Friday, April 23, 2010

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Original edition (February 16, 2010)

A comedic academician sounds almost oxymoronic, right?  But that is exactly how critic and Stanford University instructor  Elif Batuman comes across in her excellent first novel "The Possessed".  I had read a few blurbs before picking up the book and while I expected it to be touching on humorous I was not prepared for just how laugh-out-loud funny some parts of the book are and how Elif's pen can turn any meeting-of-people into a scene from "Whose Life is it Anyway" (a live improv comedy show where a bunch of comedians improvise everyday situations turning them into comically bizarre events!)

 Batuman’s “fascination with Russianness” began after she discovered an old copy of "Anna Karenina" as a teenager at her grandmother’s apartment in Ankara.   Funnily enough, I, too, have Anna Karenina to thank for my love of Russian literature. In my case, I discovered a copy of Anna Karenina while I waited for my mother in the waiting room of the Russian Embassy in Bombay. I managed to read a few chapters while I waited and was completely bewitched. I suspect Bautman fell under the same spell.

 This novel ( The Possessed)  thus sets out to explore her love and fascination with Russian literature where she not only offers a fresh perspective on well-loved Russian authors and their works (Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky to name a few), but takes the reader on trips to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retraces Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learns why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying and also observes an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

How does a student like her get to travel so much?  Batuman believes in grants. In a chapter titled “Who Killed Leo Tolstoy?” she requires grant money to help pay for a trip to a conference at Tolstoy’s estate. To qualify for an extra $1,500, she devises a theory that Tolstoy was murdered. Her academic department doesn’t buy it, but she makes the trip nevertheless.

I don't suppose this is meant to be a travelogue but Batuman with her keen eye for beautiful detail, her penchant for absurd stories and her knowledge of Russian and Uzbek (which gives her access to the locals)makes for an invaluable raconteur of travel stories.  She is an  endearing guide and after you read about her travels in Samarkhand, Tashkent and St. Petersburg, you'll find yourself "possessed" with a desire to travel there yourselves.

Batuman has this penchant for picking up the oddest, most fascinating details.  For instance, did you know the Uzbecks actually lament not having been colonized by the British?  I'll bet you didnt'!

"Peter the so-called Great who, noticing that the English had colonies in India, decided that Russia had to have colonies in Central Asia. The Russians were very different from the English, who had sent to India not muzhiks (peasants) but aristocrats.  "Things would have gone better for us if we had been colonized by the English" Dilorom said.  It was one of their idées reçues.: they all thought of India as their missed fate"  pg 237

Throughout the book Batuman also regales the reader with some wonderful anecdotes about figures of history we may or may not have heard of. One that I was most fascinated with is, the "seven-foot, 280-pound" Empress Anna who was the great niece of Peter The Great.  Also fascinating are stories from the life of Chekhov, Pushkin and Dostoevsky among many others.

Anyone picking up this book hoping to be engaged in an intense discussion of Russian literature is in for a disappointment. Even the chapter devoted to the Dostoevsky novel that gives the book its title (narrating the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province) spends most of its pages detailing how disturbingly her friends in graduate school replicated the same story. But she writes with such charm, such cleverness and wit, you'll be enchanted and very glad you stayed for the literary romp through obscure, but wonderfully entertaining tales surrounding the lives of Russian authors.

To close, the one very important message I took away from this book is that when you go after your passion (in Batuman's case it was to learn all there is to learn about Russian literature) you just never know where the road might lead you, but the journey will definitely be very interesting.


Booklover said...

I loved your takeaway last lines from the book :)

Booklover from Book Reviews

Lotus Reads said...

Booklover, thank you! I don't know if I did much justice to this book. It certainly was a very joyful book but I'm not sure I really managed to convey that in the review, but thanks for reading!

Lotus Reads said...

Booklover, thank you for your invitation to post some of my reviews on your blog. As with most people that do write-ups on books, I have some inspired reviews, some average ones and some mediocre ones too. If you spy a couple you would like to see on your blog let me know and I'd be willing to share. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Angie,

Loved the crafting of this article especially with the personal anecdote on your mum and the embassy that was refreshing. It adds on a heartwarming personal touch.
Also enjoyed the peppering of varied names that counted for Russian literature and the lighthearted tone that probably fits in superbly with the book. x

Nikolas said...

Wonderful Book!

Juhi said...

I loved your review - I am ordering this book right away.

Leela Soma said...

I am impressed that you read Anna Karenina as a young girl Angie. You've done a great job with the review of this book and at least for the humour some of us might pick it up and read it. I find Russian lit hard to read as there are so many names used for the characters but once you persist it is richly rewarding( must confess I 've not read that many) Solzhenitsyn's'One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch' was superb.The classics like Dostoevsky, Pushkin etc needs time and effort.Chekove maybe the easiest(loved Uncle Vanya)Now if we could all wrangle a travel grant for researching book which country would we choose? That would be an interesting survey,right?Thank you again for such a lovely insight into a fascinating book.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Suse!

Thank you so much for your comment! You know, I thought of you while reading this book because it is such a perfect example of a literary journey and I know how much you love those!!!

And yes, Batuman has such a goofy way of describing things that its refreshingly different and oh so charming. I truly enjoyed this read. Also, this book abounds with literary references - some books I have read, most I have not - and I was busy jotting down the titles hoping to get to them when I go through a classical book phase again.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nikolas ~ Thank you for visiting my blog and if you do find your way here again, I'd love to know what in particular you enjoyed about the book. I looked for a review on your blog but couldn't find any.

@Juhi ~ You will love it! I am re-reading it, just to make sure I didn't miss anything and enjoying it just as much the second time around! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Leela!

Thank you so much for your comment! You're absolutely right about characters in Russian lit, having a lot of names. To start of many of them are addressed by their given names and then suddenly the author will take to calling them by their nicknames (without warning) and it leaves you floundering! lolol

I must have been 15 when I read Anna Karenina and it was sooooo romantic and sad, I knew I had to read more! Russian kids read Tolstoy much younger. I think they're 9 or 10 when they are introduced to these classics in school.

Chekhov was always appealing, like you, I loved "Uncle Vanya" and I also liked "The Shooting Party" which read like an Agatha Christie mystery.

I remember Yuri Olesha's "Three Fat Men" and then I read "Envy" when I was a little older.

And how could I forget Pavel Bazhov's "Malachite Casket"? I would love to read that book again some day!

Leela, the only reason I read so much Russian lit is because their government subsidized books and one could pick up 3-4 books from the bookstore of a Russian Embassy for the price of one picked up elsewhere.

Angela in Europe said...

I loved Anna Karenina as well. I wanted to move to Russia after reading that book!

Lotus Reads said...

Ang, have you seen the movie? Or how about the recent movie on Tolstoy, "The Last Station"?

Sanjay said...

Wonderful review of what happens to be a most fascinating book. I am truly impressed by how much you read and how eclectic your reads are. Add one more to that list.
I have not read this book, but have read Elif Batuman's wonderful piece in the New Yorker on Musa Dağdeviren a Turkish chef, who is heading a project to "document, restore, recreate, and reinvent Turkish food culture".
Here is a link to the article ->
I think you will notice her eye for detail here too.
I have hardly read any Russian lit, but I loved the perspective Batuman took about Russian literature. I sometimes think people get too caught up in the academic discussion and dissection and there are always other stories to be told.
Have a question, does Elif comment about or did she observe any generational or differences in the younger generations approach to classic lit esp since this is post USSR?
I did enjoy "The Last Station" as a movie due to the story and performances, but it was more to do with Tolstoy's personal struggles with trying to balance fame and wealth and about the later stages of his life.
But I digress, truly enjoyed reading your review.

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, This sounds like a great book. I love the way you had personalized the review with snippets from your teen hood. I can't believe you read 'Anna Karenina' at such a young age. No wonder you grew up to be such a 'bibliomaniac' :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Sanj!!!

I was wondering if you had seen 'The Last Station'. Batuman devotes a whole chapter to Tolstoy in this book and she does describe, with quite a fair bit of detail too, his last few days. I am now very tempted to get myself a copy of "The Last Station" simply to see if the details match! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hahaha, Chitts, it's true! I read Anna Karenina more out of convenience than choice (at that time), but it certainly did encourage my love of the classics! After reading "The Possessed" I feel so compelled to go back and read a few more Russian notable books....just wish I had more time. *sigh*

farmlanebooks said...

I've just been offered this book for review and it sounds fantastic! The only problem is that I haven't read any of the Russian greats yet. Would this book be wasted on me? Will I miss out on a lot of the important references or will there still be enough for me to enjoy?

I hope you can help me! Thank you!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Jackie! No, I don't think you need to have read any of the Russian greats to enjoy this one! It will, however, leave you with a burning desire to go out and buy Tolstoy, Pushkin etc. when you're done with the book! :) It's a most enjoyable read, I am quite sure you will love it. Do let me know what you decide.

farmlanebooks said...

Thank you! I've decided to go for it. Fingers crossed I like it :-)