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The Early Years of Elif Batuman’s Interest in Russian Authors

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

What if author Leo Tolstoy was murdered? Consider the evidence: late in life, the great Russian author started ending his daily journal entries with the phrase “If I am alive.” He and his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, fought so much he wrote his novella The Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murdered his wife. (Granted, Tolstoy did give her his diaries, which detailed his sexual escapades, including the fact that he’d a child with a serf who lived on their property.) He had an associate who was trying to get control of the copyrights to his early manuscripts. Tolstoy’s wife made a strange statement on her deathbed. These are the puzzle pieces that a young Stanford student named Elif Batuman used to investigate the circumstances of Tolstoy’s death.

Before Batuman started writing for The New Yorker, she harbored a profound interest in the famed Russian author. At Granta, Batuman recounts her wild academic goose chase and how it led her to the ranks of other Tolstoyans at the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. The four days she spent wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to Russia is the tip of the iceberg. This piece is a comic examination of both a subculture and of the depths of her own youthful imagination, which became her first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors.

The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?

‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’

I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.

The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.

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