Quirky, comical essays explore the relationship between Russian literature and life.
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Still, Samarkand is a significant way station on Batuman’s journey toward “bringing one’s life closer to one’s favorite books.” Following authors’ trails requires funding, which she seeks in sometimes bizarre scholarly grants and New Yorker assignments.Skip to next paragraph
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The latter takes her, among other places, to St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 2006, to report on a historical replica of the House of Ice that Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna Ioannovna, commissioned in 1740 for the wedding of two court jesters, who were forced to spend their nuptial night inside it. The replica, a bizarre attempt to boost winter tourism, raises all sorts of questions for Batuman about the original, which she sees as an embodiment of what great literature, with its redemptive conversion narratives, works so hard to avoid: “the glorification of immoral, useless decadence.”
Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it. In her funniest piece, “Babel in California,” originally published in 2005 in the magazine n+1, the dinner conversation at an international conference at Stanford on the early 20th- century Odessan-Jewish writer Isaac Babel evokes the sublime silliness of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties.” When a colleague maintains that Babel’s “Red Cavalry” cycle would never be totally accessible to her because of its “specifically Jewish alienation,” Batuman responds, “Right.... As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” It goes right over his head.
In the title essay, Batuman, in Florence, Italy, to research an article on a Dante marathon, visits a Stanford classmate, a poet who says that if he were to start over today, he’d study Islamic fundamentalism instead of literature. Not so for Batuman. “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.”
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.