In an attempt to make good use of the festive period, which can resemble dead time, I am working my way through some of the books on my Classics Club list. This weekend, I finally finished Elif Batuman‘s touching, funny and absurd The Possessed: Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them. If you haven’t read it, or her journalistic work in the LRB and elsewhere, I’d recommend it, and if you enjoy a little bit of the absurd along with your insights, do follow Batuman on Twitter (@BananaKarenina)!
I bought this book about eighteen months ago, after reading Batuman’s Diary in the LRB about her work as writer in residence at Koc University. Unfortunately, as I only read about a chapter of The Possessed before being distracted by work, it and the Diary got rather muddled in my mind, and I spent the first chapter wondering why she wasn’t a writer in residence yet. After I managed to disentangle the two ideas, though, I could fully settle into the story Batuman was trying to tell about her adventures in graduate school.
I do not, by and large, read biographies, auto or otherwise. However, the idea of a partial autobiography of a grad student appealed to me when I bought the book, and it is both an amusing and educational read. My study of Russian literature was a whistle-stop tour in one semester with the wonderful William Mills Todd III and a very pleasant Russian grad student called Maxim who said my name with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘o’, which I found rather endearing. I learnt to love Dostoyevsky in The Idiot where The Brothers Karamazov had previously failed to sustain my interest, finally met Lermontov and Gogol, and generally gambolled about in fictional worlds that were both stark and enchanting. This is the delight of Batuman’s book: whilst teaching you something new about Russian literature (and the fascinating history of the Uzbek script), she invites you to reflect on your own adventures with Russian books and the people who read them.
The book is constructed from a series of essays previously published in n+1 and elsewhere. It is not, therefore, a chronological relation of Batuman’s life as a graduate student. The narrative zigs and zags more like an oral history. Fortunately, The Possessed often has qualities of a Russian novel about it, lending weight to what might otherwise be a brief series of reflections on funny episodes of Batuman’s life. Batuman’s descriptions are keen, sharp and funny without being over-determined, and there are many times when a detail is simply left to hang in the air for us to interpret ourselves, or for us to use to practice ‘resignation of the soul’ (I think particularly of the scholar who sat through the Tolstoy conference with his head in his hand).
Read this book to chuckle and grimace along with Batuman, and marvel at facts you never knew before.