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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8174316,353 (3.64)1 / 72

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English (40)  Dutch (2)  French (1)  All languages (43)
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
A collection of essays ruminating on Russian literature. Not really sure why I picked this us, as I'm not a huge fan of Russian lit. However, her writing is approachable (meaning she avoids the literary/scholarly jargon as much as possible). ( )
  gossamerchild88 | Mar 30, 2018 |
very enjoyable and funny. Brings back memories of grad school.

Truth be known, I personally have not read this book but my husband read most of it to me. Just wanted to put the record straight. ( )
  Bakhtin | Oct 24, 2017 |
I had such high hopes for this book, but I couldn't enjoy it. I read the first two chapters carefully, but after that I just skimmed through it, hoping it would get better. The author has an unfortunate habit of dismissing anything she isn't personally interested in as completely useless to the entire world, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. ( )
  Lindoula | Sep 25, 2017 |
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them I found I liked for many of the reasons others don't -- its lack of focus, its myopia, its attempts at sarcastic humor confronting the hair-splitting obsessions of the lit crit crowd that come off more bitter than funny (although the account of the Tolstoy conference is pretty hilarious), its utter lack of profundity. "This has nothing new to say about Russian Literature!" reviewers tend to bitch. Instead, it is an extended account -- in a series of collected essays, of Batuman's own love -- or love/hate -- relationship with the books in her life. And that...that I totally get.

The only section I didn't like so much was the one that gives the title to the book, about Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, which I read in college as The Demons. That section is taken up with a fairly long and unnecessary recap of the novel that irritated me, such that by the time she gets into the question of how flawed the book is or may be, I was too annoyed to pay close attention.

But I was willingly drawn in to her arguments with fellow grad students about Isaac Babel -- her summation of him as "an accountant" perversely making me go back to his stories just to see if I could see what she did. (I couldn't). Her account of the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, a stellar example of a failed travel piece, nevertheless has me hunting around for a copy of Ivan Lazhechnikov's The Ice House -- so far without success. And Batuman's extended account of a summer spent in Samarkand studying Uzbek poetry that other readers found off topic, kept me fairly riveted. She was there because of an accident of grant funding, but then this is how most of my own travels through the land of literature have occurred -- serendipitously, by accident and whim rather than design. Why study Uzbek poetry? Why climb a mountain?
  southernbooklady | Aug 19, 2017 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (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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Elif Batumanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Chast, RozCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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)

» see all 2 descriptions

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Average: (3.64)
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