All the gems of Samarkand

Why did Elif Batuman go to graduate school? Why did she go to Uzbekistan? Why did she go back to both places? Why did Pushkin go to Turkey? The answers are in Elif's terrifically funny memoir, part one of which is published in the latest n+1, and includes a lovely description of the sort of blackmail one may receive at the hands of academics, if one has made the tactical error of exposing the contingency of one's commitment:

"This doesn't look good," [the grants administrator] said. "You're backing out of your research proposal just because you aren't eligible for this particular job at Berkeley, this particular year?" She shook her head. "It doesn't look good. I like you, Elif, and I want you to succeed. That's why I'm telling you that, if you back out of your proposal now, the likelihood of this comittee ever awarding you a grant again will be very small."

Of all the circumstances that contributed to my ending up in Samarkand, this ultimatum was the most unexpected. Go to Uzbekistan now . . . or you will never get departmental funding ever again?

Literature as coerced testimony

Siddhartha Deb reviews three novels by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury for The Nation. One of them, Yalo, is concerned with a Lebanese Christian rapist and thief who is being tortured while in prison.

The interrogators who question Yalo, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, possess no names and have few defining features. This is because one sees them from Yalo’s point of view. Starved, beaten, humiliated and subject to what the interrogators call “torture parties,” Yalo understands quickly enough that he must provide a story these men consider satisfactory. Of course, it becomes apparent that the investigators are not interested in verifying the truth of Yalo’s confessions as much as in extracting a version of truth that suits their needs and is presented in a suitably bureaucratic language.

But the novel of Khoury’s that Siddhartha likes most is Gate of the Sun, which he calls “a lyrical and haunting meditation on Palestinian history from the Nakba of 1948 to the early ’90s.”

“Like Christmas with bullets”

Paul Collins profiles the mail-order tycoon/cuisinier/fabulist George Leonard Herter for the New York Times Book Review:

Herter’s magnum opus, though, was “Bull Cook,” a wild mix of recipes, unsourced claims and unhinged philosophy that went through at least 15 editions between 1960 and 1970. Herter claimed one million copies sold; Brown guesses it was closer to 100,000. Either number is impressive, and the wild curveball of the book’s opening lines remains unmatchedin American literature: “I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap and also what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack, keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Over at Weekend Stubble, Paul posts Herter’s plans for a fish-calling device.

How to write novels about history

In a long and astute essay in The New York Review of Books, not easy to excerpt because it makes its argument very gradually and carefully, Elaine Blair suggests that one half of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project raises questions that the other half neglects (subscription required for link):

What is it that we’re looking for, the novel seems to ask, when we visit the sites of historical atrocities, or read about them in novels, or watch them reenacted in movies? What kind of feeling can a novelist writing about a fifty- or hundred-year-old war crime hope to elicit in his contemporary readers? Visceral disgust? Pornographic interest? Solemn indignation? Is the best he can hope for historical clarification, or a pointed analogy to current events?

The most immediate implication of these questions would seem to be for Brik’s Lazarus story itself, and it is the great disappointment of the novel that the subtle and provocative questions suggested in one half of it seem to go unheeded in the other. Hemon seems to be hedging his bets, raising doubts about the nature of the Lazarus project in the Brik chapters, while in the Lazarus chapters the narrator bustles along as if none of these questions existed, confidently peering into the characters’ souls, speaking in their voices, and, it turns out, exploiting historical catastrophes for emotional effect.

Catching Up #7

  • Laura Secor explores revolutionary sex in Iran for The Nation:

    Mrs. Erami, it turns out, is one of the more dramatic products of the generational upheaval in Iranian attitudes toward sex. A conservative Muslim, she was not sympathetic, some years before her encounter with Mahdavi, when her gay son came out of the closet. Her husband threw him out of the house. When their unmarried daughter announced that she had a boyfriend, Mrs. Erami slapped her and called her a prostitute. The daughter left home that day, never to return. And so the Eramis lost both of their children over their unwillingness to accept sexual behavior that had become the norm not only globally but even within many circles inside Iran. A year later Mrs. Erami's husband died, leaving his wife entirely alone and flooded with regret. That was when she devoted herself to sex education reform, both as a teacher and as a campaigner within Iran's education ministry.

  • For n+1, Nikil Saval explains why he'd rather call Mumbai Bombay:

    The head of India's right-wing Shiv Sena group, which was founded in 1966 and based in Bombay, Thackeray would be essentially parodic if he weren't so murderous. He was until recently focused on starting an India-based rival to McDonald's, "Shiv Vada-pav," with a fried potato burger as its main attraction. And it was through his initiative that the city was renamed "Mumbai," after the city's patron goddess Mumbadevi—which, the nationalists argued, returned the city to its Hindu past. In reality, the Sena had overwritten history with a fantasy: Bombay was originally a Portuguese (Bom-baim), and then English (Bombay), trading port. The notion that it has a particularly Hindu past to return to is false.

  • In the pages of the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman lances the poststructuralist boil that is Louis Althusser's reputation by calling the bluff on all the silly things that have been said about his murder of his wife, not least those said by Althusser himself:

    In his manic periods, the philosopher compulsively seduced younger, more attractive women and brought them home to ‘show’ his wife. The actual murder took place when he was giving Hélène a ‘neck massage’ – on the front of her neck. The great Marxist pressed his thumbs ‘into the hollow at the top of Hélène’s breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both . . . up towards her ears’, squeezing so hard that he felt pain in his forearms. He noticed this pain before he noticed his wife’s glazed eyes and protruding tongue.

    In The Future Lasts a Long Time, Althusser breezes through Hélène’s monstrous childhood in less than two pages, but returns again and again to the scene of his own symbolic ‘rape’ by his mother, which occurred after he began having wet dreams, and consisted of his mother pointing at his sheets and announcing: ‘Now you are a man, my son.’ Such passages alternate with confessions, self-recriminations, Freudian self-analyses and sentences like ‘I know you are waiting for me to talk about philosophy, politics, my position within the Party, and my books,’ creating an impression of parodic egotism.

  • In the collapsing Russian economy, Keith Gessen has become a financial advisor:

    The guys I play hockey with, a number of whom are bankers, know about the crisis. ‘We could start farming,’ one of them suggested a while ago as we sat in the locker room after another loss to our rivals.

    ‘I have a balcony. We can raise a goat.’

    ‘Or mushrooms. We could grow psychedelic mushrooms.’

    ‘No, the FSB controls that market. The minute you came out with your mushrooms they’d be visiting you.’

    ‘Gentlemen!’ Our captain wanted us to get back to business. ‘There is a financial crisis. But we are also in a hockey crisis.’

    ‘We’re better off with a goat,’ the first banker continued. ‘It will give you milk – and progeny!’

  • Christine Smallwood profiles America's greatest toponymist for The Nation:

    Stewart's lyricism is fashioned from two materials: Old Testament fire and brimstone–a pervasive climate of environmental tempests and spiritual tests–and the incantations of names. The latter found their fullest expression in his most famous work, Names on the Land. Released three years before Fire, the book is a history of American place-names that retraces the paths of conquistadors, pilgrims, frontiersmen and merchants across the Lower 48. (A reissue added chapters on Alaska and Hawaii.) A ramble through the book's index reveals the land's rhythms and curiosities: Puget Sound, Pulaski, Pumly Tar, Punxsutawney, Purgatoire, Putah Creek, Putin, Puu. Toby's Creek, Todd's Corner, Togo, Tokio, Tokio River, Toledo, Tolo, Tolono, Tolstoi, Tomato Creek, Tomball, Tombstone. Bird-in-Hand, Deal, Fertility, Intercourse. Stewart was a poet, but he was a tough guy, too, like Mailer. Unlike Mailer, though, who fueled his machismo with flights of scotch, Stewart was a rugged survivalist, a social conservative who measured testosterone in miles hiked.