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Arts & Culture

My 12-Hour Blind Date, With Dostoevsky

July 13, 2010 | by

A review in four parts.

Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

9:15 A.M. Sitting in a taxi on the FDR Drive, I wonder how life has brought me to this point. I’m headed for a ferry to take me to a warehouse on Governor’s Island to watch a twelve-hour staging of Dostoevsky’s Demons, in Italian. How life brought me to this point is that I recently wrote a book called The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them ($10.20 on Amazon—I’m just saying), which includes a nonfictional retelling of Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons (formerly translated as The Possessed), set in the Stanford comparative literature PhD program, where I was once a graduate student, and where we were all once possessed by a combination of dangerous literary-theoretical ideas and a demonic Nikolai Stavrogin-like classmate.

9:25 A.M. Disembarking at the Maritime Building, I look around for the Lincoln Center publicist, who told me she would be wearing a straw hat. Inconveniently, I forgot my ticket in San Francisco, which is where I live, and where it is currently 6:20 A.M. There are about five hundred women here wearing straw hats. I am both jet-lagged and hung over, having flown in thirty-six hours ago for my college roommate’s wedding. At 4:00 A.M. yesterday morning I was stuck with the bride’s little brother in a broken, vomit-filled elevator in Koreatown, trying to leave a karaoke bar which I believe shared its broken, vomit-filled elevator with a medium-end brothel.

9:27 A.M. Well, the ferry doesn’t actually leave until ten, so I decide I have time for a cigarette. A college-aged Lincoln Center employee in a yellow shirt is holding a yellow sign that says “DEMONS – SLIP 1.” An older man approaches this young person with a paternal chuckle. “That’s excellent, I have to say. Really very good,” he observes. “Thanks,” says the young man with the sign.

9:28 A.M. I have lit a cigarette and am staring at Staten Island, thinking about my problems, when I am approached by a tall, remarkably handsome young man wearing sunglasses, white pants, a polo shirt, trail-runners, and a safari hat. He is carrying a copy of the Times. He asks if I am Elif. I realize that this is my blind date. I had almost forgotten about my blind date! The thing is, a total stranger wrote to me in May, saying that he had bought two of the seven hundred tickets to this coveted performance on the morning they went on sale (“A 12-Hour Play, and Endless Bragging Rights,” read the Times headline), only to discover that none of his friends wanted to join him on Governors Island for a twelve-hour-long performance of The Demons scheduled to coincide with the World Cup finals. So, he thought of me! Needless to say I was enormously flattered, although at that point I already had a ticket from The Paris Review. “Maybe we can hang out on the ferry,” I suggested. After introducing himself (how did he recognize me?), my date announces that his pants have come unbuttoned. “This is not how I wanted to make a first impression,” he observed, buttoning his pants.

9:35 A.M. Finally I identify the publicist, who is handing a press folder to a critic from the LA Times, but she can’t find the name under which my ticket was purchased. As luck would have it, my blind date, J., still couldn’t get rid of his ticket—so, I’m just going to sit next to him.

9:47 A.M. In line at the pier I run into two of my Stanford grad school classmates, Amelia and Anne, both now Russian literature professors. Each has the 768-page Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Demons protruding from her handbag. I express my admiration of Amelia’s shoes, which are a cross between gladiator sandals and cowboy boots.

“These are the sandals that [Evgeny] Evtushenko [the super-famous Russian poet] complimented me on,” she says.

“Do you know lots of people here?” J. asks.

“I don’t think so—just them,” I say.

“That you know of,” he says. “Maybe it’s like Lost and we’re all connected and we’ll never leave.”

“Maybe,” I concede.

9:57 A.M. Lincoln Center personnel are now trying to shepherd four hundred culture lovers into the docked ferry. They seem frightened of something. “It’s all the deaths and dismemberments,” explains J., who turns out to hold a Columbia journalism master’s and clearly reads a lot of newspapers. He tells me about several incidents of death and dismemberment caused by the Staten Island and Governors Island ferries running into people at the docks.

10:03 A.M. Nobody has been dismembered. The ride goes smoothly. J. tells me about his master’s thesis: an interview with a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre.

“He was literally standing in the firing squad,” J. explains.

“Like Dostoevsky,” I observed.

“Yeah, except they were actually trying to kill him.” This guy, when the guns went off, fell on the ground and pretended to be dead. He lay for eight hours under the body of his cousin, who really was dead. Night fell and the bulldozers came out to move the corpses. Then he ran away.

“Does he have a normal life now?” I ask.

“Well, he’s an alcoholic, and he has chronic back pain from when he was beaten with a rifle.”

10:25 A.M. We arrive at the island. J. asks if I saw Cold Souls, in which Paul Giamatti’s soul was kept in storage on Roosevelt Island. I haven’t, although I did see Shutter Island. Everyone starts walking. “What kind of people are these?” I ask J. “I feel like I have to say what kind of people are here and I don’t know how to describe them.”

“They look like people at a street fair,” he says.

10:45 A.M. In the warehouse is a sign that says “Gunfire will be used in this performance.” They don’t say what it will be used for. I find this sinister.

10:48 A.M. The toilets are in two sets of trailers. There are about two feet separating the sinks and the toilets. While I’m washing my hands, an elderly woman says, “You with the bag! Lean forward!” She is trying to squeeze behind me. I lean forward but she still practically shoves me in the sink. I am eye-level with a sign that says “ACQUA NON POTABILE.” Couldn’t they have made the bathrooms a little bigger?

10:55 A.M. Bleachers have been set up in the warehouse. The space is huge but the seating is intimate. I am sitting directly behind the LA Times critic. Every time he shifts his weight even a little bit, the back of his chair digs into my shins. I consider whether to say something, but when I take a good look at the general set-up, I see that there is really nothing he can do about it, other than holding his breath for twelve hours. At least the LA Times is a good newspaper.

We notice a very small girl, maybe seven years old, sitting near the front. “The way time passes when you’re that age, this will proably feel like fifteen months,” J. observes. I decide I like J.

11:02 A.M. Peter Stein, the director of the play, addresses the audience. He says that one-third of the dialogue has been omitted from the supertitles, so we would be forced to occasionally look at the actors. He also says that he wants us to “feel well,” so there are lots of breaks and two meals and “quite nice toilets.” I think it’s an exaggeration to say that the toilets are quite nice.

Check back tomorrow for part 2: The date continues, the play begins.



  1. Steph Bravo-Semilla | July 16, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Can’t wait for the 4th installment ( and how you survived a 12hour play ). I admire Dostoevsky ( crime & punishment is one of my fave books ), but what I liked most in your post were your comments on characters around you rather than the characters in the play! :> Looking forward to more posts
    on your blog,

    The Philippine Daily Inquirer

  2. PACO'C | June 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I have just begun reading this. It doesn’t seem very exciting yet. But I think I should go on because I for some time I have been under the impression that Elif Batuman is the other half of my apple, and since I am 100% sure she will never share this impression, I had better go for the next best thing which could well be the melancholic satisfaction of seeing how unsuccessful her blind date thing is and reassuring myself that in fact it is unsuccessful because in fact she was not with me. I have form on this so she should not expect me to go quietly. I am the twelve yeart old who sat through the matinee and the evening performances of Marilyn Monroe arthouse retrospectives pinned to my seat by duty in the knowledge that by my presence I reassured her ghost (Marilyn Monroe’s ghost) that only I understood her and that if we had met that miserable Arthur Miller and that self regarding John F Kennedy and that born to be disappointed baseball player who carried his side of the story to the grave (because he knew that next to mine his position was untenable) would all have thrown their hands up in despair or even their hats in the air and said like the critics reacting to the not yet written novel in La Peste ‘Hats off gentlemen!’ – yes, this is the way we stay happy in Tokyo. We wait, like Hongkong junkies, until the price goes down, and then when the prizes have been awarded and nobody is reading the comments any longer and the intern with starry eyes is about to clear the comments, then we make our move. In this way, nobody is disappointed and nobody meets, as I never met Marilyn Monroe, mainly because she knew, as I probably also knew at the time (we were that close) that all over the world there were cinemafulls of people just like me who were convinced that they understood her better than everyone she really met and everyone else in all those cinemas. In a sense I have with these statements removed all possibility of Elif Batuman ever putting the fact that we were made for each other to the test, but on the other hand who the hell is she to judge? What does she know who goes on 12 hour blind dates? What can she know? And so my secret stays with me, as my fellow Marilyn Monroe empathisers took the secret of their cinemafulls of empathy home with them and lay next to their wife imagining (they would never have understood) (and when you think about it this is quite close to acknowledging my primacy among these people, without wishing to brag). In any case I shall go on to the next section and if she’s lucky I will provide there a description of the domestic happiness Elif Batuman would have enjoyed if she had realised that I was the other half of her apple – the way I like my eggs, the way I like my bathwater, all those little details. For the rest of you who also know that Elif Batuman is the other half of your apple, I offer the consoling thought that although by the time you read this we will have met, I will have kept quiet about her hunger for my heart out of delicacy, which leaves the door open. I rest my case.

  3. PACO'C | June 15, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Although nearly three minutes have passed neither Elif Batuman nor any of my fellow admireres have responded to my earlier address, which just goes to show that if you can sustain a long argument with commas only for a sufficient period (here I am lightening the tone), you are in with a chance of entering that rarified elite, the nobility of the unbeholden, to which so few aspire and yet so many are consigned. I again rest my case.

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10 Pingbacks

  1. […] sat through a 12-hour retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons in Italian, which she calls a “blind date.” I would love to have a blind date with Dostoevsky, as long as we met in a well-lit and […]

  2. […] We can think of nothing better than spending a 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky. […]

  3. […] already (but chances are…you haven’t), go and read Elif Batum’s “My 12-Hour Blind Date, With Dostoevsky” on The Paris review website, a four-part review of the infamous 12-hour play. It’s […]

  4. […] Island.  I urge you all to check out the riveting minute-by-minute account, “My Twelve-Hour Blind Date, With Dostoevsky,” on the Paris Review blog, in four installments plus an Epilogue that just went up […]

  5. […] I recently posted the following: “At the Paris Review Daily, Elif Batuman walks us through part one of HIS 12-hour blind date with Dostoevsky. (via Book Bench)” (emphasis […]

  6. […] “My 12-Hour Blind Date, With Dostoevsky” is a five part account of Ms. Batuman’s experience at an epic Italian-language staging of Dostoevsky’s Demons, part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. She begins with waiting for the ferry to Governor’s Island at 9:15 in the morning, and ends when she falls asleep in her cab at 11:35 that night. Along the way, we get a minute-by-minute description of the experience, from the bathrooms to the meals to the performance itself and the audience’s increasingly manic reaction to it. […]

  7. […] of course it would be a 4 part article) by Elif Batuman, writing for the Paris Review Daily, here. It’s a great read and if you too have misgivings about not attending the performance…I […]

  8. […] Elif was exhausted. She had just flown in from California for a friend’s wedding and was writing a minute-by-minute account of the show for The Paris […]

  9. […] Terry Southern Prize for Humor from the Paris Review (for a five-installment blog post titled My Twelve-Hour Blind Date with Dostoevsky). Sadly, I was unable to accept the award in person at the Paris Review Revel, which coincided with […]

  10. […] Even if you don’t relish Russian novels, or 12-hour theater performances, I still think you’ll get some laughs out of this several-part review by Elif Batuman for The Paris Review blog. I wouldn’t normally put “Dostoevsky” and “side-splittingly funny” in the same sentence, but here it is. […]

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