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A young academic explores her love of Russian literature
, 23 April 2012
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Hardcover)
'The Possessed' is a collection of essays loosely linked by Elif Batuman's experiences as a graduate student in comparative literature. Batuman, who now teaches at Stanford, is the American child of Turkish parents; not an obvious point of departure for 'Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them', as the subtitle has it. But it quickly becomes apparent that Batuman's title isn't merely a name-dropping reference to Dostoyevsky's celebrated novel. Batuman's 'possessed' are all those who have fallen under the spell of Russian literature, in many cases almost to the point of mania. Batuman at this time is one of their number, and the book is an account of how her obsession came to structure her life.
We are drawn as though by a cicerone through a tour of Isaac Babel, modern Samarkand, ancient Uzbek literature, the circumstances of the death of Tolstoy, the history of the palace of ice constructed by the grand-daughter of Peter the Great, and a host of incidental sidelights on the odd, precarious and occasionally surreal life of a graduate student. By the time she arrives at Dostoyevsky, in the final essay, the effect is almost anticlimactic.
Batuman writes well, and I found the book amusing and absorbing. If it has a weakness, it is that Batuman sometimes seems unclear whether she is writing a memoir of a period in her own life when books loomed unnaturally large, or a sideways disquisition on something less personal: the 'Russian soul'? The relation of great literature to life?
Recommended nonetheless for its wit and unusual perspective on its subject.
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