The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Lauren Oyler on Elif Batuman

October 03, 2023 The Point Magazine Season 1 Episode 13
Selected Essays | Lauren Oyler on Elif Batuman
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Lauren Oyler on Elif Batuman
Oct 03, 2023 Season 1 Episode 13
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Lauren Oyler about her essay “Desperately Seeking Sebald,” which was published in Harper’s in 2021 and Elif Batuman’s “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” which was also published in Harper's in 2009 and then later collected in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them as “Who Killed Tolstoy?”

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Lauren Oyler about her essay “Desperately Seeking Sebald,” which was published in Harper’s in 2021 and Elif Batuman’s “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” which was also published in Harper's in 2009 and then later collected in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them as “Who Killed Tolstoy?”

Jessica Swoboda  00:05

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point Magazine about essays you should read the probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey, thanks for joining us. This week we have Lauren Oyler on the show. Lauren's essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books and Bookforum, among other publications. Her first novel Fake Accounts was published in 2021. She currently lives in Berlin and is finishing a new essay collection, which is scheduled to appear next year. For this episode we spoke with Lauren about Elif Batuman's, "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," which was published in Harper's in 2009 and later collected in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. We also talked with Lauren about her essay "Desperately Seeking Sebald," which was published in Harper's in 2021.


Jessica Swoboda  01:00

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the pointmag dot com. We'd love to hear from you. Hey, Lauren, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of selected essays.


Lauren Oyler  01:30

Thanks so much for having me.


Jessica Swoboda  01:33

So we were wondering if you could begin by telling us a bit about Elif Batuman's writing and her life and her work. 


Lauren Oyler  01:43

Sure. So Elif Batuman is, I guess you could call her a contemporary, a contemporary author, she is in her 40s. And she got started writing as part of this sort of first nplus one generation. And her first book is called he Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and it was published in 2010. And I'm going to describe this book's premise in an intentionally unexciting way so that you can appreciate the achievement that she's made with it. It is basically a book about being in the Comparative Literature Department at Stanford as a graduate student. And she has incorporated her study of Russian literature into travel essays, basically. So as I said, this sounds very boring. But what makes Elif such an exciting writer is the way that she, I guess, if you wanted to, like make her sort of Reading Rainbow argument, she like makes reading come alive. And she uses her academic training in a very sort of writerly interesting way. And that's why I picked her my favorite essay from this book, which is called "Who Killed Tolstoy?" to discuss but before that, I'll talk a little bit more about her career. People probably know that she's the author of two novels, her first novel, The Idiot, came out in 2018. And it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the sequel, Either/Or, came out last year. And you see the themes of sort of reading academic study that she works on and the possessed, come up again, in these novels in a different form. The novels are about a student at Harvard, So=elin, who is sort of naive, idiotic in some ways, just sort of trying to understand how her study relates to her life and vice versa, and how to live sort of an aesthetic life, but also how to understand what she's reading as a student at Harvard. But again, all of this sounds sounds like what they anyone at a magazine would be like, you cannot write an essay about being a graduate student in the complit department at Stanford. So I think I should read the beginning of "Who killed Tolstoy?", and you'll sort of get a better sense for why I like it so much. Yeah, and also I should say that this essay first appeared in Harper's in I think 2009, and it was called the murder of Leo Tolstoy and you can find that on her personal reading. Okay. "Who Killed Tolstoy? "The International Tolstoy conference lasts for days and is held on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Tolstoy was born with most of his life, wrote Warren Piece and Anna Karenina and is buried. In the summer after my fourth year at Stanford, I present into part of a dissertation chapter at this conference. At the time, the department awarded two kinds of international travel grants $1,000 for presenting a conference paper or $2,500. For field research, my needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that can only be solved at Tolstoy's house. I rode my bicycle through blinding sunshine to the library and spent several hours Shut up in my refrigerator and fluorescent lit Carol with a copy of Henri Toya try out 700 Page biography Tolstoy I read with particular interest the final chapters last will and testament and flight. Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop. Quote, Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of St. povo. Under what can only be described as strange circumstances I typed. The strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy's life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilitch to drop dead quietly in some dark corner, and so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination. I was rather pleased with my proposal, which I titled the Tolstoy die of natural causes, or was he murdered a forensic investigation, and which included a historical survey of individuals who had motive and opportunity to effect Tolstoy's death, quote, arguably Russia's most controversial public figure, Tolstoy was not without powerful enemies, more or less threatening my life he noted in 1897, when his defense of the decor bar set through loud protests from the Orthodox Church and Tsar Nikolai who even had Tolstoy followed by the secret police. As is often the case, Tolstoy's enemies were no more alarming than his so called friends. For instance, the pilgrims who swarm Yes, unipolar Pollyanna, a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and Desperados collectively referred to by the domestic staff as the dark ones. These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity, a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial simplicity and who eventually had to be driven away because he was beginning to be indecent, and a blind old believer who pursued the sound of toasters footsteps shouting liar hypocrite. Meanwhile, within the family circle, Tolstoy as well was the subject of bitter contention dot, dot, dot. You are certainly my most entertaining students at my advisor, when I told her about my theory, Tolstoy murdered Ha ha, ha, ha, the man was 82 years old with a history of stroke. That's exactly what would make it a perfect crime, I explained patiently. The department was not convinced. They did, however, give me the $1,000 grant to present my paper." And that's where I'll stop. It's great. And it's also an incredible setup to the essay because you get so much information, right? You get like, every sort of magazine piece, that's the sort of travel essay right? You have to have this like, why am I doing this? Right? And it's usually like the magazine has asked me to go on a trip, right or I was going to an academic conference. And an academic conference is very boring trip to go on. But you also get this like background of sort of historical intrigue about Tolstoy's life which you you might not know unless unless you are a lover of Russian literature as alphas right. And it's hilarious.


Jessica Swoboda  08:30

Right, we get a sense for her style right from the beginning, direct, concise matter of fact, this first bit feels even like she's narrating her day, but only giving readers the highlights were laughing. I'm laughing, even just hearing you reread it. So can you talk a bit more about her style and why her particular style is especially suited for the essay for


Lauren Oyler  08:51

Yeah, so I think you touched on something that she's really good at, which is a selection of concise but meaningful detail. That's always really funny. So she probably had a long conversation with her advisor about this, right? But she picks like two lines that are hilarious pieces of dialogue. But the advisor is like my most entertaining student. Hahaha, you're right. And also sort of gives you the sense of, of like, what the Elif Batuman persona is going to be throughout the essay, which is a sort of like, wacky, really thoughtful, sort of ironic and ironic figure throughout and the next section of the essay is about her flight to Russia and she is late for the flight and so they her suitcase doesn't make it with her so she has to wear sweatpants and a flannel shirt and flip flops for all four days. And everybody at the conference you hear this bit in her proposal. Everybody conference thinks that she's like a true Tolstoy and who's like wearing a sort of like penitence, an aesthetic, an aesthetic and it's had an outfit. But But yeah, so she says her own character. And she also very candidly includes this hilarious proposal, which is funny in itself if you know the genre of grant proposals, but also hysterical, but also she, you know, she's not going to get the grant. But it does give you a lot of information, which, if you're writing for a magazine as she was, you have to be concise about how you present information. And for me, I'm always looking for ways to like, explain things in a fun way, which she's really really good at doing too. She doesn't make it she doesn't do this, like, No, we're doing the backstory paragraph, Tolstoy was born and blah, blah, blah, right? There's always like, a fun inclusion of, of sort of historical biographical detail.


Zach Fine  10:48

I find her tone always so tough to pin down because she's so funny and dry. But I can never figure out why it doesn't go kind of slapstick, like with her wearing the, you know, the pajamas and everything, like what does she do in terms of restraint to make it work?


Lauren Oyler  11:03

Well, I think she's like a literary scholar, right. So so I think it really helps that she's got a lot of stuff about literature. And she has a sort of pure, almost naive, she expressed, she often expresses in all of her work, almost a sort of pure naive love of literature and a love of reading, particularly the introduction to this book talks about how she discovered Russian literature. And you know, it's this classic like, girl takes Anna Karenina off the shelf at a relative's house and reads it and is obsessed with that story, right. But she tempers that with like, all this, you know, she is actually she is actually a scholar. And so I think that helps. And she also has lots of sort of foil characters to bounce her her dryness off of right, as she's often making, allowing herself to be the fool or the idiot, around people who are kind of like the wilderness or bemused by her. And I think that works really well. I will also say that she is part of this cohort of like, well, sort of like young Gen X writers, many of whom were sort of working with or around and plus one. In the years after it started, I would consider this kind of style that you describe, similar to what keep guessing does a lot of the time. Also, Sheila Heti. And there's just sort of there is a sort of like, it's, it's not an it's not naive, but it's a sort of purity of expression. It's very clear, it's ironically clear, and ironically, almost, is ironically, naive, I guess I keep saying naive, it's not the right word. But um, well, I'm not gonna waste any more time trying to come up with a synonym for naive right now.


Zach Fine  12:52

The tone is really consistent across her work. But I'm curious with this essay, in particular, why did you choose this one compared to the other ones in the book, or compared to, you know, a piece of from you know, her fiction even what about this essay in particular? kind of stands? Yeah. So


Lauren Oyler  13:06

what I love about it is that it is doing literary criticism. It's sort of like pulling back the veil of literary criticism and sort of, like making you acknowledge what a lot of reading and criticism is about, which is like solving a mystery. And so she's come up with this kind of like, fake proposal. Like she's, she's like, I went to the library and skim through the book and found a treatise on poisons of plants. And she's like, it's possible, why not? And she's also sort of satirizing like academia in general, right? It's always like, you could just come up with a proposal so you can get 1500 more dollars. And so she comes up with like, she cut she comes right up to the line of like, absurd ideas, right? And but but it gives this essay an amazing structure, because the rest of the essay is her trying to determine was Tolstoy murder, she's on the sort of ironic quest, right? To determine whether Tolstoy is murder. So you get a lot of biographical information about Tolstoy, while she's on this quest. You get a lot of sort of, like, again, this bemused secondary character interactions with her where she's trying to sort of like figure out, you know, see if there snakes around Are there any poisonous plants on the on the estate property, like this kind of thing. And then by the end, it sort of reveals that it sort of talks about what she often talks about, which is like she's always looking for a clue. When you're reading, right? You're looking for the key to the book, how do you understand the book? What does the book really mean? Right? And so by sort of like making this into a murder mystery, she's sort of laying there that impulse that we I think we all have and we're reading but we're sort of, it's sort of drilled out of us. Uh, when we're like learning to read in the right way, right? You're not supposed to be looking for the one clue like, what does it really mean? What does Anna Karenina really mean, right? And she does a great reading of this obscure play at the end of this essay, where she sort of brings us all together. But like I said, it gives us amazing structure to the piece that also with most literary criticism, you're always looking for a way to like make it feel more narrative and make it feel more sort of propulsive making people want to keep reading. And this, you know, obviously, who killed Tolstoy? It's, it's perfect momentum.


Jessica Swoboda  15:38

You mentioned how she satirizing academics and academic life and when I was reading this, I was thinking about my experiences at Virginia Woolf conferences because I do think single author conferences are their own degree of special and quirky and weirdly obsessive my favorite anecdote to tell is we were on an excursion to Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville West's garden, and some there's a first edition of Orlando there and someone bowed down to or the the edition of Orlando. But I just I think it's consistent with some of the stories she's telling you about at the Tolstoy conference. And the one that I'm was just found so funny was the heated debate about her paper and this question about whether or not that Tolstoy would have even read Alice in Wonderland before writing Anna Karenina, and so can you say a bit more about how she satirizing the academic personality and academic writing and academic theory? Yeah, in the essay,


Lauren Oyler  16:37

it's so funny, and she's doing it lovingly. And it just gives her a lot of characters. And it also allows her to bring in the so she's at this conference, people are grading papers. So she, it allows her to bring in the characters that she likes the best. And also the papers and the information from papers that is most useful to her in this essay in particular. And, you know, satire of academia is as old almost as old as academia itself, I'm sure. But um, you know, it's like, it's they're kind of almost like stock characters, right? This, this kind of argument, like she's a graduate. She also in the hierarchy of the Tolstoy conference, you know, there's there's very famous people there. They're very old people there. She is a fourth year grad student wearing sweatpants. And she's giving a paper about the relationship between I can't remember what the what's the novel is? Is it Anna Karenina and Alice In Wonderland. I think it's Anna Karenina and Alice In Wonderland.


Jessica Swoboda  17:37

Yeah, I took my place at the long table and read my paper about the double plot. And Anna Karenina ended with a brief comparison of Tolstoy's novel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Yes.


Lauren Oyler  17:47

And then this, she's like a brief anecdote, right? It's a little bit and then everybody is really having an argument. And someone eventually has to stop the argument and say, We're gonna, let's have this, let's continue this lively discussion over tea, or, you know, and I am not an academic, I have bachelor's degree, so I've never been to an academic conference. But she does it just she keeps it just long enough. She's not dwelling on this too long. And because she's doing it lovingly, she's also there. She also quite likes a lot of these people. She's She's satirizing it quite fondly, while still accepting the absurdity of the enterprise, that and I think that's why it really works.


Zach Fine  18:29

I like this idea of the loving satire, because I feel like so much writing about academic life is just so bitter and hostile and resentful. And you don't really get that from her really, it feels kind of fair. And it's treatment, but also very funny in the way that she kind of, you know, very lovingly skewers things. Yeah. But I'm wondering, can we turn to the the second passage now, later on in the essay, that is about the little living.


Lauren Oyler  18:53

And also just one point about her sort of her ability to appreciate academics? I think I have this as well. I'm friends with lots of academics, I'm not with myself. But the she she often talks about how she never intended to be an academic, right? She had no academic exploration. She wants to be a writer, but she didn't want to go to an MFA program. And she thought that like understanding literature and how formworks would be sort of better suited her for a writing career. And I think that's why she has this kind of light hearted spirit about it because she was never going to try and get a job, right? She was never going to try and like write the best paper on Tolstoy. She was just trying to learn and I think that that's why she has that and that's what makes her such a such a rare perspective, I think on academics because usually there's like a like a failure but she's quite able to like all her failures are material in that way of writer Yeah. Anyway,


Zach Fine  19:56

there's usually so much professional drive and she says I think the intro that You know, how did I end up for seven years in the suburbs in California? Reading about literature like I had no professional aspirations to do that. Yeah, she


Lauren Oyler  20:07

compares herself to Hans Castorp in the Magic Mountain. She's like How did someone without tuberculosis end up at a time for seven years and she's like added I knew. Anyway, I will read the second passage, which is the sort of I consider this like the twist in this essay, that sort of plot twist is the beginning of a plot twist, but also the beginning of a sort of critical turn an essay. "Of all the papers at the conference, the most mysterious was about Tolstoy's little red Play the living corpse. This paper was delivered by a Czech septuagenarian with large watery grey eyes well liked both for his bombastic sociability and for his generosity with a bottle of single malt scotch he carried in his suitcase. everyone called him Vanya, that I believe that wasn't his real name. The hero of the living corpses a man called Theodore Yoda was married but he keeps running off with the gypsies. He is chastely in love with a gypsy singer. Meanwhile, his wife Liza is chasing in love with his best friend whose name is oddly Karen. Karen it's mother's name is actually Anna Karenina. Although Karen and returns lies as love the two are unable to act on their feelings unless Theodore grant Eliza divorce. Theodore, for his part cannot file for divorce without the searching the honor of the Gypsy singer in despair funeral results to kill himself and even writes a suicide note. But as persuaded by the gypsy girl to adopt a different course, he simply leaves his own clothes on a riverbank with a note in one pocket. Everyone believes he has drowned including lies and Carentan who get married. But just at the point when a new life should begin for Theodore as well, nothing happens. Somehow Theodore doesn't change his name. He and the gypsy girl don't get married, they curl and drift apart. Theodore spends all of his time in the tavern. I am a corpse he shouts slamming his glass on the table. Eventually fuelers identity comes to light and lies is arrested for bigamy and despair. fueler shoots himself, the living corpse becomes just an ordinary corpse. I'm gonna read one more paragraph, maybe one more, but living corpse was based on the true story of an alcoholic called Gimer who faked his own suicide and had been sentenced to Siberia. The Moscow Art Theater very much wanted to stay to the play, but Tolstoy kept ignoring. It has 17 acts, he said, It needs a revolving stage. The real reason for Tolstoy's refusal came to light only much later, demerit seems, had somehow learned that there was a play written about him, and upon his return from Siberia, presented himself as naive Pollyanna, Tolstoy took the unhappy man in hand, persuaded him to give up drink, and even found him a job in the very court that had convicted him. And a lot of gamers real life resurrection, Tolstoy abandoned the staging of living corpse." Okay, I'll stop there. So there's something amazing also about what she does, right? So as the literary critic, I hate summarizing things is my least favorite part of of writing anything is the basic description that is always required of anything I'm writing I'm like, Oh, the part this like in the middle that I have to say what is what I'm talking about and, and what it's about is horrible to me. And I find it torturous. And her sort of idea for the absurd detail and her sort of clarity. It was like ironic clarity that she has, makes every single one of her descriptions of a plot of something like absolutely delightful and you feel like it's like actually happened, like, this is not a play. This is these are these this really happened. And it's hilarious. So that's what I really liked about this. But also she brings back the idea of surely there's a mystery that can only be solved Tolstoy's house right. And she's like, the most mysterious of his works is this is this little known play a living corpse. And the that she goes on and talks about the the presentation about it and the presentation Vanya the the old check, the old check guy who's giving this presentation is like, who is living corpse, right? This is the question that's animating the paper. And she goes through you know, there are several possibilities is it tDoestoevsky? Does it represent Fyodorov off the philosopher librarian who believed that the universal task of mankind was to harness the forces of science in order to abolish Jesh and resurrect all dead people? Was it actually Anna Karenina? Or was it Jesus Christ, whose tomb was found empty after three days and nights? What was Tolstoy's God if not a living corpse? And what was Tolstoy referring back to was Tolstoy murdered we're still thinking about was pulsar murdered this sort of absurd question and you can you can ask the question now but I just I just tried to explain like the main one that seems so simple, but it's actually like doing so many different things at once.


Zach Fine  24:36

The first time I read it, I was actually trying to figure out like how sincere the investigation like the murder mystery investigation was and now that she's playing it on multiple levels now with you know, the question of who, who the WHO THE whether whether it's Doestoevsky etc. Like, is it? Is it a conceit that allows her to structure the essay and that just really elegantly kind of baked into it? Or does is she actually trying to figure  out who killed Tolstoy and using that in a kind of a narrative drive or an agenda? Well,


Lauren Oyler  25:05

this is what's amazing about like, you know, he, like, I guys on Twitter, I don't know how to look at it, I don't look at Twitter that much anymore. But you know, like a bit and you, you there's a period of time, particularly in the 2010s, where people that commit to the bit, and then it goes too far and you like, don't really know, if you're, you forget that you were joking at one point, and now you're like, totally serious. And I think like, she's committed to the bit, and by the end of the essay, you're like, you know, what, he could have been murdered. You could have been she, she finds like, a lot of compelling evidence that he was murdered. And, you know, he probably wasn't, but maybe he was, and maybe we'll just never know. But there's also this sort of like, the this question, right mimics the sort of futility of trying to find the meaning or the clue in fiction, right? Or, right, if you're reading a novel, you're like, who is the living corpse? Of course, the living corpse is a bunch of people. And and once you start using a metaphor, it sort of transcends like, any basis in reality, right. But you have to start with a specific thing. And the specific thing is, was Tolstoy and then you can like exist in this sort of, like, fictional universe, like a possibility where like, maybe he was murdered, right, who was living corpse, and I won't give away who there is actually a sort of, there's there's sort of she she does find her her quest to understand whether toasters murder becomes a quest to sort of understand this play. And she does find this sort of like, likely inspiration for the living corpse. It is kind of really quite amazing ending, but I won't give it away if it twists. But we don't actually learn if he was murdered, and we never will.


Jessica Swoboda  27:00

So in the introduction to this collection, there were so many lines that I found really captivating. And one of them that's connected to some of the things we've been discussing is, she's discussing how her mother will often ask her what things mean, what expressions mean? And she writes, What does that really mean itself really meant something like, what underlying attitude toward me or toward people like me, is represented by these words? And so what is the underlying attitude that Batuman has toward both herself and the people that she's describing and documenting in this essay?


Lauren Oyler  27:39

Oh, that's a hard? That's a hard question. I think, you know, I think it's sort of like it is this sort of like, how did I end up doing this for seven? How did I end up here more generally, not just how did I end up doing this for seven years? But like, How could life go this way? And she often describes life as a sort of series of like, disconnected anecdotes, which I think it's into her style more broadly, which is that she's using what we can like sort of generally call literary criticism, as the kind of like, narrative, glue, or like, narrative structure almost to bring together what otherwise would be kind of disparate, uninteresting anecdotes, right. And you see that in this essay, which also has the nice structure of the conference, right? So you have a kind of chronological it's, it's, it's always nice to have like a chronological event that you that you're writing about, because you can just go sort of in order. But in her novels, as well she has is that her novels are structured, according to the academic year, the idea is about sailings a Turkish American, that's an autobiographical novel, Turkish American students freshman year at Harvard, and then the second novel either or as a sophomore year. But like, just like things happen, like things are happening to her she's witnessing things. And she's like using her reading. And she's really like, using the reading to try and understand what's going on. She's like, very confused about what life is, then that's why she's has this sort of innocent approach to things because she's like, how could this be and you kind of sort of need that you need that kind of like wonder at life, if you're going to be a good writer, I think particularly a good journalist and a good novelist, because you need to sort of see the strange and unfamiliar and the absurd and in life in order to like, show it to others. But what's sort of interesting about her and what sort of unites I think her essays and her novels is that the structure is is literary critical in some way. Or its reading, right? It's not like a plot. Is that a plot? Right? There's no There's no plot.


Zach Fine  29:53

The relationship between her fiction and her novels seems like such a unified project to me that I find myself kind of trying to act To find distinctions in her essays, like, how would this not belong in one of her novels? And I'm curious if there's anything that you see that kind of marks it as clearly an essay, or whether it could just be kind of easily transposed into into a work of fiction?


Lauren Oyler  30:14

Well, I think it can be easily transposed to it. I mean, the only thing about her novels is that they're narrated by an 18 year old and an 18 year old, which is like, I think what we're talking about you and Oct, she has this sort of like innocent quality, and how does she lose her temper that that tone? And I'm like, Well, it's because she's like a literary scholar, actually, like she's actually extremely well read and extremely knowledgeable. And she in, in the sort of Harvard novels, right, she's not. So she's speaking, she's writing from the position of an idiot, you know, but as she says, like, that's a joke. And so, so I think that's the big difference, and still have these sort of, like questions. I mean, the big sort of famous question from either or the second novel is, why wasn't there a department of love at Harvard? Right like that, that kind of like, ridiculous. That ridiculous that that the novel is truly do depicts like a naivete and rather than essays, I think, and I think that is really the main difference. But structurally, I think they're very similar. And obviously, they're part of a cohesive whole.


Jessica Swoboda  31:27

So you selected your essay "Desperately Seeking Sebald" to pair with Who killed Tolstoy? Can you tell us a bit about your essay, and if our Batuman's essay influenced it in any way or


Lauren Oyler  31:42

so I find writing incredibly anxious and difficult and part of my anxious process is like, I'll go back and read essays from the maxis that I'm writing for. And like sort of desperate hope for some kind of like model. And I remembered who killed Tolstoy and, and when I got this assignment to review Sebald's biography. And I, this came out in 2021. And at that time, was sort of getting quite bored of writing book reviews. And in particular, this kind of long essay review that all of our favorite magazines publish, which is like a 30, to 2500 to 3500 essay that takes into consideration the writers entire Ofra in their life, while also like honing in on a particular new book that's come out. That's that's the peg. And I was like, I simply cannot I simply can't bear to write another book review. How can I go on. And then also, my editor at Harper's was like, we, you know, we were in agreement that we don't need another say about a sort of holistic look as a ball, right? There's been so many essays about say bald, like I can't just write like a straightforward save all this anymore. But this biography is coming out. And it was a good opportunity to reflect on sables like outsized influence on Anglophone literature. And I was like, that's great. In fact, let's do something even more not boring. I'm in Germany, right. Now, what if I take a Zabel the in Journey, like to his hometown, and like, see what's there and like, review the biography that way, and they're like, yes, and unlike elec bottom on, they gave me extra money to do this. So, I got my travel expenses. And I went to Zabel blend which is in southern Germany, from Berlin pricing. And I was looking at who killed Tolstoy because it integrates is what I was speaking about before so passionately was that it integrates this sort of biographical literary criticism with the travel essay, which is not a classic genre very, very well. And it's something that Elif does, I keep calling her Elif? I don't know her. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to her. That is something that she does very well. And so I was looking to this as a model because I wanted to do this kind of more ambitious review of this biography that because it was a biography took into account, St. Paul's life as well as this kind of funny trip. And when I was on the trip, I did meet a sort of classic, but to mania and character, which was this gynecologist named Ricardo Felber Baum, who was the head of the German's Sebald's Appreciation Society, who talked to me a lot about Sebald's horrible lack of a profile in his homeland, and compared to his outsized influence in the US and the UK. So so there was this sort of a model there. And then I did some other things that weren't so much like based on who killed Tolstoy, but I read it like several times in order to write that and then I also returned to it again And when I was writing this essay about the goop cruise because I had to sort of integrate like a discussion of David Foster Wallace, which is again, like literary criticism into this, like broader travel narrative. And I found I just found it, I find it quite useful. It seems like


Zach Fine  35:19

one of the hardest genres to me the the essay that kind of twins, the the travel essay with the literary criticism or the biographical. And I'm curious as you were starting to think about working on this eight ball piece before you left, what were the pitfalls that you kind of wanted to avoid in the essay? What were the things you're like, I cannot do that whatever I do, I won't, you know, start with this, or I won't hit this note, like, what are the kinds of, you know, things you try to navigate around?


Lauren Oyler  35:45

Well, I unfortunately, I have since made a policy not to do the like, it's like this, this sort of typical review essay I'm talking about, it's always like, usually in like, three, three, maybe four sections. And the first section is like, cool. First paragraph, bla bla bla, why are we talking about this? Why is it interesting, vaguely a thesis statement. And then there's like a line break. Author was born in 19, blah, blah, blah, in the town of data. And unfortunately, I did do that and the same old essay, but he sort of allowed myself to do that. Because the beginning part was it like long parody of ze baldy and style that they let me do. And also something that I think about with the Tolstoy essay, and is able to say, and actually it Foster Wallace as well. Is how to is how to do this convention where you say, Why am I going? Why am I telling you this? Right? Why am I going on this trip? And it can't just be like the magazine. I mean, a David Foster Wallace cases like that magazine sent me Can you believe it? They sent me this fancy cruise. Photo always like looking for ways to like judge that up in some way. And like I was saying, bottlemen does that I've switched about my analysis offensive on her elephant, they don't know. Very well. So so. And I tried to do that with the Sebald thing too. I sort of like made him into the stables again, like I'm on a sort of vague, but dreadful journey, that you don't really know why I'm going. But the the premise was, yeah, to review this book.


Jessica Swoboda  37:30

Because you even say that you're not the biggest fan of Sebald's work either. So why write about someone whose work you don't love or want to write about all of the time?


Lauren Oyler  37:43

Well, I think there was a sense, like, I'd read maybe two Sebald's before, and I was like, Well, I don't really care. But there's a sense like, this is an important author, this there as a critic, as a critic. If you weren't doing professional criticism, you're not supposed to say I just don't like this right? Like, that's something again, you're like, kind of, we've sort of learned not to do that you're supposed to consider it on like, the mathematic formal structural stylistic terms and explain what it is. And sort of whether you like it can come through or not. But if it's sort of, sort of great, or canonical doesn't really matter if you like it. And so I was like, well, everybody likes Sebald. But you know, everybody loves Sebald. So I can I can come out as someone who doesn't like him. Because I think I talked about like, maybe I can, like, arrive at a respectful difference of opinion. Also, because they sort of had been writing until that point in my career, mostly. Not mostly, but I wrote, I wrote a lot of content reviews of contemporary novels and contemporary essay collections. And they're not, you know, they're not great. Like, they're just like the stuff that came out, right? So they're not going to stand the test of time, they're not going to be part of the canon. They're just like, why why is this person writing about like women's issues in 2016, or whatever, that kind of stuff. So it was nice to be able to like consider it was nice to be able to get to a point in my career where I could consider like serious serious authors. Even if I didn't like them, and I think that that's like a worthy project. I don't think elec bottom I mean elec bottom line is very explicitly driven by like a love of Russian literature and even when she finds things bizarre, she's like, desperately in love with Russian literature. And I just have a different I'm sort of like curious it about all you know, things I like things I hate. I always have this like perverse like if somebody someone's like, This is really bad. I'm like, I need to see that for myself. You know, I need to like I don't trust I don't like trust. other people to tell me what, what's good or bad? So that's kind of, I'm like, I gotta see, I gotta, I gotta see what all the fuss is about and then make my judgments


Jessica Swoboda  40:12

accordingly. What are the challenges to that type of approach?


Lauren Oyler  40:16

Well, you read a lot of stuff. You like waste a lot of time. You know, I could have just started reading like, with like novels by women from the UK from mid 20th century, which are my favorite novels, right? Like, I could just be reading that all the time. But like, there is a sense of obligation that is ultimately rewarding, I think. And but yeah, I mean, the main thing was like, I'm like, trudging through all this stuff. That often is like crap, right? Like, I'm like, I don't want to be reading this crap. It's always like it's making me dumber, not in the case of Zabel. But like a lot of is like, I'm like, This is stupid. I should be like working on my masterpiece. But there's also benefits to it, I think. Confidence Building.


Zach Fine  41:17

I'd never thought about Sebald and Batuman together. And I don't know if there's a master's thesis out there that's compared their work at all. But there's a moment in your essay where you talk about a phrase that Sam Pink uses, "the dreaded tidbit." And I was thinking about how Batuman and Sebald both engage a lot with history, but in such different ways, and how it it's threaded into their work. And I'm wondering if you had to kind of contrast their approach to the dreaded tidbit. How do they deal with it differently?


Lauren Oyler  41:47

Well, that's so funny. That's really funny. Well, Sebald is like doing the, I mean, the dreaded tidbit. And then he Sam pink goes on that whole thing where you're doing comma, like comma, a whole book review inside that thing, or whatever, like inside the book. And I think Sebald's essayistic or like, what? What's the James? What's, what's the thing I call something? And it was it's like, essayistic semi fiction or something is the genre that he's


Zach Fine  42:16

Yes. Yeah. It's like a Mike, who says that? Yeah.


Lauren Oyler  42:19

One of his friends I think. And he, that the structure is looser, right, like, bottom line is coming from very particular, quite rigorous background on one side, which is academia, and then on the other side, American magazines. And also, I should say, didn't say this when I was introducing her that she is a New Yorker staff writer. And she did a lot of journalism in between writing that possess and then publishing her first novel. And she wrote a couple of what I would consider iconic takedowns of American literary culture, one was about the Best American Short Stories 2006 and another was about it's called, get a real degree. And it is about the Hang on I just, whatever it's, it's about, again, like MFAs. And this very particular like book, she's doing a book review. And she sort of puts a little tidbit as like an aside. Say, there's never like a tension ever going on a tangent for tangent sake. Right. It's a well, it's sort of like blowing in the wind, like, wherever has is sort of the journey takes him right. And bottom line has often has a very specific goal at the start of her pieces, which is this sort of like thing where she's like, it's the mystery, like, is there a mystery I could solve right? This paper was very mysterious, and she's often citing Sherlock Holmes to stories, which is fascinating. So she always has like a specific goal. Even if she, you she sort of knows that that's ridiculous. And by the end, she will suffer that project. So I think that there's sort of like, opposites almost or two sides and saying, right, like her, she has a sort of comedic relief and that tidbit, right. Whereas Sebald is this like, bringing it all together in a very elliptical very, I would argue spurious way that some people find incredibly moving and beautiful, but that I don't


Zach Fine  44:49

Yeah, not a lot of comedic relief. You mentioned the lettuce, you know, moment and zaev all that people talk I forget which book it is vertigo Maybe. Or maybe rings of Saturn. I think it's


Lauren Oyler  45:05

yeah, it's in Austerlitz


Zach Fine  45:06

Yeah. But not a lot of comedic relief in Sebald though, it's pretty dark


Lauren Oyler  45:10

well, there was this thing where James Wood and a bunch of other people were like, he's actually very funny. Like, it's a sort of like contrarian take. But but he's not, you know, he's not like he's just not, isn't it not funny. He'll like make, like a little. It's not even a wink. Like it's not not same as like, naughty in any way like Elif is doing. I look, bottom line is doing something quite naughty, in some ways, formerly, structurally, with criticism. And, and disabled is just like not, I think.


Zach Fine  45:48

I feel like a lot of people miss that about her work. Like, I feel like it's so smooth. And it reads so well, that you kind of can miss the trick. Sometimes when you're reading her work, like you don't see her doing everything behind the scenes. So it's kind of Sao Paulo.


Lauren Oyler  46:02

Yeah. And it's a fun to read, right? Like you're, it's you're not struggling through. Like I said, even the sort of plot summaries are absolutely delightful. So you sort of ignore all this really cool structural things that she's doing. So


Zach Fine  46:17

Harper's has gotten into this habit, it seems like of sending you on assignments that are designed to be maybe less than appealing. Or maybe you're not thrilled by in some ways. And I'm wondering if there's something about the anticipation of like being disappointed or disenchanted, that's a fun starting place for an essay. Or if you feel like it's a constraint that you have to kind of wriggle your way out of,


Lauren Oyler  46:40

I think this is like much more like psychoanalytic of a conversation than we have time to do. That's like a guiding principle like I dread everything that I do. So of course, like the joke of the goop cruise thing is I'm like, I'm being sent on this fabulous vacation to get a bunch of free stuff that anybody would love. And it's not even in like, it's like in the Mediterranean, like the most ideal vacation place. And I'm like, I hate every second of this. And I'm not lying like It's like character like I do. I did genuinely dread it. I did like genuinely like dread like going it was beautiful vacation the app. So like review as a full biography, even though of course, it's my like, lifelong dream, like, what more could I possibly want? And I've always wanted to do this. But yes, I guess like if somebody want in one in decades, there's another point selected essays podcast and they write it and someone wants to talk about one of my essays. A clue for the mystery of Lauren Oyler style is that she's constantly dreading things that she obviously really likes doing. So I don't know, I just feel like I have, like I have to, I have to see what the gurus is like. But, of course, Harper's also has a long tradition of sending people, places that you might not want to go. And David Foster Wallace to his travel is he doesn't, he's not allowed to say that he doesn't want to go because of his sort of position as class position, his sort of neurotic guilt about being an intellectual and his like, desire to be like a Midwestern regular guy and stuff. But he also like, is like, I can't remember what he says about his, his level of agoraphobia is quite severe. And he like doesn't want to do these great things that he's doing. But maybe it's just that we're writers and we love drama. I can't I can't possibly write another book review. The thing that I studied and what I love doing.


Jessica Swoboda  48:55

Yeah, I do. It does seem like dread and love are entangled in the process. For a lot of writers. This is something Zach and I frequently discuss is that we both dread and love the activity of starting an essay.


Lauren Oyler  49:08

I like like doing like Googling, I think googling part. Much everything seems possible quotes and I could put that in there. And then I'm like, oh, no, where did I get this funny little quote, like, I didn't write the source down. And it's an act. I mean, for me, the actual writing part is so horrible. And I was recently validated by my friends were visiting and they stayed in my apartment while I had to finish. Another kind of like, travel, literary critical piece that I wrote about marine bad that the spa town and the Czech Republic or Czechia. And they're watching me, right, and they were like, Lauren, I think you actually do suffer more than other people while you're writing and I was like, thank you. This is what I've been saying. Everyone's like, now you're making jokes. It's so funny. I'm like, I have to I'm a tortured soul right like and they saw me they, they said that I do suffer more than other people and they themselves are writers as well so they know.


Jessica Swoboda  50:12

Okay. Well thank you so much, Lauren for joining us. It was really fun to talk to you and get to the heart of this essay and hear more about Batuman's work. So


Lauren Oyler  50:23

thanks so much for having me. It was great fun, didn't dread it at all.


Jessica Swoboda  50:32

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of Selected Essays. We'd like to thank Joe Coleman for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of hand habits for contributing the original music. We hope you'll tune into our next episode, we'll be talking with Garth Greenwell about Martha Nussbaum essay, "Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy. As always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and if you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the pointmag dot com. We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

Introducing Elif Batuman and “Who Killed Tolstoy?”
Batuman’s style and tone
Why this essay?
Murder investigation?
Writerly attitude
Lauren’s “Desperately Seeking Sebald”
The travel essay
Comedic relief
Dreading writing