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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 31 (next | show all)
It did tend to meander a bit and I certainly don't know Russian novels well but it was still a highly enjoyable read about her life studying, learning, and living in Russian literature and the odd assortment of characters that she met along the wau. It's funny without making fun of the people, though her dislike of her Uzbek house mother does come through, but she seems to really find most of them either endearing or just is terrified of them. It's a fun read, though did not drive me to try to reread Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps one day I'll try...
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
So how many literary-travelogue-memoirs written by and for comp lit majors can there be? I was totally chuffed to find a story I thought no one outside the increasingly arcane world of literary study could possibly care about be so engaging and accessible, without compromising a real scholar's interest in literature or dumbing down questions of theory. It's a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between literature and life (or literatures and lives, including the author's own), with a different master Russian author serving as the presiding spirit for each chapter. It's all good, but her description of the Isaac Babel Conference at Stanford stands out like a lighthouse--it ought to rank with the greatest satiric portraits of the academic life ever written. It's all here: the horror and the humor, the posturing, absurdity and abject misery. It's the first thing I can remember laughing out loud at while shuddering in body terror at the same time. But that's the life of the mind, folks. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
More of a vanity piece about the author rather than anything else. The biline "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" would probably rather be better replaced with "adventures I went on while getting travel grant money to connect what I saw or ate or read today to Russian lit". ( )
  bethanyinthetaiga | Apr 8, 2014 |
This is the first thing I've read of Elif Batuman's. Still, I'd imagine that anything she writes, regardless of subject matter, would be witty, interesting, and resemble a New Yorker article. Summer in Samarkand was the best. ( )
  thatotter | Feb 6, 2014 |
I've known people like Elif Batuman--brilliant people who can't reply to the question "How are you today?" without a.) quoting literature, and then b.) quoting some obscure but relevant work of critical theory (and then maybe c.) adding an interesting bit of historical trivia, just for fun). It can take awhile to realize that, for this kind of person, that is actually how they feel--they've answered your question, you just might have to work a little harder to translate it into an "I'm fine" or an "I've been better." The Possessed is a book by, about, and for this kind of person, and for those of us who enjoy following them down their twisty, sometimes obsessive, often wise and utterly delightful paths. (I also feel like Batuman wins bonus points for making me want to re-read Pushkin--I didn't think that could happen, but This Kind of Person is notoriously persuasive...) ( )
  melaniemaksin | Oct 14, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:52 -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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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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