My 12-Hour Blind Date, With Dostoevsky
July 13, 2010 | by Elif Batuman
A review in four parts.
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.