- 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.