Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2010

How Russia Changed My Life, MWF #2

It was lovely to see and hear, and then to meet Elif Batuman at this session! She is just the way I had imagined her from reading her book – a very attractive young woman, bright and lively, funny in a self-deprecating way, and highly articulate.

Hosted (sometimes a little awkwardly) by Judith Armstrong (whose book, The French Tutor I reviewed a while back) the panel comprised historian Sheila Fitzpatrick; author Maria Tumarkin and of course Batuman, whose book The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them enchanted me when I read it earlier this month.  (Click here to see my enthusiastic review.)  Batuman shared the story of how she stumbled into Russian literature almost by accident and came to be obsessed by it – and won the audience’s heart.   We were all much amused by her comment that the 19th British classics were poignant and amusing but sometimes too childish while French ones were too cynical and sophisticated, but the quiet melancholy, the deep humour and the human scale of the Russians was just right for her as a young reader.  I can’t wait till she writes her next book!

I have Tumarkin’s highly regarded Traumascapes on my TBR (see my review), but she has also recently written a memoir, Otherland, which records her return to the Ukraine more than 20 years after her family emigrated here.  She spoke movingly about the ‘bicultural fate’ of the expat: about how it’s like the end of a first relationship which resonates for years as one ponders it, either grateful and relieved that it’s over, or always comparing successive relationships with the first one.  She talked about how one vacillates between these two positions but always with a sense of longing to belong somewhere.  For her, it was the birth of her first child that made her realise that she belonged here, but needed to share her background with her child.  And so she made the pilgrimage back home, only to discover that she was a half-hearted stranger there, recognising some things but also aware that she simply didn’t understand some changes.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is exactly the kind of lecturer I want to have if I ever go back to university to do a history degree.  She was a witty and entertaining speaker about her adventures in Russia in the 1960s, when merely to be learning Russian in Australia brought the attention of ASIO.  She travelled there when it was hard to get into Russia, and equally hard for its citizens to get out.  She was startled to find that this place of great mystery, terrifying the free world with its superpower status during the Cold War, was a third-world and backward place in the 1960s.  We have all heard about the shortages in shops, but I certainly didn’t know that they hadn’t mastered rudimentary plumbing.  She talked about how this experience launched one of the themes of her books (which I couldn’t find in the festival bookshop, maybe it sold out).  Everyday Stalinism meant inconvenience and awkwardness in everyday life, and even the Russians knew then that it wasn’t normal.

After a very nice lunch with my good friend Carol at BokChoy Tang,  I went to another session for which The Spouse had bought a ticket not realising he had double-booked himself with the radio program he presents.  It was uncomfortably like Sociology 101 and I escaped into the festival book shops before making my way home, reading Madame Bovary on the train.

More tomorrow!


  1. “The ‘bicultural fate’ of the expat” is such a great phrase. I know *exactly* what she means. I feel very at home in the UK, but then someone will refer to a TV show from the past or the brand name of a sweet (lolly!!) that is no longer produced and I won’t have a clue what they are talking about, because I didn’t grow up here. I call these “cultural gaps” or “cultural blips”.

    I like the sound of traumascapes, particularly as one of my options at uni next year is reading about trauma, memory and cultural identity in contemporary British and American fiction.


  2. Lisa, I just did an online search for Traumascapes, thinking I might buy it. It’s £30 here in the UK, which I know is probably cheap from an Aussie point of view, but for a paperback I find that staggeringly expensive. Lo and behold it turns up in Google Books – the entire 250+ pages in their entirety. As much as I wanted to find a cheap version of the book, I feel appalled that it’s up there on the internet for free. Surely the author deserves to make some money out of her endeavours? I’m not one for reading great swathes of text online and the Google format is awkward, so I won’t be reading the free version, but just thought I’d let you know. So… it’s off to the Book Depository to purchase, me thinks.


  3. Hi Kim, you would have loved this session, I just know it! I relate to that bicultural fate too, and I’ve been here since 1962. It’s not having had an Australian childhood that triggers it, and not doing things ‘the Australian Way’ for quite some time after our arrival. I don’t think, for example, that my parents have ever owned a BBQ, much less hosted one in the back yard. Neither of them have ever been to a sporting event or watched one on TV either. As a family we are unrepentant about this, which marks us out as very odd LOL.

    I’ve only read the first chapter of Traumascapes but that was excellent and was very well reviewed when it first came out. I read it when I was studying Writing History and the lecturer recommended it to me. It’s got a brief Wikipedia page with links to these reviews and


  4. Actually, Kim, I was flabbergasted by the BD price too, and I think it must be a mistake.
    £30 is about $60 AUD but it’s only $35 at Readings.


  5. I’ve noticed that same pricing problem with the Book Depository on Canadian editions that have not yet been published in the UK. My guess is that while they promise “free shipping” either the BD or the publisher adds the shipping cost to get the volume to the UK and simply passes it on. 30 pounds is an outrageous price anywhere.


    • So, Kevin, although for those us far away where postage costs make the BD very competitive, as always it pays to shop around.
      Anyway, I have emailed them about it, and we’ll see what comes of that.


  6. Ah, the synchronicities…tomorrow’s Monday Musings is going to be on expats, though not exploring their “bicultural fate”. Enjoy the rest of the festival. I’m envious.


  7. Thanks for the wiki link, Lisa. I want to read that book more than ever now.

    Didn’t realise you weren’t Aussie born. Where did you emigrate from?

    Had to laugh about the BBQ / sporting event thing. I think it would be true to say that my grandparents, who were Scottish and emigrated to Oz in the 1950s when my dad was just 6, never owned a BBQ or went to the footy/cricket either. I think my dad made up for it though – he’s a sportsmad season ticket holder of the Western Bulldogs and king of the BBQ!! LOL.


  8. *chuckle* Kim, you didn’t know I was coming home then?
    I was born in London; and also spent six months in St Agnes Cornwall before setting out for warmer climes in South Africa when I was six.


  9. PS August 31th, I’ve had an email from the Book Depository and they’ve confirmed that the advertised price is correct. Pity, that.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: