USA/Turkey | 2015
Elif Batuman was born in New York during the disco age. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. Surprisingly, her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, made it to the extended New York Times bestseller list—and for not one, but two weeks. Elif is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and the Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor. She holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Stanford University. It took seven years to get that degree. Her future plans remain uncertain.
The six weeks I spent at Santa Maddalena, in the “Turkish room” with an odalisque and a chart of sultans and also a handsome painting of a thief being beaten on the soles of his feet (“I think he enjoys it,” Beatrice said), were one of the most wonderful gifts I have ever received. Like all the best gifts it was completely unpredictable, and it feels impossible to repay or even to adequately acknowledge.
I think one of the biggest challenges for a writer—or at least, the biggest challenge for me—is how to balance between freedom and coherence, or, to put it another way, between solitude and community. Writing is solitary work. Now that there is Internet, you don’t particularly have to be anywhere to do it, and you can easily get by without talking to anyone for months at a time. Talking to people, as Sartre and others have observed, is one of the preeminent sources of worry and aggravation—so, not having to do it is a great privilege. For someone who is fond of adventures, it’s wonderful to be able to keep a kind of provisional, camping-like quality in daily life. And yet, a certain amount of social, institutional, and/ or geographical freedom can bring a sense of arbitrariness, or unmooredness.
The amazing and totally unique thing about Santa Maddalena was that it felt like an adventure, yet there was nothing provisional or arbitrary about it. In every corner of the grounds and the beautiful buildings one could feel things like community, tradition, aesthetic sensibility, and a presiding intelligence, or rather several presiding intelligences (Beatrice, Grisha, innumerable currently- and formerly-living pugs). Pretty much every horizontal or vertical surface had some astonishing artwork or object on it, each placed almost carelessly and yet all exercising a strange and wonderful harmony. There was a right time, place, and method to eat spaghetti. There were the most unusual, idiosyncratic, and charismatic neighbors (Nayla, Riccardo, Laure, et al.), and a marvelous staff that kept everything running seamlessly (Sophie, Brigida, Gazel, Nadica, et al.), and five dogs with large and distinct personalities (Rosina, Carlotta, Paride, Giulietta, and my beloved Giamaica who came trotting through the beautiful forests with me almost every day). For the writers, it was like there’s this whole complete world moving along effortlessly, without work from you, yet always available, and it’s the most magical thing to be able to dip into it whenever you want, without giving up any of the solitude or freedom required by and for writing—to be able to switch between writing and living, with neither happening at the expense of the other.
I left Santa Maddalena filled with new utopian ideas about how to organize life and to bring people together—things that once seemed impossible to me now seem like a matter of a little money and a lot of ingenuity and hard work. I now have a new life goal: to try to figure out a way to achieve something of that balance that was given to me, without my doing anything at all, in the summer of 2015.