- The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 304
I like to think of myself as widely-read, though—paradoxically—the more I read, the more I find I haven’t read. Russian literature is an area of particular paucity for me, and it’s somewhat galling because writers like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky are such fixtures in our literary culture. I have a feeling, though, that I am not the only one for whom such writers are the best novelist that no one’s ever read (to paraphrase a well-worn joke).
The Possessed is a collection of essays by Elif Batuman, a (then-?)graduate student in Russian language and literature, written in a sort of gonzo style. Not knowing much about the book when I picked it up, I assumed it would have more to do with Russian writers—a sort of Dostoyevsky for Dummies approach, perhaps—than about its own author, but the results are not only mixed in content, but mixed in success, or so I think.
As I’ve written before about Russian mathematics or Russian mortality, any subject can be definitely changed when adding the variable of Russian culture. It seems to me that there is something unique to that particular part of the world—even as distinct from other sister Slavic cultures—that manages to qualify everything produced, thought, or written on Russian soil. Like Merridale’s wonderful book, I was hoping that The Possessed would give some insight into that phenomenon, and I suppose it did to an extent, but usually through the smudged and warp-inducing filter of a personal reflection both inspired by and tangential to Russian literature.
Batuman, you see, is (I believe) Turkish, and not the Russian which I impetuously believed her name to be. She also, though she studies Russian literature in graduate school, spent much of her time in the fuzzy gray area of Turkey and Uzbekistan, the blending of cultures there producing an odd mix of Turkish and Russian that isn’t easily transmitted via discussions of Babel or Tolstoy. In fact, there are no fewer than 3 chapters devoted to Batuman’s semester studying in Samarkand, which is about 3/4 personal narrative and 1/4 discussions of some Russian short story or tortured novelist placed at right angles to her own. If only because my expectations were so radically different, I found that these particularly personal stories were the weakest of the lot.
In fact, Batuman started out strong: her opening essay1 about Isaak Babel, a Soviet writer who was “disappeared” by the secret police in 1940. Using the vehicle of a conference at her university about the author, and all of the interest scholars who attend it, Batuman tells a genuinely interesting story, including not only the particulars of Babel’s life for those readers—like me—who don’t know him, but also liberal doses of literary theory, comedy, and personal narrative. It’s the perfect blend, in fact, and I think it’s the strongest chapter of the book. Her descriptions of the quirky academics who attend the aforementioned conference even made me giggle out loud, which is both good (for her) and bad (for me).
But somewhere along the way, The Possessed seems to lose focus, and can’t decide whether it wants to be a series of semi-humorous vignettes about Batuman’s life, including her relationship with her estranged fiancé, Eric, or nuggets of literary criticisms buried in somewhat-related personal stories. Batuman isn’t always able to repress the graduate student in herself, sometimes letting slip with nuggets like this:
Because mimetic desire is contagious, a single person is often the mediator for a number of different desiring subjects, who then enter into the ultimately violent bonds of mimetic rivalry. In the next decades, Girard developed mimetic contagion into an anthropological theory, using it to explain historically and geographically diverse manifestations of social violence from Chukchi blood feuds to the cult of Dionysus. In his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard posits mimetic desire as the fundamental content of “the Western novel.” Don Quixote, it turns out, doesn’t really want any of his ostensible objects; what he wants is to become one with his mediator: Amadís of Gaul.
Which may, of course, be correct and enlightening and marvelous, but doesn’t mean much unless you are Elif Batuman or one of her kind. The fact that I more or less understand what she’s talking about notwithstanding, I can find this kind of literary criticism with my University’s database: I read books published on a major label because I expect a little more, and I feel as though the glue between her ostensible topic of Russian literature, and the reader-facing materiel with which she tries to make it topical and accessible, simply isn’t there for a number of her essays. I can see her trying, but she seems to lack any semblance of a story arc. Even simple humorist like Dave Barry can appreciate the mechanism: given a context of personality, you introduce a problem or topic, build a brief story which builds up to a climax, and then a casual dénouement into a snappy ending line. With Batuman, so many of her stories seem less like narrative arcs and more like flat recitations of events. The fact that she personalizes them (and she does try, for just about everything, to tie it to her own life) is meaningless if the shell itself is boring: over the course of three chapters, she visited Samarkand and stayed largely the same; her relationship with Eric remained largely the same; her progress learning Uzbek was slow but steady, and she encountered a cast of static characters who were perhaps initially humorous but ultimately simply uninteresting. So much of the book seems to be a look at a the fine art of standing still in the supremely insular world of graduate-level literary studies: my preference for “boring” books stretches further than the average reader, but we all have our limits. How much time should we spend reading a book that appears to simply run in place?
If I seem overly harsh, it’s simply because the overall execution of the book was poor, but I saw so much promise held within. As both her publisher and other reviewers have noted, Batuman has the makings of a talented writer, and in fact we get to see that talent at work in the opening essay (“Babel in California”); were the whole book of that calibre, this review would be very different, indeed. But The Possessed seems to scramble for its focuses, never quite sure where to spend its times or how to do it, and the book as whole suffers for it. I would rather enjoy seeing Batuman tackle either a full-on book of literary criticism or or a straight memoir, without the fatal indecision or incompatibility between the two; I have a feeling the result would be a better read than The Possessed.
- I may be mistaken, but most or all of the essays in The Possessed appeared in some form in various magazines.[↩]