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The Possessed

Quirky, comical essays explore the relationship between Russian literature and life.

By Heller McAlpin / February 22, 2010

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And the People Who Read Them By Elif Batuman Farrar, Straus and Giroux 293 pp., $15

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It’s not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature in search of “direct relevance to lived experience, especially to love.”

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Batuman, a first-generation Turkish-American, was educated at Harvard and Stanford, where she now teaches part time. 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.

Rare among academics, Batuman writes about her literary awakening as a process. In this spirit, she describes her initial bafflement on first reading certain classics. Isaac Babel’s story “My First Goose,” for example, at first “made absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose?” she writes.

The same goes for Dostoyevsky’s “weirdest novel,” “The Demons,” whose earlier translation as “The Possessed” supplies her book’s title. Why? It concerns “the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways, to my own experiences in graduate school.”

After an engaging plot summary, Batuman describes how she came to understand that “The Demons” was more than just a flawed novel. “Graduate school taught me this. It taught me through both theory and practice.”

Among the literary theories Batuman discusses – with admirable clarity – are “mimetic desire” and “conversion narratives,” in which authors redeem tales of sinfulness and decadence with moralistic endings. But it’s her tests of these theories in the context of her own life that reverberate. A classmate from Zagreb treats Batuman as if she’d “stolen his soul” after they end up in bed together, breaking seven years of celibacy for him. Like Dostoyevsky’s antihero Stavrogin, Matej exercises an unhealthy, destructive magnetism over others. Still, Batumen is horrified when he enters a Carthusian monastery in Slovenia, thereby enacting his own conversion narrative.

Batuman spends a summer in Samarkand studying Uzbek language and literature, which she writes about years later in an overly long, three-part memoir oddly interspersed among the book’s more trenchant essays – an indication that, despite the passage of time, this experience remains, “Like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree, there was nowhere to put it.” She eventually realizes that, “Uzbekistan wasn’t a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness,” and that reading obscure literature she only half-understood had lost its charm.

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