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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books…

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010)

by Elif Batuman

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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Batuman's experiences as a student in Samarkand are excellently presented, and much of the rest of the book is fascinating. I don't think the subtitle quite captures what she was after. I'll be more interested in the sequel, if and when there is one. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
Taken from the articles found in journals like n+1, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman combines them into this memoir. The Possessed may be a collection journal articles, but combined together it forms more of a memoir of Batuman’s academic life. Starting with a conference she was involved with at Stanford University about Isaac Babel in the first article “Babel in California”.

I mention the first article “Babel in California” because I think it represented everything I did not like about this book. On the surface this book sounds right up my alley. The misleading subtitle for this book is “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” and that is the expectation I had when going into this book. However going by the first article about one conference, I got a very padded book with no real structure. It seems like Elif Batuman has edited her articles in a way to fit into a book, but she turned articles into sixty page chapters that are so drawn out that it is boring.

There is some interesting sections within this book but I feel the major problem is this book has no structure. If this was a collection of essays, I would expect a theme. If this was a memoir, I would expect more focus on her life. The Possessed sits somewhere in the middle, each chapter is very different; about a conference, her travels, her studies or just reading Russian lit. Each chapter does not seem to connect to the previous chapter, which just made it too clunky.

I wanted a book about Russian literature, but The Possessed did not give me that. In fact any literary criticism was never explained properly, so made it hard to understand how she draw her conclusions. I am looking for a good book about Russian literature, like a literary exploration or a journey into these books. If you know of a book like this that you would recommend, please let me know.

This book originally appeared on my blog; http://www.knowledgelost.org/book-reviews/genre/non-fiction/the-possessed-by-eli... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Jan 6, 2016 |
Clever book. Travel plus lit crit. Russian, mostly 19th century. Recommend. (Kindle.) ( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman's book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky's novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family in the U.S.. She fell in love with literature and more specifically with Russian literature at an early age. And when she took violin lessons later, her teacher was an enigmatic and somehow secretive Russian - this first Russian she met in real life left a mark on her. When she decided to study linguistics (in the vague hope to become a novelist later), she took up Russian lessons as well. And while linguistics proved to be a real disappointment, Russian language was not, although it took her a long time to learn it well.

When I started The Possessed, I had the expectation to read a book about Russian writers and literature. But it is first of all an autobiographical book by Elif Batuman on her intellectual coming-of-age. That was unexpected - I came across this book by chance in an antiquarian bookstore in Sofia, and since the good hard cover cost only about 5 Euro, I thought I give it a try. Despite my slight momentary disappointment (I had simply wrong expectations), I enjoyed this book very much because it is overall so well-written, funny, interesting, fresh. And it is also a travelogue, kind of.

Batuman describes her time in Stanford and her participation in some international conferences with a lot of (self-)irony and humor. How two well-known Babel scholars "give each other the finger" in a parking lot over a dispute regarding the last free parking space is hilarious. The Babel family (widow and two daughters of the great Isaac Babel) prove to be not easy to handle when they participate in an international conference to Babel's honor. And also the Tolstoy conference in Jasnaya Polyana turns almost into a disaster because Aeroflot loses her luggage and she has to spend a week in her flip-flops, T-shirt and jeans - not because she is a "Tolstoyan" who prefers the most simple outfit, as most participants seem to assume. Also how she successfully collects travel grants on rather dubious scientific projects, or how the famous New Yorker magazine sends her to Sankt Petersburg without willing to pay her travel expenses, but expecting that she spends a night in the Ice Palace - a real palace made of ice, built according to an old design - these and other stories make for a very entertaining read.

On a more serious note, Batuman provides interesting background information on the writers and works she is covering: mainly Isaac Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. I didn't know Ivan Lazhechnikov before, but her extremely interesting chapter on The Ice House, his book published in 1835 makes me curious to read this work (Batuman makes excessive use of her New Yorker reportage in that chapter).

Another part of the book that I found extremely interesting, was the description of her time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. While she studied Uzbek language and literature there, she gives extremely interesting insights in the history and everyday life of people in this now independent country with an ancient literature of high level (especially the works of Mir Ali Nevai, sometimes also referred to as Alisher Navoi).

As I mentioned, this is also an autobiographical work. The author is also the main character, and it describes her changing private life as well. Boyfriends come and go, also interests shift somehow, but the love for literature and the wish to write are the interests which give the authors' intellectual journey such a strength and continuity.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been almost a masterpiece. I say almost, because there are a few things that irritated me a bit and that could have been easily avoided.

Batuman mentions somewhere the fact that Tolstoy introduces in Anna Karenina many characters without a name, or he is using the same name (such as Andrey) several times. That can be a bit confusing when you don't read Anna Karenina very focused. As if to make an allusion to Tolstoy, she is introducing a certain Matej, a co-student and friend from Croatia in an early chapter. In a much later chapter, a Matej, co-student from Croatia is introduced to the reader again, this time he is the boyfriend of the author. I suppose this is the same person, but then why to introduce him twice? The second time it was very confusing because unless it is an oversight by the author (and the editor), it doesn't make sense to introduce him again. (I suppose that the two chapters were published before the book edition separately in some journal, and later it was forgotten to remove the double introduction of this person) Or did I miss something completely? I am still confused, and that distracted me a bit from the beautiful prose Batuman writes.

As for her literary likes: they are excellent, and I share most of them. Isaac Babel is one of my biggest heroes in the literary world. And as everyone, she has her idiosyncrasies, which is fine. Still, I would have liked to understand what exactly is so boring about Orhan Pamuk. She doesn't explain it.

Abdulla Qodiry, the author of Past Days, the most important Uzbek novel of the 20th century might be a great author, world class - but when she writes that he is writing on a thousand times higher level than Cechov, I simply have to believe it as a reader because she doesn't explain what's so terrible about about Cechov's writing, or so great about Qodiry's abilities as an author. (I love Cechov very much and simply cannot believe her.)

The same goes for her rejection of any literature from the "periphery" - come on, you just told us how great Abdulla Qodiry is - and doesn't he come exactly from the periphery: Uzbekistan?. Or her strong dislike of Creative Writing courses. What exactly is so terrible about them? I didn't get it - beside the fact that the weather was better in California than in New England where the course she fled from was to take place.

My point here is the following: these opinions - which I don't share - are all fine, but when the author is not explaining me (or at least not in a way that a reader would consider somehow enlightening or satisfactory) WHY she has these opinions, I get the impression that these are just resentments. Probably it's more, but it is a pity she didn't put more effort in explaining her strong opinions on (some) literature.

Another aspect of the book that I found a bit difficult was the way, scholars or experts that teach outside Stanford are described: the Babel scholar that teaches in Tashkent and makes his own research in Odessa and Moscow is considered a moron: the whole truth is in the American archives, and who wastes his time to interview people who knew Babel or find documents in former Soviet archives is simply a poor idiot. The same goes for the Babel family, three monsters, driven by paranoia and maliciousness. (By the way, Babel was shot on the 27 January 1940, not on the 26th. Who is so strict in his judgement of others should have his facts correct.)

And I could have also done without the anecdote about the poor old Tolstoy scholar, his "accident", and the resulting bad smelling underwear - Batuman doesn't give his name, but I am sure for insiders he is easy to identify. Why to embarrass a person by dwelling on his incontinence, a medical condition, not a character deficit? That put me a bit off.

I see my complaints about the book are rather longish. But don't be deceived: this is despite my ranting in the last paragraphs a book I enjoyed, partly travelogue, partly autobiography, partly literature study. It's the first book of this author, and I will gladly read what she publishes in the future. It's just the fact that with a bit of editing, this would have been really a masterpiece. As it is now, it is still a good book.

And Babel and King Kong? There is an almost uncanny connection between the great writer from Odessa and the famous 1933 movie. I am not going to spoil the fun of future readers, so if you want to know about it: read this book. ( )
  Mytwostotinki | Dec 14, 2015 |
I was really blown away by this book, despite hearing nothing but praise when it came out. Batuman's essays are about the experience of studying Russian literature—both in the literature and in the studying. She attends academic conferences filled with people who would easily substitute for characters in the books, who squabble about the silliest things.

On top of this amazing subject, Batuman brings her own incredible skills as a writer. She is so good that the challenges of writing disappear, and you're able to enjoy what's going on. I feel like even this praise is short-changing her, as the quality of her writing was what shocked me most about the book, even having read her stuff in other venues.

And in the end, it all catalyzes into the titular essay of the book: a deep-dive into Dostoevsky and study of how his book Demons (or literally translated as "The Possessed") works. It is stunningly good. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
In some complicated way, The Possessed is a book about the relationship between art and life – towards the end there is a detailed engagement with René Girard's theory of the novel and mimetic desire. But it's also a simple book about the relationship between art and life.

...Batuman's is a defence of reading as a form of living. It therefore echoes the message that Augustine heard in the garden, all those years ago, and which urged him towards his own great Confessions: "Tolle lege" ("Take up and read").
added by peterbrown | editThe Guardian, Ian Sanson (Apr 30, 2011)
The dull pewter of Uzbekistan’s literary offerings makes Russia’s great names seem all the more lustrous, but this book is only secondarily about literature: its main attraction is Elif Batuman herself.
added by Shortride | editHarper's Magazine, Benjamin Moser (pay site) (Apr 1, 2010)
Hilarious, wide-ranging, erudite and memorable, “The Possessed” is a sui generis feast for the mind and the fancy... Batuman’s exaltations of Russian literature could have ended up in scholarly treatises gathering dust in university stacks. Instead, she has made her subject glow with the energy of the enigma that drew her to it in the first place: “the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love” bound up, indeed, with Russian. As a soulful Russian-language teacher might say as she hands out a piece of chocolate to her pet student: Molodets. Way to go.
Elif Batuman is clearly one of those people whom Babel described, in one of his Odessa stories, as having “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Her autumnal impulses are balanced by jumpy, satirical ones. It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
Batuman does what all great essayists do—she fills her readers with a passion for the subject at hand while simultaneously exploring its complexity.
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When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author's Collected Works, they aren't aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with.
In Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain', a young man named Hans Castorp arrives at a Swiss sanatorium to visit his tubercular cousin for three weeks. [Introduction]
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Ich erinnere mich besonders an die Passage, in der er beschreibt, dass jeder Mensch zwei Leben hat - ein offenes und sichtbares mit Arbeit, Konventionen, Verantwortung, Scherzen, un das andere, das "im Geheimen verläuft" - und wie mühelos sich die Umstände so fügen, dass alles, was einem besonders wichtig, interessant und bedeutsam ist, sich in dem zweiten, dem geheimen Leben abspielt.
Eine Stadt hieß Tokat, was wörtlich "ein Schlag ins Gesicht" heißt. SO lautet auch der Titel eines berühmten Manifests der russischen Futuristen: "Ein Schlag ins Gesicht des öffentlichen Geschmacks" - oder auf Türkisch "Toplumsal zwevke bir tokat". Die "osmanische Ohrfeige" - eine in dier osmanischen Armee entwickelte Technik, wo Fausthiebe als schlechtes Benehmen galten - ist als Osmanli tokat (oder, grammatisch korrekter, Osmanh toakadi) bekannt und wenn man den Begriff in YouTube aufruft, sieht man auf Hunderten von Videos türkische Menschen, die geohrfeigt werden, meist von anderen türkischen Menschen, allerdings in einem Fall auch von einem Affen. Allein der Gedanke an meine Reise nach Tokat bereitete meiner Mutter schlafloser Nächte.
Muzaffar gab sich die größte Mühe, mir beizubringen, wie man eine gute Wassermelone kauft. Manche Leute seien der Ansicht, sagte er, dass eine Wassermelone schwer und fest sein sollte. Andere meinten, die besten Melonen seien groß und und leicht. Damt war mir also nicht geholfen. Eine gute Wassermelone musste einen orangefarbenen Fleck haben, an dem man sehen konnte, wo sie in der Sonne gelegen, und einen trockenen Nabel, der zeigt, dass sich der Stiel von selbst gelöst hatte. Wenn man mit der rechten Hand an die Melone klopfte, musste si in der linken Hand mitschwingen. Bei der Schale war das wichtigste nicht die Farbe, sondern der Kontrast zwischen den verschiedenen Farben. [...] Unterdessen hatte er mir so überzeugend eingeredet, dass man versuchen werde, mir die schlechteste Wassermelone anzudrehen und mir zu viel dafür abzuknöpfen, dass ich den Mut verlor und überhaupt keine Melonen kaufte.
Böse Geister ist die Geschichte gewisser "sehr sonderbarer Ereignisse" in einer "bislang in keiner Weise bemerkenswerten" russischen Provinzstadt. Der Erzähler, dessen weitschweifig-exzentrische Chronik Vorkommnisse enthält, die er unmöglich selbst miterlebt haben kann, ist der Freund einer der Hauptfiguren des Romans, des alternden Pädagogen, Dichters und früheren Glehrten Stephan Trofimowitsch, dessen akademischer Ruf darauf beruht, dass es ihm gelang, eine brillante Dissertation zu verteidigen über "die in der Zeit zwischen 1413 und 1428 sich gerade entwickelnde politische und hanseatische Bedeutung des deutschen Städtchens Hanau und zugleich über die speziellen und unklaren Gründe, weshalb diese Bedeutung ausblieb."
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See also Elif Batuman 's New Yorker article on Turkish food (4/19/2010)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374532184, Paperback)

One of The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year
No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:09 -0400)

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Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence--including her own.… (more)

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