In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a young man named Hans Castorp arrives at a Swiss sanatorium to visit his tubercular cousin for three weeks. Although Castorp himself does not have tuberculosis, he somehow ends up staying in that sanatorium for seven years. The plot of The Magic Mountain mirrors the history of its composition: Mann set out to write a short story, but ended up producing a 1,200-page novel. Despite the novel’s complexity, its central question is very simple: How does someone who doesn’t actually have tuberculosis end up spending seven years at a tuberculosis sanatorium? I often ask myself a similar question: How does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?


In The Magic Mountain, it all happens because of love. While visiting his cousin, Castorp becomes infatuated with another patient: the estranged wife of a Russian officer. Her high cheekbones and her gray-blue “Kirghiz-shaped eyes” recall to him a childhood fascination with Slavicness—specifically, with an idolized older boy at school, from whom the hero once, in the happiest moment of his life, borrowed a pencil. The Russian lady’s eyes, in particular, “amazingly and frighteningly resemble” those of this schoolboy; indeed, Mann emends, “ ‘resembled’ was not the right word—they were the same eyes.” Under their mesmerizing influence, Castorp is seized by a passion to learn about samovars, Cossacks, and the Russian language, colorfully characterized by Mann as “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” One afternoon, Castorp attends a lecture titled “Love as a Pathogenic Force,” in which the sanatorium psychoanalyst diagnoses his entire audience as so many victims of love: “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.” Castorp recognizes the truth of this lecture. He ends up so terribly in love with the married Russian woman that he develops a fever and appears to have a damp spot on one of his lungs. This real or imagined damp spot, combined with the hope of glimpsing his beloved at mealtimes, is what keeps him on the Magic Mountain.

Of course, there are many differences between my story and that of Hans Castorp. But there are also similarities. The seven years I ended up spending in the Stanford comparative literature department were also a matter of love, and fascination with Russianness. This love was also prefigured during my schooldays by a chance encounter with a Russian person, and developed in an institutional setting.

The first Russian person I ever met was my teacher at the Manhattan School of Music, where I studied the violin on Saturdays. Maxim wore black turtlenecks, played a mellowtoned, orange-colored violin, and produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition. Toward the end of one lesson, for example, he told me that he had to leave ten minutes early—and then proceeded to spend the entire ten minutes unraveling the tortuous logic of how his early departure wasn’t actually depriving me of any violin instruction. “Tell me, Elif,” he shouted, having worked himself up to an almost amazing degree. “When you buy a dress, do you buy the dress that is the most beautiful … or the dress that is made with the most cloth?”

Another time, Maxim instructed me to listen to a particular Soviet recording of the Mozart violin concerti. Sitting in a wooden library carrel, I listened to all five concerti in a row: a fluid, elegant performance, with passages of singing intensity through which one seemed to glimpse the whole cosmic pathos of Mozart’s life on earth. But as I listened, I found myself distracted by the CD case, by the slightly blurred three-quarters photograph of the soloist, who looked literally indistinguishable from my violin teacher. The stiff posture, the downturned mouth, the intent and melancholy eyebrows—everything was the same. His name was even Maxim, although he had a different surname.

The following week, Maxim specifically asked whether I had noticed anything unusual about the violinist.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, let’s say, his appearance. In Moscow, at the conservatory, people used to say that he and I looked alike … very much alike. More than the brothers.”

“Actually, yeah—I did sort of notice that from the photograph.”

At this innocuous remark, an expression of gloom descended upon him, as abruptly as if someone had dropped a black cloth over his head. “It’s nothing, nothing,” he said, sounding almost angry. Probably the strangest episode with Maxim involved the yearly juried examinations at the music school. In the weeks before the exams, Maxim was constantly changing his mind about which études and scales I should prepare, even telephoning me once in the middle of the night to announce a change in plan. “We have to be very well prepared because we do not know who is on this jury,” he kept saying. “We do not know what they will ask you to play. We can guess, of course, but we cannot know.”

When the day of the juries came, I was called into the examination room, with its grand piano and long table, at the head of which, presiding over two more junior faculty members, sat not some unknown judge, but Maxim himself.

“Hello, Elif,” he said pleasantly.

Such mystifications can have a very strong effect on young people, and this one was compounded by the circumstance that I had just read Eugene Onegin, and had been particularly moved by Tatyana’s dream: the famous sequence in which Pushkin’s heroine finds herself crossing a snowy plain, “surrounded by sad murk,” and pursued by a bear. The bear scoops her up and Tatyana loses consciousness, waking up as the bear deposits her at the end of a hallway where she hears cries and the clink of glasses, “as if at some big funeral.” Through a crack in the door she sees a long table surrounded by reveling monsters—a dancing windmill, a half crane, a half cat— presided over, as she realizes with inexplicable horror, by none other than Eugene Onegin.

Tatyana’s dream is fulfilled in waking life at her nameday party: an ill-fated event during which Onegin, motivated apparently by nothing but boredom, breaks Tatyana’s heart and fatally quarrels with his young friend Lensky. (By the time Onegin falls in love with Tatyana, years later in Moscow, it’s too late. She still loves him but is married to an old general.) I read Onegin in Nabokov’s English edition, and was greatly struck by his note that the language of the dream not only contains “echoes of rhythms and terms” from Tatyana’s experiences earlier in the book, but also foreshadows the future: “a certain dreamlike quality is carried on to the name-day party and later to the duel.” The guests at Tatyana’s party and at the balls in Moscow, Nabokov writes, “are benightmared and foreshadowed by the fairy-tale ghouls and hybrid monsters in her dream.”

To me it seemed that the violin jury had also been benightmared and foreshadowed by Tatyana’s dream, and that some hidden portent was borne by Maxim’s apparition at their head.

If this incident didn’t immediately send me looking to Maxim’s national literature for answers, it was nonetheless at the back of my mind that summer when I discovered a 1970s Penguin edition of Anna Karenina in my grandmother’s apartment in Ankara. I had run out of English books, and was especially happy to fi nd one that was so long. Think of the time it must have taken for Tolstoy to write it! He hadn’t been ashamed to spend his time that way, rather than relaxing by playing Frisbee or attending a barbecue. Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel—ice skating, balls, horse races—were beautiful, dignified, and meaningful in terms of plot.

I spent the next two weeks flopped on my grandmother’s super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa, consuming massive quantities of grapes, reading obsessively. Anna Karenina seemed to pick up exactly where Onegin left off, in the same world, as if the people in the opera house were also benightmared by Tatyana’s dream, whose atmosphere had already seeped into Anna’s experiences at the horse races and on the snowbound train. It was the same world, the same air, only everything was bigger—as if a minutely detailed dollhouse had been transformed into a real house with long hallways, shining fixtures, a rambling garden. Elements from Onegin reappeared: a snowy dream, a fatal ball, a revolver, a bear. It was as if all of Onegin had been dreamed by Anna, who in her own life fulfi lled Tatyana’s unresolved fate.*

Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a supercharged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small—so serious and so light—so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for nineteen more chapters after her death, and Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and Levin’s half brother were both Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life.

My mother was happy to see me reading what turned out to be her old copy of Anna Karenina. “Now you can tell me what it really means!” she said. My mother often asked me to tell her what things really meant: books, movies, things people said to her at work. (She worked at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, where people seemed to make particularly inscrutable remarks.) The pretext for these questions was that I am a native English speaker and she isn’t. Actually, my mother studied from early childhood at an American school in Ankara and speaks beautiful English, and I remember only one time that her question was to any extent resolved by my telling her the literal meaning of an English phrase. (The phrase was “Knock yourself out.”) In all other instances—and, in fact, also in that instance—“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?” My mother believed that people harbored essential stances of like or dislike toward others, and betrayed these stances in their words and actions. If you came out looking terrible in a photograph, it was a sign that the person who took it didn’t really like you.

“So what did it all mean?” my mother asked, when I had finished Anna Karenina. “What was Tolstoy trying to say? Did Vronsky just not really love Anna?”

We were in the kitchen in Ankara, a city with an anagrammatic relationship to Anna Karenina, drinking what Turkish people call “Turkish tea”: very strong, sugary Lipton, served in little tulip-shaped glasses.

I said that I thought Vronsky had really loved Anna.

“He couldn’t have loved her enough, or she wouldn’t have killed herself. It just wouldn’t have happened.” My mother’s theory was that the double plot in Anna Karenina represents the two kinds of men in the world: those who really like women, and those who don’t. Vronsky, a man who really liked women, overwhelmed Anna and was overwhelmed by her—but some part of him was never committed to her in the way that Levin, a man who essentially did not like women, was committed to Kitty.

“That kind of makes sense,” I admitted.

“Is Tolstoy saying that it’s better for women to be with men like Levin? Kitty made the right choice, and Anna made the wrong choice, right?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I really didn’t know. Looking back, by that point I had already acquired certain ideas about literature. I believed that it “ really meant” something, and that this meaning was dependent on linguistic competence, on the Chomskians’ iron law: “The intuitions of a native speaker.” (“You really speak English,” my mother would say admiringly, in our conversations about books.) That’s probably why I decided to study linguistics when I got to college; it didn’t even occur to me to study literature. I remember believing fi rmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life, and not from other novels, and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels.

I was also uninterested by what I knew of literary theory and history. It was a received idea in those days that “theory” was bad for writers, infecting them with a hostility toward language and making them turn out postmodern; and what did it have to offer, anyway, besides the reduction of a novel to a set of unpleasant facts about power structures, or the superficial thrill of juxtaposing Pride and Prejudice with the uncertainty principle? As for history, it struck me as pedantic, unambitious. Why all that trouble to prove things that nobody would ever dispute in the first place, like that an earlier author had influenced a later author?

In fact I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one. It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years—it took the experience of lived time—to realize that they really are the same thing.

In the meantime I became a linguistics major. I wanted to learn the raw mechanism of language, the pure form itself. For the foreign language requirement, I enrolled in beginning Russian: maybe someday I could tell my mother what Tolstoy really meant.

The nail in the coffin of my brief career as a linguist was probably a seminar I took that winter about the philosophy of language. The aim of this seminar was to formulate a theory that would explain to a Martian “what it is that we know when we know a language.” I could not imagine a more objectless, melancholy project. The solution turned out to consist of a series of propositions having the form “ ‘Snow is white’ is true iff snow is white.” The professor, a gaunt logician with a wild mane of red hair and a deep concern about Martians, wrote this sentence on the board during nearly every class, and we would discuss why it wasn’t trivial. Outside the window, snow piled deeper and deeper. You Martians who so love form and logic—what are you doing here, so far from home?

By contrast with the philosophy of language and my other classes in psycholinguistics, syntax, and phonetics, beginning Russian struck me as profoundly human. I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story, and Russian (the study of a particular language) to resemble a set of rules, but the reality was just the opposite. For the first several months of Russian class, we studied an ingenious text called “The Story of Vera.” It opened with Vera, a physics graduate student, going to visit her boyfriend and classmate, Ivan. Ivan wasn’t home—he had left a note saying, “Forget me.” “Why did we never understand him?” Ivan’s father sighed, and slammed the door in Vera’s face. These initial installments used an amazingly small vocabulary and grammar. As the story progressed, details of the plot were filled in, along with the missing cases and tenses, so that knowledge was accompanied by the means of its expression. In this way, introductory Russian manifested itself to me as a perfect language, in which form was an ideal reflection of content.

As it turned out, Ivan had fled to Siberia to work in the lab of his estranged uncle, and somehow got married there. Vera followed him, and fell in love with another physicist,whom she met in a taxi at the Novosibirsk airport. In the last chapter, Vera went to a physics conference and presented a paper, which was received as “the very latest word in physics.” Ivan, who was also at the conference, congratulated her and seemed ready to offer some explanation of his actions, but Vera didn’t care anymore.

Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky, Ivan and Vera: at every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love appeared bound up with Russian. This association was further strengthened when I myself fell in love with one of my classmates from Russian class, a math major who had briefly studied Russian as a child behind the Iron Curtain. His Russian name was Valya, which was close to his Hungarian name. He was a senior, and was going to spend the summer in Budapest before heading to Berkeley for graduate school. I was only a freshman, so clearly, after June, we were never going to see each other again—except that then he somehow got me a summer job with a philanthropic organization that sent American college students to teach English in Hungarian villages.

There was something mysterious and absent about Valya, and in fact it turned out that, like Ivan in the story from Russian class, he also had a girlfriend about whom I knew nothing, and whom he eventually married. By the time this mystery was revealed to me, it was too late not to go to the Hungarian village, so I went. But, like Tatyana reading the manual of dream interpretation, I was already aware of something somewhere portending “a multitude of sad adventures.”

In the village of Kál, I was hosted by an extremely kind family who drove me to see all the local historic sites, most of which commemorated victories over the Ottoman invaders. I taught English for seven hours a day, which proved to be interesting but exhausting work. I didn’t call Valya at all for the first two weeks. In the third week the village sent me to a children’s camp at a beautiful historic town on the Danube. All the female staff slept in a single cabin: me, a young English teacher, and five gym teachers. Unknown parties had strongly impressed upon the camp organizers that I, as an American, ate nothing but corn and watermelon. Every day they brought me cans and cans of corn, and nearly a whole watermelon, which I ate alone in the cabin. In the absence of any formal duties I was pursued in their every free minute by a group of tiny, indefatigable Hungarian girls, who gently demanded that I play badminton with them and braid their hair.

I was surviving this all OK until Saturday evening, when the gym teachers organized a special entertainment: a boys’ leg contest.

“The American girl will judge the leg contest!” they an- nounced. I was still hoping that I had misunderstood them, even as German techno music was turned on and all the boys in the camp, ages eight to fourteen, were paraded out behind a screen that hid their bodies from the waist up; identifying numbers had been pinned to their shorts. I was given a clipboard with a form on which to rate their legs on a scale from one to ten. Gripped by panic, I stared at the clipboard. Nothing in either my life experience or my studies had prepared me to judge an adolescent boys’ leg contest. Finally the English teacher, who appeared to understand my predicament, whispered to me some scores of her own devising, and I wrote them on the form as if I had thought of them myself.

The next day, Sunday, I was alone in the cabin reading when someone came crashing through the door. It was the winner of the boys’ leg contest, a fourteen-year-old daredevil named Gábor, his prizewinning left leg covered in blood.

“Can you help me?” he asked, handing me a fi rst aid kit.

Closer inspection revealed a long, jagged gash on his knee. I had opened the first aid kit and successfully identified a bottle of iodine when we were joined by two of the gym teachers.

“Lukács Gábor, you leave the American alone!” they shouted and, steering the boy away, disinfected and bandaged his knee in a visibly efficient fashion. The English teacher appeared at my side: “He wants something from you,” she said darkly.

During the lunch hour, as soon as they had brought me my watermelon, I slipped away to the commuter rail station, bought a phone card, and called Valya’s parents’ house in Budapest. Valya asked where I was. Two hours later, he and his mother drove up in his mother’s Opel, with a canoe tied to the roof. His mother thought it would be fun for us to go canoeing on the Danube. She drove back in the car, and we actually paddled that canoe all the way back to Budapest, which took more than seven hours. All around us, towering sixteen-wheel trucks glided by on barges. Apparently it was illegal for the trucks to drive on the streets on Sundays.

In Budapest, having missed the docking place, we ended up moored in a swamp. Valya dragged the canoe aground, helped me out, and then went to find a pay phone. I was supposed to stay with the canoe.

“I should be back in fifteen or twenty minutes,” he said.

The sun sank behind some prehistoric-looking vegetation, and a liquid blueness descended upon the world. Valya was gone for two hours, which I spent guarding the canoe—from whom? By what means? Noticing a willow nearby, I entertained and dismissed the idea of concealing the canoe with willow branches. As it happened, the only sentient beings I saw in the whole two hours were a man with four goats, none of whom evinced any interest in either me or the canoe, and two policemen. The policemen stopped their mopeds when they saw me, and tried to question me in Hungarian. The only question I understood was whether I was homeless. “Do you have a house?” they said loudly, and one of them put his hands over his head in the shape of a pointed roof.

“My friend went to the telephone,” I said. To my surprise, this explanation seemed to satisfy the policemen. “Good, good,” they said, then got back on their mopeds and rode away.

I had just taken a pen and notebook out of my bag and was trying in the dark to write a note explaining that I was incapable of guarding the canoe anymore when I heard the approach of pounding footsteps. They grew louder and louder and then Valya flopped down to the ground beside me, out of breath, his shirt torn and muddy. He had been chased several kilometers cross-country by a wild dog. He must be the kind of man who likes women, I remember thinking.

The next afternoon, Valya drove me back to the camp, stopping at the Thai embassy to pick up his visa—he was leaving the next day for a math conference. After we said goodbye, I spent some hours wandering around the historic town, its Serbian graveyards and churches. Eventually I had to return to the campground. I was greeted at the gate by the English teacher, closely followed by the bandaged boy leg champion.

“You have been … loafing,” said the English teacher accusingly.

“Your hair looks cool,” Gábor said.

“No it doesn’t!” snapped the English teacher.