Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2010.
I picked up this book after seeing it mentioned first on Salon, and then in more detail on Languagehat at this post and then (having myself nearly finished reading the book) at this post. I can’t say that I would have gravitated toward it otherwise: I don’t know why I needed the persuasion, but that Languagehat post convinced me that I would enjoy the book.
The book is a series of essays. Mostly structured around particular Russian books, each essay reveals a great detail about both Batuman’s life and approach to reading and the alternate universe that is graduate school. Isaac Babel serves as the lens for the first essay; the second, fourth, and sixth essays are built around learning Uzbek in Samarkand. The third essay revolves around a trip to Tolstoy’s estate for a conference (her school offering a $1 000 grant for presenting a paper at a conference, and $2 500 grant for research, Batuman applied for the latter, with a proposal to prove that Tolstoy was murdered: a neat idea, but seen through by her graduate school). The fifth piece uses Lazhechnikov’s House of Ice and visits the recreated Ice Palace. The seventh, which gives the collection its name, is about Dostoevsky’s Demons (formerly translated as The Possesed).
Because of their personal nature, the essays are sometimes meandering and lose focus. The Samarkand sections, likely because they’ve been broken up into three pieces separated by two other essays, feel disconnected from much of the rest of the book. While many of the essays do give the feeling of being almost a travelogue at times, they’re not trying to describe a place or even trips: rather, they’re giving a sense of literature and life. They do feel like pieces for The New Yorker, and her work has been published in those august pages.
There are moments which are quite funny, and others which are pathetic (the realisation of what her language and literature teachers in Samarkand are being paid, compared to the remuneration for the University’s rector and her host, is deeply affecting). Occasionally, those two are combined, as the Tolstoy scholars travel to Chekhov’s house and back to their respective institutions. The description of graduate school rings sadly true, though Batuman finds more humour (even if she does so darkly) than I did in my experiences.
I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I do agree with Languagehat’s conclusion about the unrelenting focus on the exotic, though I wonder if perhaps that’s how to hold the general public’s attention while writing about books most people are unlikely to read in their lives. I do have a renewed desire to finishing reading Dead Souls one of these years...