17 June 2011


I've now read The Possessed by Elif Batuman, in part because Brit recommended it and in part because she complained about exactly the objection to the Kindle that most annoys me: I don't use a Kindle because I love books. (Not only is this a category mistake (the book is not the physical object) but it is usually said with unearned smug moral superiority.)

I quite liked the book and think you will too, and thus I recommend it. But I do want to quibble with one thing Brit said, which is that The Possessed is a memoir. It is quite clear to me that this is not a memoir, but a novel.

It is true that, if it is a novel, it is a novel about a character named Elif Batuman, who shares at least some important characteristics with her author. Generally, I find authors showing up in their own books to be anathema -- one of the few things Kingsley Amis and I have in common is our reaction to the appearence of the Martin Amis character in Money; both of us immediately threw the book across the room. Perhaps because the novel takes the form of a memoir, this trick is less objectionable than it might otherwise be.

Once I began to suspect that The Possessed is a novel, it quickly became obvious. In fact, the first part of the book is taken up with meditations on a Russion writer who, Elif continually finds, writes autobiography that is actually fictional. The author wasn't or couldn't have been various places he writes about, and certain stories don't seem to have happened quite as presented. In other words, the first part of the book is a quite obvious justification for authors presenting fiction as fact, even as to their own lives.

Elif is, in fact, an untrustworthy narrator of her own life. The untrustworthy narrator, as literary device, shows up throughout the book, at least once explicitly ("a Romanian girl who briefly studied unreliable narrators before dropping out."). Elif lives through story after story, and person after person, who can't quite be believed and who is shown eventually to be unreliable: among others, a landlord who hides the only working bathroom and refrigerator; a student who makes up a fatal illness for a security guard; Isaak Babel's daughters.) There are facts here that could be Googled, the death of a Balkan Arch-Bishop for example, but I have resolutely declined to do so. truth is irrelevant to the story.

Indeed, the irrelevence of truth seems to be the point of the novel. Elif (the character) is made to question her devotion to literature. If she had it to do over, would she still study literature. She could, instead, study radical Islam, which really matters. Elif decides that "[i]f 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." It's possible for someone who is not a character in a novel to reach that conclusion, but from a real person such an answer is self-refuting.

1 comment:

Brit said...

An intriguing argument, which I will have to ponder at length.

Re the quibble, I did say that every review on the web seemed to "open with the reviewer musing on how to categorise it, before settling, uncomfortably, on ‘memoir’. And who am I to blow against the wind?"

I guess one could also settle, uncomfortably, on 'novel'.

Anyway it's a very original book.

(The Martin Amis appearing in his own novel trick is uniquely irritating because of the use of the third person, surely? Billions of novels use 'I'.)