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POSSESSED/GROUCHY

Earlier this month, I was very happy to spend two days at the Frankfurt Book Fair, promoting the German edition of my book and impressing the German media with my air of misery and depression. I am told that the following headline, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Feuilleton, alludes to the terrible time I was having (full text up here):

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The photo caption, according to Google Translate: “Elif Batuman, just before the bad mood was.”

I do remember being puzzled by that interview, since the interviewer didn’t actually ask any questions; he mostly just wanted to discuss his theory that the attendees of the Frankfurt Book Fair are possessed by literature. Historically, of course, it is a very thin line separating the possessed from the grouchy.

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Invisibly to the naked eye, I was actually having a very decent time in Frankfurt! – I have particularly fond memories of the afternoon when a publicist bought me a giant paper cone full of fish and chips (thank you, Katinka!), and then Kurt Vonnegut’s German translator sat next to me and we had a nice chat about STDs.

Later I headed to Zurich, home city of my super-cool publishers, where I spent a lovely evening at the Theatre Neumarkt discussing my work with not one but two incredibly smart German-speaking comparativists: Daniel Binswanger and Jan Kueveler, the latter of whom was an instrumental figure in getting me a banana at the Bananagate incident of 2008, so you can imagine how happy I was to see him again. We were all seated in armchairs in front of a giant sign that said “Elif Batuman: Indiana Jones der Literatur.” I later mentioned this sign to a respected editor, who replied: “I have always thought of you more as a Darth Vader der Literatur.” In fact, I had caught a terrible cold in Frankfurt, and sounded almost exactly like Darth Vader. Huge thanks to Susanne von Ledebur for the tissues, and Julia Strack for the throat drops!

Warhol Dole Bananas, by Stephen Surlin

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10 Responses to “POSSESSED/GROUCHY”

  1. SLF Says:

    Um, Google Translate blew it! It really says: “And Elif Batuman has the worst mood in the world.”
    Wish I’d known you were there– so was I!
    Shelley

  2. Elif Says:

    Shelley! We almost meet again! I think that was the headline, though (”Elif Batuman hat die übelste Laune der Welt”)… the photo caption is: “Elif Batuman, kurz bevor die schlechte Laune kam.”

  3. Elena Says:

    Hello Elif!, here you have a spanish reader.

    Congratulations for The Possesed! (or Los Poseídos, or Los Endemoniados). I really liked it.
    I dind´t study literature but it´s my hobby and I can understand how intense can be to read Anna Karenina, or Crime and Punishment. It´s not usual to find a book about the passion to read, and how far can take you this passion, and I really enjoyed the details about your investigations about writers, and how it mixed with your experiences and your life. The mixture is very original, and really lovely.

    Maybe It´s not a very lucky or educated comment but…Is impossible the story between Matej and you?, Is he seriously going to spend his life in a monastery?
    I think he looked an interesting boy, and your story with him was interesting too…

    Well, if it´s not, I look forward to reading your next book. Keep writing!, you´re good at that.

  4. Elif Says:

    Dear Elena, many thanks for your kind note – I’m so happy you enjoyed the book! Regarding your question – “Matej” is not his real name, but there is/ was such a person. He was indeed, as you say, an interesting boy. I haven’t had any contact with him in the past few years, so I don’t know if he is still in the monastery. That’s where he was the last I heard from him (the email quoted in the book was real). Thanks for your encouraging words – I am hoping to get started on a new book very soon! Saludos, Elif

  5. Polina Aronson Says:

    dear elif,

    “überlste laune” does not quite mean the worst mood. it is wose than worst. it is a kind of mood when you could throw up on a person next to you and would not even bother to feel embarrassed by it. i am alarmed by the fact that being a celebrated author may cause such discomfort.

    i have very much enjoyed your book, and thought it was very lucid. still, i think i can understand what the german journalist was trying to get out of you, that is a kind of idea i sort of hoped to be more pronounced in “grouchy”, ugh, “possessed”. that is, are not writers themselves possessed with mimetic desire? is not literature as a whole an outlet for mimesis? are not narratives created because someone has to act in them? that is how i see a difference between good literature and bad literature: a bad writer sets out a narrative where he or she can, finally, perform the way they would like to perform in life. they kill their former husbands, wear beautiful dresses and ride excellent horses. and while doing all this they remain innocent and kind. when they die, everyone cries. such books a particularly popular with bad readers, that is, people who read only to identify themselves with a book protagonist. a good writer, instead, makes everyone bite each others´ throats in impulses of mimetic desire, and himself spits plum stones from the top of ivory tower.

    i doubt that girard´s theory, on which i am humbly reading now, thanks to your guidance, is a key to every door (its universality makes it suspicious). however, i think it would be interesting stretching it even further than protagonists, to the people behind their desks and their motivations.

    also, forgive me for such statements, but i thought the chapter on matej needs less matej. i felt stuck between a good love story, which does not need theorizing, and a good theory which does not need a love story to support it. otherwise it sounds a bit like chatting to a very intellectual girlfriend who is trying to rationalize why the hell she is feeling hurt. i apologize if it sounds rude. i have a few matejs in the closet, and i talk to them regularly myself, explaining them they are nothing, but a piece of socially constructed reality. they tend not to respond.

    besides, to my great pleasure, in a petersburg chapter i have identified at least two people i know personally. the guy who fixes clock in the hermitage is a father of a good friend. he is a very peculiar chap, and he certainly could provide you with material for another ten novels. another person i think i recognized was the sociologist you mentioned.

    elif, you have written a wonderful book, and, being possessed by mimetic desire, i announce i also recognized myself in it. to say i grew up with russian literature is to say nothing. you will understand what i mean, if i tell you that recently an unknown woman approached me on the berlin street and suggested that my 1.5 year old daughter looked EXACTLY like lev tolstoy. be careful, elif. that stuff seems to impregnate deeper than we know.

    love,
    polina aronson from berlin

  6. Elif Says:

    Dear Polina, thanks so much for your kind note – I’m so happy you enjoyed the book! How great about your 1.5-year-old daughter who looks EXACTLY like LNT! She must be so grouchy! Warmest wishes, Elif

  7. Geoff Roberts Says:

    Dear Elif,
    Can’t agree with the interpretation Polina has given to ‘Ubelste laune’ especially as I have read the article which praises your book in the warmest tones. (If you want I could translate the relevant section for you.) Hossai refers to Herman Hesse, as pronounced by a Chinese poet, by the way. The correct translation of the caption is ‘Elif Batuman before the bad mood came.’ And it’s not quite so negative because the reporter explains just why you hate Book Fairs and receptions and stuff. and is very sympathetic in the rest of the article. As for grouchy, I always think of Groucho Marx when I am grouchy and that makes me chuckle.

  8. Geoff Roberts Says:

    Dear Elif,
    I’d like to share with you one of my favourite passages from Phillip Roth’s Zuckerman triology. If you know it, fine, if not, enjoy!
    “Meanwhile (Lonof) was saying to me “I turn sentences round. That’s my life. I write a sentence and turn it around. The I look at it and turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.
    Sundays I have breakfast late and read the papers with Hope. The we go for a walk in the hills and I’m haunted by the loss of all that good time.”
    There’s more – it’s in Zuckerman Bound on page 11 of my paperback edition.

  9. Asli Bali Says:

    Dear Elif,

    I hope this might be of interest to you:
    http://www.internationalpen.org.uk/go/news/turkey-writer-and-academic-deniz-zarakolu-arrested

    If so, please be in touch.
    Best,
    Asli

  10. Phoebe Heyman Says:

    Sorry to dwell on the theme of your final chapter in The Possessed (and in a comment on a post several weeks old) – which is one of the most memorable parts, to me, of your book. As Polina may have been getting at above, I think that there is a certain unresolved tension in that chapter, but that is what made it extremely compelling to me. The idea of mimetic desire and applying it to relationships with people really jumped out at me. The first time I read it I had to put your book down momentarily because I was so struck. It really explained to me the way I felt about a person I knew in my own life. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea and the way you related it to Demons and to the pursuit of literature in general. (I have not read Girard yet though.)

    I can’t remember if I have commented on your blog before but I have read The Possessed about a million times since it first came out and relate to all of it. It’s my favorite book! Thank you so much!

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