ELCOME TO THE INAUGURAL POST of a new feature: THE POT BOILER, wherein I recommend a good read and a meal to go along with it. First up is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I didn’t have high hopes for this book: It’s a) a memoir b) about grad school which was c) previously published, in part, in a magazine I’m supposed to dislike, and is d) being marketed as funny, an assessment I rarely agree with. But my favorite funny book is a campus novel (no prizes for guessing), so I figured I’d give it a shot. You should too.
The Possessed contains a healthy dose of literary criticism, and some memorable contributions to the “bad trips” genre—we visit not only lovely Stanford but also less-lovely Uzbekistan and Russia—but refreshingly little “memoir” in the sense to which we’ve grown accustomed. Like many of the finest memoirs, its focus is outward, vividly describing unpleasantly exotic locales and a host of odd, even grotesque characters. One trait Batuman shares with Kingsley Amis is an acute sense of comic outrage or disbelief, a skill at collecting absurdities and indignities for later use.
What sort of indignities are on Batuman’s menu? How about being entrusted with the care and feeding of Isaac Babel’s seventy-four-year-old daughter during a Babel conference at Stanford? Nathalie Babel speaks in ALL CAPS, like Death in Terry Pratchett novels—Babel’s voice, like Death’s, being “fathomless, sepulchral, with heavy French r’s.”
Then there’s discovering why your Uzbek-language immersion program is so expensive: “One thousand for instruction, one thousand for room and board, and four thousand for the body bag to send you home.” Lest you think this is a joke, turn to p. 102 for the terms of Batuman’s accidental death and dismemberment policy—for instance, THUMB AND INDEX FINGER: $6,250.
There is, as there must be in a good travelogue, plenty of food, ranging from disappointing to off-putting to inedible. Turn to p. 139 to read about the properties of lepyoshka, the Russian word for Samarkand’s vaunted bread. Its bread is the best in Uzbekistan, they say, because of Samarkand’s “amazingly clean water and air,” sort of like Philly bakers claim to make the only acceptable cheesesteak rolls because they have access to “Schuylkill punch.”
From the sounds of things, the bread is the only thing they’ve got going for them. “Breakfast,” Batuman writes, “consisted of ‘soft-boiled’ eggs, dipped briefly in warm (not boiling) water, with bread and orange jam. The jam came from a vat under the sink; when Gulya lifted its oilcloth cover, you could see a network of busy ants hurrying over the gemlike surface.” Batuman’s traveling companion has a frightening experience with some borscht, “redolent of mutton, covered by a thin film of orange grease.” She convinces him to eat both bowls while the host isn’t looking, and when it nearly kills him, the suspicious cook demands to know why she isn’t sick, too.
Not all borscht is toxic, and I’ve made this recipe on a few occasions without requiring the antidote Batuman’s host provides: “She put some water to boil, brewed a pot of tea, and brought out a tin box, from which she produced mysterious items: a resinous amber log and a pink glassy rock. With a sharp knife, she shaved off pieces of these presumably medicinal objects and dissolved them in the tea.” Does that mean it’s not authentic? My advice is, if you can’t bear to be a tourist, skip the second step and leave in the fat—you know, all that good stuff that looks like a batik project in Fig. 4 above. Just make sure you’ve got enough Baltika on hand to wash the taste out of your mouth.