The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman
Paperback, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $15
By contrast with the philosophy of language and my other classes in psycholinguistics, syntax, and phonetics, beginning Russian struck me as profoundly human. I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story, and Russian (the study of a particular language) to resemble a set of rules, but the reality was just the opposite. For the first several months of Russian class, we studied an ingenious text called "The Story of Vera." It opened with Vera, a physics graduate student, going to visit her boyfriend and classmate, Ivan. Ivan wasn't home -- he had left a note saying, "Forget me." "Why did we never understand him?" Ivan's father sighed, and slammed the door in Vera's face. These initial installments used an amazingly small vocabulary and grammar. As the story progressed, details of the plot were filled in, along with the missing cases and tenses, so that knowledge was accompanied by the means of its expression. In this way, introductory Russian manifested itself to me as a perfect language, in which form was an ideal reflection of content.
As it turned out, Ivan had fled to Siberia to work in the lab of his estranged uncle, and somehow got married there. Vera followed him, and fell in love with another physicist, whom she met in a taxi at the Novosibirsk airport. In the last chapter, Vera went to a physics conference and presented a paper, which was received as "the very latest word in physics." Ivan, who was also at the conference, congratulated her and seemed ready to offer some explanation of his actions, but Vera didn't care anymore.
Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky, Ivan and Vera: at every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with Russian. This association was further strengthened when I myself fell in love with one of my classmates from Russian class, a math major who had briefly studied Russian as a child behind the Iron Curtain. His Russian name was Valya, which was close to his Hungarian name. He was a senior, and was going to spend the summer in Budapest before heading to Berkeley for graduate school. I was only a freshman, so clearly, after June, we were never going to see each other again -- except that then he somehow got me a summer job with a philanthropic organization that sent American college students to teach English in Hungarian villages.
There was something mysterious and absent about Valya, and in fact it turned out that, like Ivan in the story from Russian class, he also had a girlfriend about whom I knew nothing, and whom he eventually married. By the time this mystery was revealed to me, it was too late not to go to the Hungarian village, so I went. But, like Tatyana reading the manual of dream interpretation, I was already aware of something somewhere portending "a multitude of sad adventures."
In the village of Kal, I was hosted by an extremely kind family who drove me to see all the local historic sites, most of which commemorated victories over the Ottoman invaders. I taught English for seven hours a day, which proved to be interesting but exhausting work. I didn't call Valya at all for the first two weeks. In the third week the village sent me to a children's camp at a beautiful historic town on the Danube. All the female staff slept in a single cabin: me, a young English teacher, and fi ve gym teachers. Unknown parties had strongly impressed upon the camp organizers that I, as an American, ate nothing but corn and watermelon. Every day they brought me cans and cans of corn, and nearly a whole watermelon, which I ate alone in the cabin. In the absence of any formal duties I was pursued in their every free minute by a group of tiny, indefatigable Hungarian girls, who gently demanded that I play badminton with them and braid their hair.
I was surviving this all OK until Saturday evening, when the gym teachers organized a special entertainment: a boys' leg contest.
"The American girl will judge the leg contest!" they announced. I was still hoping that I had misunderstood them, even as German techno music was turned on and all the boys in the camp, ages eight to fourteen, were paraded out behind a screen that hid their bodies from the waist up; identifying numbers had been pinned to their shorts. I was given a clipboard with a form on which to rate their legs on a scale from one to ten. Gripped by panic, I stared at the clipboard. Nothing in either my life experience or my studies had prepared me to judge an adolescent boys' leg contest. Finally the English teacher, who appeared to understand my predicament, whispered to me some scores of her own devising, and I wrote them on the form as if I had thought of them myself.
The next day, Sunday, I was alone in the cabin reading when someone came crashing through the door. It was the winner of the boys' leg contest, a fourteen-year-old daredevil named Gabor, his prizewinning left leg covered in blood.
"Can you help me?" he asked, handing me a first aid kit.
Closer inspection revealed a long, jagged gash on his knee. I had opened the fi rst aid kit and successfully identified a bottle of iodine when we were joined by two of the gym teachers.
"Lukacs Gabor, you leave the American alone!" they shouted and, steering the boy away, disinfected and bandaged his knee in a visibly efficient fashion. The English teacher appeared at my side: "He wants something from you," she said darkly.
During the lunch hour, as soon as they had brought me my watermelon, I slipped away to the commuter rail station, bought a phone card, and called Valya's parents' house in Budapest. Valya asked where I was. Two hours later, he and his mother drove up in his mother's Opel, with a canoe tied to the roof. His mother thought it would be fun for us to go canoeing on the Danube. She drove back in the car, and we actually paddled that canoe all the way back to Budapest, which took more than seven hours. All around us, towering sixteen-wheel trucks glided by on barges. Apparently it was illegal for the trucks to drive on the streets on Sundays.
In Budapest, having missed the docking place, we ended up moored in a swamp. Valya dragged the canoe aground, helped me out, and then went to find a pay phone. I was supposed to stay with the canoe.
"I should be back in fifteen or twenty minutes," he said.
The sun sank behind some prehistoric-looking vegetation, and a liquid blueness descended upon the world. Valya was gone for two hours, which I spent guarding the canoe -- from whom? By what means? Noticing a willow nearby, I entertained and dismissed the idea of concealing the canoe with willow branches. As it happened, the only sentient beings I saw in the whole two hours were a man with four goats, none of whom evinced any interest in either me or the canoe, and two policemen. The policemen stopped their mopeds when they saw me, and tried to question me in Hungarian. The only question I understood was whether I was homeless. "Do you have a house?" they said loudly, and one of them put his hands over his head in the shape of a pointed roof.
"My friend went to the telephone," I said. To my surprise, this explanation seemed to satisfy the policemen. "Good, good," they said, then got back on their mopeds and rode away.
I had just taken a pen and notebook out of my bag and was trying in the dark to write a note explaining that I was incapable of guarding the canoe anymore when I heard the approach of pounding footsteps. They grew louder and louder and then Valya flopped down to the ground beside me, out of breath, his shirt torn and muddy. He had been chased several kilometers cross-country by a wild dog. He must be the kind of man who likes women, I remember thinking.
The next afternoon, Valya drove me back to the camp, stopping at the Thai embassy to pick up his visa -- he was leaving the next day for a math conference. After we said goodbye, I spent some hours wandering around the historic town, its Serbian graveyards and churches. Eventually I had to return to the campground. I was greeted at the gate by the English teacher, closely followed by the bandaged boy leg champion.
"You have been . . . loafing," said the English teacher accusingly.
"Your hair looks cool," Gabor said.
"No it doesn't!" snapped the English teacher.
Excerpted from The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. Copyright 2010 by Elif Batuman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.