Book Review: The Possessed

The Possessed:  Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

There are times when a cover can adequately prepare someone for the book.  This particular book has a lurid title (and one which makes sense when you read the last essay in the series) and has hilarious cover art which resembles the edition of Cold Comfort Farm which I also enjoyed.  This is fundamentally a book about what it is that draws people to Russian literature (and this includes literature that is not in Russian from former Soviet Republicans in Turkestan) and what insights an interest in Russian literature can provide to those of us who are fond of it.  I speak personally here as someone who is fond of Russian literature, in translation, which is somewhat important in appreciating a book like this one.  Obviously, this book is to be recommended to someone who either loves Russian literature or knows someone who does and can at least understand the references being made in the book.  And as someone who reads and enjoys Russian literature ranging from obscure plays like The Ascent Of Mt. Fuji to familiar works by authors like Tolstoy and Nabokov, there was a lot here that I liked and could relate to.

This book is almost 300 pages long and begins with a friendly introduction that includes a hilarious discussion of a time when the author was asked to judge a leg contest in her travels.  This is only one of many funny stories about the author’s own travels and research and personal life and the stories she has read and written about.  Babel In California tells the story of how she came about to study Russian literature and chose to go to graduate school despite wanting to be a writer herself (an ambition she definitely shows to have paid off here).  There are three essays that tell the story of a summer she spent in Samarkand learning Uzbek, learning a great deal about post-Soviet life and politics in Central Asia, and getting familiar with some strange people and strange literature, and with the author’s hilarious summaries.  There are essays on the question of whether Tolstoy was murdered, which includes more hilarity at a conference of Tolstoy scholars in Russia, as well as an essay about the novel and the history behind the House of Ice and the author’s efforts to research it.  Finally, the book concludes with an essay about The Possessed and about the author’s own experience with a charismatic but somewhat soulless fellow student.

There are quite a few worthwhile insights that I have gained about my own interest in Russian literature from this particular book.  For one, the author has an inventive mind when it comes to literary studies, and her thesis adviser is on the mark when he calls her his most entertaining student, which is surely true.  The author provides plenty of cases where Russian life has strongly influenced Russian literature, and where the question of identity is a very serious one, especially when one questions whether the Uzbeks are actually a people and to what extent their identity is even more artificial than normal.  The author also shows some striking awareness of the way that literature and life have a strong degree of mutual influence and that it takes a particular sort of person to become passionate about novels of dead souls and epics of revenge and fighting between animals.  Not only was this book greatly enjoyable on its own terms but the book also indicates that I would like to read the author’s scholarly writings on Russian literature as well, not least for her intense creativity.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Possessed

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Art Of Mindful Reading | Edge Induced Cohesion

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