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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Paperback – February 16, 2010
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My Polish grandmother was an austere, white-haired woman perpetually irked by her descent into the middle class. She believed that a lady rightfully avoided certain things such as work and cooking. She was, however, a great reader and had at one time aspired to be a poet. A sheaf of her poems written in a florid Slavic hand lies packed away in my basement. When I was thirteen, my mother pointed me in my grandmother's direction and instructed me to ask Grandma what to read. "You must begin", the old lady said firmly, "with Tolstoy. Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata." At the time I couldn't understand either and settled on "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Since then I have had a recurring love affair with Russian lit. From Gogol and Pushkin I journeyed on through Dostoevsky and got as far as Master and Margarita. Nearly every step of the way some Russian emigre -the very people who insisted I read these books- wagged a cautionary finger at me: "You will never truly understand a word of this. The translation is terrible. And the Russian soul is... beyond you.""
Now I have discovered The Possessed. This book with its comic-inspired cover lay in the Our Staff Recommends section of the bookstore, in a rack nine deep and quite undisturbed. So, hopeful that I would at last grasp the essence of the Russian soul or at least learn something, I bought it. Once I began to read, I couldn't put it down. Nor could I stop laughing. Elif Batuman has written a comic detective story in which the characters real and imaginary intermix and the revelation lies in the journey itself.Read more ›
- the part in "Babel in California", the first essay in the book, in which Batuman compares the expression on the face of a certain elderly literary scion as that of "a cat which does not want to be picked up".
- all of the episodes with the comically evil landlady in "Summer in Samarkand"--the sections in which the furniture begins to disappear are gaspingly hilarious.
- so many moments with the Tolstoy scholars in "Who Killed Tolstoy?" which I read when it originally came out in Harper's last year--it's every bit as good the second time around.
This is a rare, rare book, and completely worth the ten bucks to buy it, take it everywhere with you, and read it more than once. A gem!
Second, it's a "smart" book and full of theory: some elegant, some comicly half-baked, and some straight-up weird. The last essay on Girard's theory of mimetic desire is incredibly interesting stuff, even though I didn't believe a word of it.
Third, it's personal, I felt like the book really revealed the personality of the author, and that I knew her well.
I don't quite understand why. If one wanted to view things uncharitably, Ms Batuman spent seven somewhat aimless years as a graduate student in comparative literature at Stanford without ever really figuring out why she was there. She did prove quite adept at ferreting out travel grant money, which she used to make various trips to Russia and other former Soviet republics. This book is essentially a travel memoir - the record of those trips. Like most travel memoirs, it is interesting only in spots. Two of the book's seven chapters are quite well-written and manage to sustain the reader's interest (the author's attendance at a conference about Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate, a trip to Saint Petersburg to visit a reconstruction of an ice palace first built in the reign of Catherine the great).
But that's as good as it gets. Ms Batuman once spent a dismal summer visiting Samarkand. Inexplicably, she insists on telling us all about it. In excruciating detail, spread over three chapters. It takes up almost half of the book and is indescribably tedious. As a general rule, other people's travel memoirs are most interesting when things go wrong, but Ms Batuman's account of her summer in Samarkand almost made me stick pencils in my eyes, just to make it stop. Fortunately, the Kindle has an off switch.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.
It perfectly captures the craziness of academia, being a grad student, and the silliness that passes for... Read more
i'm probably not the *target audience* for this, and maybe you're reading through these blurbs thinking 'i'm not either. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Hilal Isler
Anyone who truly loves literature in translation will get A LOT out of this book. Anyone considering a Ph.D. program in literature MUST READ THIS. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Beatrice Izzey
I was initially drawn toward this book based on the promise of the premise—how a literature student gets captivated by Russian literature and is transformed by it. Read morePublished 8 months ago by BOB
A well written, bright, and ceaselessly funny book about academia, language, culture, and things about Uzbekistan you never knew you wanted to know.Published 8 months ago by RJ
Elif Batuman thinks she's a scholar, and no doubt can hold her own in that arena; she aspires to be a novelist, and if there's a subscription list, sign me up. Read morePublished 8 months ago by George W. Mulford
A tremendous book -- one of best I have read in several years. We need more of her books.Published 11 months ago by Phil Cushmanl