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Reading the Russians

How can life compare to literature?

Two new books, The Possessed by Elif Batuman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15) and What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn (Touchstone, $24), explore uses of literature — particularly Russian literature — in the lives of individuals both real and fictional.

Elif Batuman is a large, fearless personality and her text is filled with intimate details, ironic asides, and hilarious associations that form a series of loosely connected autobiographical essays “about love and fascination with Russianness.” Batuman, the child of Turkish immigrants, was born in New York, raised in New Jersey, and educated at Harvard and Stanford. The Possessed is a charming, youthful description of her coming of age — getting lost and finding herself through reading (she reads everything from Pushkin to Emperor Zaxiriddin Muhammad Bobur to Borges). At the same time she chronicles her adventures in the seemingly zany culture of Slavic scholarship, traveling from Cambridge to Ankara, Budapest, Provincetown, Stanford, “the backwaters of Central Anatolia,” Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand, Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov’s estate at Melikhovo, St. Petersburg, and Florence. In the process she becomes the judge of a Hungarian “leg contest”; does calisthenics in the bus stations of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan; has her eyebrows painted with henna; and dines in the apartment of the 84-year-old translator of Lazhechnikov’s House of Ice who, with gracious Russian hospitality, prepares “an entire dinner, with egg salad and a wonderful rassolnik (a soup made with pickles and brine)…”

While The Possessed is an amusing book, it’s also serious. The author offers excellent insights about the boundaries between literature and life. About Tolstoy and Anna Karenina: “How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small…so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18… Anna’s maid and daughter were both also called Anna…The repetition of names in particular struck me as simultaneously very strange and very true to life.” At the same time, she bemoans the randomness of real life which Tolstoy’s great novel approaches. In real life, she notes, things happen one after another, “like items on a shopping list.” Real events may be intriguing or poignant but “they won’t assume the shape of a wonderful book.”

Paradoxically, Irina Reyn, who was born in Russia and emigrated to the United States as a child, has written a novel structured on the plot of Tolstoy’s masterpiece which is lighter and filled with characters from the petite bourgeoisie who think in terms of shopping lists: “What to wear, what to wear? Katia had agonized for weeks. The perfect dress did not present itself until two days before the party…” Her Anna is a Russian- Jewish immigrant from Rego Park who marries the wealthy but boring Alex K. and moves to Manhattan’s East Side. The book satirizes such “sausage immigrants” — “Papochka sat in his boxers on the living room couch, buried inside a Novoye Russkoye Slovo. His fingers were black with newsprint…”

Like the real Elif Batuman, the fictional Anna K. often holds a book up to nature, measuring figures she meets against romantic heroes — Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy (or intellectuals in Woody Allen’s films), wishing that life could be like art. Interestingly, she also thinks about literature’s limitations, noting, “Even her parents no longer read Dostoyevsky — Haven’t they suffered enough… after 30 years of communism, didn’t they deserve Danielle Steel?” So the history of Russia, not Russianness, causes Anna K. — not Anna Karenina — to draw a line around the uses of literature.

Frances Brent is the author of the Holocaust history The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson, which came out in July 2009.