Leo Tolstoy was 82 years old when he died of natural causes – surely this seems plausible enough an age to pass away at. Then again, you never know, especially with those Russians: Tolstoy was a controversial figure with lots of enemies, and one of them may well have killed him.
Such, at least, is Elif Batuman’s pretext when she applies for a research grant in order to travel to the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. She’s in her fourth year of Stanford University’s PhD programme in Comparative Literature, and while she doesn’t get the full research grant (“You are certainly my most entertaining student”, is her adviser’s reaction to her proposal), she does get a somewhat smaller travel grant, and so flies out to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate and the site of the conference.
In Who Killed Tolstoy?, an article that originally appeared in Harper’s magazine last year, Batuman recounts this ill-fated trip. Her suitcase fails to travel with her, and she ends up wearing the same pyjama-like outfit for the entire duration of the conference – which leads some of the other participants to believe that she is a Tolstoyan (a tribe of Tolstoy admirers who, like the great novelist himself, have resolved only to wear sandals and peasant shirts).
Who Killed Tolstoy? is one of seven stories in Batuman’s recently published book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Other stories include Babel in California, about the time Stanford hosted an international Babel conference and Batuman got to pick up the writer’s granddaughter from the airport; and Summer in Samarkand, in which she goes to Uzbekistan to study the Uzbek language as the sole student of the sad-eyed Muzaffar.
Graduate school can be a strange place sometimes, and the pursuit of a PhD a peculiar pastime, especially for someone who wants to be a writer, not a university professor. Or, as Batuman asks in her introduction: “How does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?”
The answer, as The Possessed makes clear, is love: love for Tolstoy and Babel, for Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Batuman is simply in love with the crazy Russian novelists who are the object of her study – and in The Possessed, she smartly and wittily weaves their masterpieces together with her own experiences as a graduate student, a journalist, a lover and a traveller.
Batuman finished her dissertation two years ago, and has yet to publish that novel she keeps talking about. But in the meantime, The Possessed is a worthy debut that is as entertaining as can be Chekhov, as wide-ranging as is Gogol, and as moving as Dostoyevsky.