Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Pocket Watch

“Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch.”

This is a consumer warning and critical plaudit masking as an aphorism. In context – the second paragraph of “Babel in California,” published four years ago in the second issue of n + 1 -- Elif Batuman assumes for us that Babel deserves a place on the shelf with the canonical Russian writers (Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov, Pushkin), though Babel’s body of work (two volumes) is conspicuously smaller than Tolstoy’s (100 volumes in the “millennium” edition). Batuman’s economy of means is more Babel-like than Tolstoyan.

Somewhere online I read of Batuman’s essay and telephoned book and magazine shops around Houston looking for that copy of n+1, a journal new to me. A Barnes and Noble about 20 miles away had one and held it for me. I’ve never seen another copy of n+1, and the rest of the second issue is a waste of time, but I’ve hung on to it because of the pleasure “Babel in California” gives me each time I read it. The love of Babel I share with Batuman is much of the reason, but she’s also a real writer not an academic hack, in love with unexpected convergences, very funny, an essayist who can tell a good story.

Her first Babel was “My First Goose,” in a sophomore creative-writing class, and she was not impressed. Mine was “The Sin of Jesus,” in a forgotten anthology read in high school, and I was smitten. Her next exposure came in the doctoral program at Stanford. A friend suggested she take a class with Steven Zipperstein (author of a soon-to-be-published study of Isaac Rosenfeld):

“Already partially convinced, I consulted the syllabus and saw Boswell’s Life of Johnson – at the time, the key to all my mythologies – and registered for the class.

“I came for Boswell and stayed for Babel.”

(Go to Batuman’s webpage and link to an excerpt from the 40 page “Babel in California.”)

My reaction to first reading Batuman’s essay was elation – a good writer emotionally engaged by Boswell and Babel. It seemed too good to be true. The latter portions, devoted to a Babel conference and exhibit at Stanford in 2004, are comedy, especially when Babel’s daughters show up. He had Nathalie Babel with his wife, Evgeniya, and Lidiya Babel with the companion of his final years, Antonina Pirozhkova. Scattered throughout the essay are nuggets of critical devotion:

“The 1920 diary, there is something so precious and almost-lost about it – it’s perfect in its incompleteness, like Pushkin’s fragments. Even knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about Babel’s life, you still want to put it in your pocket and take it with you, to make sure it still exists.”

And this, as true of Batuman as Babel:

“Reading Babel, you never get the feeling – as you do with many great authors – that he omitted part of his observations because they didn’t fit with the story he wanted to tell.”

And back to that sentence I quoted at the beginning: “Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch.” A mixed blessing of metaphors. A long road can be exhausting but gives us much to see along the way. A watch is a machine without surprises, a model of predictability, but it’s small and elegantly crafted.


e.b. said...

I bought that issue of n+1 for the same reason. Elif Batuman has a nice article/essay on Tolstoy in the February issue of Harper's ("The murder of Leo Toltoy: A Forensic Investigation").

D. G. Myers said...

To hell with Babel. Well, I don’t really mean to hell with him. Just, well—Babel’s prose I already knew. But Elif Batuman! What a discovery! Why hasn’t she written more? Thanks, Patrick.

Dave Lull said...

Elif Batuman's book The Possessed has just been published:

The latest review is in the NY Times:

Books of The Times
Tolstoy & Co. As Objects of Obsession
Published: February 16, 2010