Chao. The lyrics on the album are a mix of Uzbek, Russian, English, and Italian, reflective of the fact that one of the brothers was, I believe, a philology major at Tashkent University.

Dmitri Shostakovich, score for "The Gadfly"

Like many writers, I'm very fond of movie music and, whether despite or because I've never seen "The Gadfly," the score is one of my favorites. I listened to it constantly when I was in Petersburg researching ice palaces in "The House of Ice" (one of the later episodes in The Possessed).

Among Shostakovich's more accessible works, "The Gadfly" is suitable for a wide variety of moods and experiences. Some parts have a sweeping, epic-orchestral Russian movie sound, which is terrific for gazing upon the snow-covered Neva; then there are miniature-sounding, music box–like tunes, which makes great background music for contemplating a pair of slippers carved from ice according to a design recorded by one of Empress Anna Ioannovna's court scientists in 1741.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Overture to Don Giovanni

In the opening scene of Anna Karenina, Oblonsky wakes up remembering a dream about some glass decanters who were singing "Il mio tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. The enigmatic epigraph to Anna Karenina—"Vengeance is mine, and I will repay"—seems to me to have the same function as the grim opening phrases of this, Mozart's scariest opera. Listening to the Don Giovanni overture always makes me scared. You can literally hear some overwhelming, life-destroying power, maybe the power of Eros, that carries the likes of Don Giovanni and Anna Karenina to their inexorable demises. A similar power is evoked by Dostoevsky in his novel Demons (formerly translated as The Possessed)—a power I try to convey in the title essay of the book, which is about a Dostoevskian sequence of small disasters, catalyzed by a charismatic Stanford graduate student, in the department of comparative literature.

Elif Batuman and The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Barnes & Noble Review review
Bookslut review
The Brooklyn Rail review
Christian Science Monitor review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Los Angeles Times review
More Intelligent Life review
New York Magazine review
Oprah review
Salon review
San Francisco Chronicle review
SF Weekly review
Slate review
Time Out New York review
Vogue review

Boston Globe interview with the author
Paste profile of the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
Stanford Magazine profile of the author
Unabashedly Bookish interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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