four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Elif Batuman
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Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

A-The PossessedThe daughter of Turkish immigrants, Elif Batuman studied and now teaches comparative literature at Stanford University. The Possessed is her first book.

The Topic: In these engaging and quirky essays, Batuman chronicles her academic misadventures in the field of Russian literature. A conference on Isaac Babel that she helps organize at Stanford University goes hilariously awry in "Babel in California." In "Who Killed Tolstoy?" she concocts a theory that Tolstoy was murdered in order to secure the grant funds necessary to attend a conference at his estate. She explores Dostoevsky's enigmatic masterpiece in the title essay. Using Russian novelists and their works as a springboard in her quest for meaning, Batuman observes: "Tatyana and Onegin, Anna and Vronsky, Ivan and Vera: at every step, the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love [appear] bound up with Russian."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $15. ISBN: 9780374532185

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"It's not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. ... What's refreshing about her writing is her wonderful sense of the absurd and her willingness to venture into out-of-the-way corners--both geographically and intellectually--and to admit when she's hit a dead end." Heller McAlpin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"In this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. ... The strength of Batuman's work here lies in its accessibility." Scott Martelle

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Throughout the book, she conveys a graduate seminar's worth of scholarship in many of the great Russian authors and a few who are not so great, plus some who aren't even technically Russian. ... By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well." Ed Nawotka

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The effect is dizzying sometimes, and maybe that's one of her points; her roving sensibility deliriously encompasses many styles and moods. If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book." Richard Rayner

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Each of these essays unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen. ... There are moments in The Possessed where Ms. Batuman loses the threads of the stories she's trying to tell, moments where plot summary or historical précis drag on too long. But these data-dump moments are rare." Dwight Garner

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Possessed is an assemblage of her work and gifts rather than a streamlined whole. ... There are passages so good I wish I could have written them, and then there are others where I'm reminded of the self-important posing of graduate students." Bob Blaisdell

Critical Summary

"Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years" (Dallas Morning News), Batuman's intriguing blend of travelogue, autobiography, and literary criticism offers a fresh perspective on some of Russia's greatest authors. Despite its challenging subject matter, The Possessed is accessible and entertaining, written with sly humor and a keen eye for absurdity. Some critics considered its essays uneven, but they still praised Batuman's infectious delight in literature and her examination of the many ways we can live lives more attuned to our favorite books. Perhaps the New York Times said it best: "She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head."

Supplemental Reading

Red Cavalry and Other Stories | Isaac Babel (translated from the Russian by David McDuff) (2006): The son of a Jewish shopkeeper in Odessa, Isaac Babel is widely considered one of the 20th century's most influential short story writers. This collection of his most celebrated works vividly portrays the horrors of the Soviet Union's early years.

The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories 1896–1904 | Anton Chekhov (translated from the Russian by Ronald Wilks) (2002): Of the eleven stories collected here, "Lady with the Little Dog" is perhaps Chekhov's best loved, but all are small masterpieces penned by one of the most acclaimed short story writers in world literature.

Demons | Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872): In 19th-century Russia, two left-wing conspirators, Pyotr Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin, establish a revolutionary cell and plot to overthrow the Tsar, but their plans go terribly wrong.

Anna Karenina | Leo Tolstoy (1877): Miserable in a loveless marriage to an older man, Anna falls passionately in love with the dashing Count Vronsky and risks everything for a chance at happiness.