The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Hardcover – 1 Apr 2011
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`Wildly original, creatively rambling ... the funniest book I've read in a long time' --The Times
`Part personal recollection, part literary criticism, it has the remarkable quality of being so dazzlingly good in its unique genre' --Sunday Telegraph
'Batuman has a deadpan, detached, absurdist style ... She's a master of the laconic quote ... consistently surprising and entertaining' --Irish Times
`A deeply clever and very funny collection of essays: half memoir, half love-letter to the Russian literary greats' --Guardian
`One of the best guides to life and literature I've ever read ... Eccentric and brilliant'
'The first outing of a major voice ... seriously and perceptively, about Russian fiction, and it really is funny' --Observer
`Batuman meanders skilfully through her experiences chasing meaning and life in Russian novels ... entertaining, clear eyed and passionate' --Scotland on Sunday
'She writes like a dream ... I found myself simply wanting to read more from Elif Batuman' --Evening Standard
'An intoxicating mix of memoir, literary criticism and philosophy with Batuman's idiosyncratic character at its heart .... charming and hilarious' --Daily Telegraph
'Her stories incorporate moments of real beauty and are driven by a serious purpose ... charming, complex and life-enhancing' --Sunday Times
`Read and delight in Elif Batuman's seriously funny, curiously melancholic book ... oddly moving, dazzlingly written' --The Herald
`A clever, life-loving account of a love affair with language ... an eloquent defence of the book'
--Independent on Sunday
'There are many times when Batuman embodies that great New Yorker tradition of intelligent, lightly comic non-fiction' --Guardian
`Part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-literary criticism, this curious and idiosyncratic book is also a delightful one' --Financial Times
`A joy to read. Batuman infectiously conveys the dreamlike inscrutability of Russian literature ... An intellectually bracing travelogue of literary adventures' --Economist
'It's impossible not to warm to the author of this book ... comic poignant and very entertaining' --Spectator
About the Author
Elif Batuman was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college at Harvard. She completed a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford University in 2007. She currently lives in San Francisco, and teaches at Stanford in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Nation, and n+1. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and has a cat called Friday.
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But the strange thing about the book lies in the writing style. Just as the academics are portrayed as obsessed by their topics, when they clearly are not, the chapters are littered with bizarre statements that look as though they might be clever or amusing, but in fact are just strange. It is as though the text were translated from a Turkish original full of untranslatable wordplay. The style is so remorseless that it develops an horrific charm of its own. "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." (p.10). Quite. "[they] disinfected and bandaged his knee in a visibly efficient fashion." (p. 14). Not invisibly? And this splendid non-sequitur, on which I pondered deeply: "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." (p.15). And: "'little feet'... Pushkin is not here referring... to his own feet. Nonetheless, I saw a pair of Pushkin's boots once in a museum, and they were very small." (p.89). "The gypsy looked at my palm and told me to beware of a woman called Mary ." (p. 91). Mary? "In Moscow, for the first and last [last?] time in my life, I dated bankers. Things didn't work out with the first banker [pray tell, perhaps?], but I still remember the second banker fondly... Rustem was saving up money to pay for parachuting lessons." (p. 93). Melachi does not know why Rustem wanted such lessons, but one suspects, and cannot blame him.
This gives the book a distinct lack of unity - sure, some of it is brilliant, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn't really why I came here. The book is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them", and in a loose way, I suppose that's fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a fair amount of bringing together previously published lectures and articles.
I've no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case at least, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read. As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all - in my humble opinion!
I wanted more, I suppose something like it says on the tin - a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman's intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college. Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory - a sort of "look how clever I am", but maybe that's my English perceptions getting in the way - American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.
I got a pretty good essay on the Russian writer Isaac Babel, and a long lecture on The Death of Tolstoy which can be found online on the Harpers Magazine archive. Other items were previously published in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Sometimes you get elongated versions of other articles -for example, one chapter, The House of Ice builds on an article previously published in the New Yorker and is devoted telling the story of how in 2006 a replica of Empress Anna Ioannovna's ice palace built in St. Petersburg. Its all very interesting, a sort of first person travelogue, the sort of thing which would be published in Granta magazine, but its hard to see its how it fits into this book about Russian literature.
Three chapters are devoted to Batuman's time in Samarkand where she was learning the Uzbek language. Its all very funny and contains many amusing anecdotes such as how she learned to choose water-melons in the market by listening to them talk.
In the final chapter, Batuman visits Florence where Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. She moves on to discuss his novel The Possessed and after summarising the book in a few pages, she immediately lost me by interpreting the book in the context of René Girard theory of "mimetic desire" which was apparently "formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfilment".
Four or five pages of discussion of this theory then follow, after which Batuman recounts a little tale of how when she returned to Stanford the department's dynamics had completely changed as new people had arrived (including the charismatic Matej from Croatia) and others had left. We get four or five pages of the impact on these changes and a fair amount about Matej's impact on Batuman's life, but I can't for the life of me see how they relate to Dosteovsky's book The Possessed. But then Batuman's writing jumps around so much its just as I said at the start of this book, like following a butterfly as it moves from one plant to another. Its difficult to focus in on one particular topic before she's off on another one. I'd have had no problem with Girard's theory of mimetic desire in the midst of a book which had been leading up to it, but to just drop it into a chapter largely discussing relationships within her department reads like a first-year female student at University who's reading her text books while eyeing up the boy at the next table.
I'm very disappointed with this book. Its lack of focus and structure completely detracts from some of the good things it includes. It seems a cheap way of putting a book together to me and if it had been subtitled "assorted writings of Elif Batuman" I wouldn't have bothered with it. The lure of reading about "the Russian literature reading experience" misled me in this case and I wouldn't recommend this book unless you're already into Batuman's work.
There are lots of stories about the places her lover affair with Russian writers have taken her to and the people she has met along the way.
The cover of one edition says something like "...for people who read Russian writers and people who love them." which pretty well sums it up.
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