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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman (Excerpt)

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman (Excerpt)

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3.7

(131)
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“Odd and oddly profound . . . Among the charms of Ms. Batuman’s prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her . . . Perhaps Ms. Batuman’s best quality as a writer though—beyond her calm, lapidary prose—is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she’s feeling.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review


THE TRUE BUT UNLIKELY STORIES OF LIVES DEVOTED—ABSURDLY! MELANCHOLICALLY! BEAUTIFULLY!—TO THE RUSSIAN CLASSICS

No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.


Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
“Odd and oddly profound . . . Among the charms of Ms. Batuman’s prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her . . . Perhaps Ms. Batuman’s best quality as a writer though—beyond her calm, lapidary prose—is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she’s feeling.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review


THE TRUE BUT UNLIKELY STORIES OF LIVES DEVOTED—ABSURDLY! MELANCHOLICALLY! BEAUTIFULLY!—TO THE RUSSIAN CLASSICS

No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.


Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Publish date: Feb 16, 2010
Added to Scribd: Mar 29, 2011
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08/21/2013

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The Possessed 
adventures with russian booksand the people who read them
Elif Batuman
farrar, straus and giroux new york
 
Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together anauthor’s
Collected Works
, they aren’t aiming for somethingyou can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millen-nium” edition of Tolstoy fi lls a hundred volumes and weighsas much as a newborn beluga whale. (I brought my bathroomscale to the library and weighed it, ten volumes at a time.)Dostoevsky comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev in twenty-eight, Pushkin in seventeen. Even Lermontov, a lyric poetkilled in a duel at age twenty-six, has four volumes. It’s differ-ent in France, where defi nitive editions are printed on “Biblepaper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fi t Balzac’sentire
Human Comedy
in twelve volumes, and his remainingwritings in two volumes, for a combined total weight of eigh-teen pounds.
The Collected Works of Isaac Babel 
lls only two smallvolumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s
Works
to Babel’s is like com-paring a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s best-lovedworks all fi t in the rst volume: the Odessa, Childhood, andPetersburg cycles;
Red Cavalry
; and the
1920
diary, on which
Red Cavalry
is based. The compactness makes itself felt allthe more acutely, since Babel’s oeuvre is known to be incom-plete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in
1939
, Babel’s

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kirstiecat reviewed this
Rated 4/5
Once I saw that this book existed, I felt compelled to read it. I have not read nearly the breadth of Russian works as Elif Batuman (who actually studied it, to be fair) but I have often loved a good Dostoevsky novel or Chekhov short story and the more I venture down that Russian rabbit hole, the more addictive I find it. The Russians were the deep thinkers and even beyond that...Dostoevsky was the deepest perseverator in my opinion...he couldn't let even ordinary thoughts go and small actions, grievances, ideas festered into full length novel masterpieces.


Batuman examines a little more than Russian literature here, though. She really talks quite a bit about a stay in Uzbekistan and all the areas around Turkey and the Ukraine. She wears her fascination of languages and explores both their uses to express oneself and their goal to help perpetuate a culture and nationality. It is clear that Batuman is knowledgeable but she takes the reader on a little journey as she learns even more about these things and exposes us to her own insights and discoveries in a way that seems quite new and spontaneous.


There is enough factual knowledge and basis in these chapters to lay a very nice structural foundation and to really help the reader learn about Russian history. However, it isn't like reading a textbook, partially because there is a great deal in here about personal interactions with others in these countries and Batuman's own personal life. It's very well balanced in this regard and quite engaging as well. This book is filled with thoughts of a possible Tolstoy murder, Anna Ionnovna's ice palace, an analysis of Dostoevsky's The Possessed and more but there's definitely a deeper love for the material and a burning need to consume and understand everything that makes this particular novel so rich.


This is a novel to read, then read some more Russian literature, then read this one again. Repeat as necessary.


Memorable Quotes:

pg. 113 "Air travel is like death. Everything is taken from you."

pg. 114 "When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase Resignation of the soul?"

pg. 158 "Persian, Diloram told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and cor crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imporingly into a lover's face, for dispersing a crowd."

pg. 159 "What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying? I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation."


pg. 169 "All his life, Navoi wanted to write an answer to The Logic of Birds. Finally, at age fifty-eight, he wrote The Language of Birds, the central figure of which is an ugly , ash-colored bird called the qaqnus. The qaqnus bird has one thousand teeth and its beak, and each tooth sings a melody. Collecting thorns and twigs, it builds a tall nest, sits on top of it, and starts to sing. Its song is incredibly beautiful, but makes human listeners sick. (The song is called navo, the root of he name Navoi) As a function of singing, the qaqnus sets itself on fire, burns up, rises to heaven, and becomes a flower. A little bird comes from the ashes; that's its baby. The baby then spends its whole life collecting its own bonfire."


pg. 195 "The ice palace had no clear purpose, but many unclear purposes. It was a torture device, a science experiment, en ethnographic museum, a work of art. It was a suspended disaster, a flood momentarily checked, a haunted house, a distorted fairy tale, with its transparent coffin, parodic prince, and dwarfs. The ice palace represents the prison house of marriage, the vanity of human endeavor, the dialectic of empire and subject. Laden with endless meaning, like an object in a dream, the House of Ice appears in poems about dreams."


pg. 284 "Italian scientists identified a new pyschopathology: la sindrome di Stendhal, a state triggered by beautiful works of art and characterized by "loss of hearing and the sense of color, hallucinations, euphoria, panic, and the fear of going mad or even of dying. Unmarried European men between the ages of twenty-five and forty were found to be particularly susceptible. The average hospital stay was four days."

pg. 290 "If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them"



hadriantheblind reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Very uneven set of essays. Some hilarious, some beautiful/tragic/insightful about literature, some downright boring. Such is life. Read at your own discretion.
dale_riechers reviewed this
Rated 5/5
Russian lit will never read the same for me after this one!
steve38 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Good but not as good as I thought it was going to be. Ms Batuman too openly displays the exoskeleton of the book by her frequent references to her attempts to become a writer. With this volume of memoirs from her time as a student and researcher she has succeeded. But it amounts to little more than a collection of anecdotes of her travels to the East on various short study and research assignments linked with pieces of literary criticism culled from her student tutorial submissions and rewritten in a more reader friendly, journalistic style. It's always good to read the reactions of visitors to a new country and culture. They see things in a naive, innocent way that gives some clarity. Ms Batuman does that well enough. But the whole doesn't amount to very much. We gain no new insights into Russian literature or culture and not a great deal about Ms Batuman herself.
quaintlittlehead reviewed this
Rated 3/5
This book might have warranted a slightly higher rating if it had a different subtitle. As an avid fan of Russian books, I expected that I would identify a lot with this work. Batuman indeed presents amazingly fascinating portraits of different Russian authors as she negotiates the territory of the ivory tower and the academic conference, and as a former graduate student, I found a lot of her anecdotes hilarious. However, more than anything the book is a memoir, not an effort to investigate what other people who read Russian books have in common, and at times, as when the author feels the need to go into her sexual history with other graduate students, it feels self-indulgent. The chapters on Russian authors are also interspersed with reflections on Batuman's time living in Uzbekistan to study the language. I see little relation between these chapters and the other themes of the book, or to Russian literature at all, and having coincidentally recently read an excellent travel memoir about Uzbekistan (Christopher Aslan Alexander's "A Carpet Ride to Khiva"), these sections fell flat by comparison. Batuman is not a bad writer by any means; she just chose a title that tricked me. In the end, I remember exactly why I left academia, and how little I have in common with people like her, no matter how much passion we share for the same things.
gbill_7 reviewed this
Rated 2/5
I love Russian literature and was drawn to the concept of the book, and indeed the parts of this book that relate to classic 19th century Russian literature were interesting to me. An example of this was Batuman’s visit to the International Tolstoy Conference and how she weaved in stories about the end of Tolstoy’s life as well as his relationship with Chekhov. She also has a funny way of relating stories of her travel adventures. There is a little too much about her summer in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (spread over three of the seven chapters), her Turkish heritage, and Stanford intelligentsia for my tastes though.Quotes:On secrecy and the double life, from Babel:“I especially remembered the passage about how everyone has two lives – one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other ‘running its course in secret’ – and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one.”On writing:“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft’. I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’, ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits – of omitting needless words.”
atheist_goat reviewed this
This is less a book about Russian literature and more a memoir of Batuman's college and grad school years. She did end up studying Russian literature and linguistics in those years, and talks lovingly and amusingly of the authors she read, but over half the book is about her summer in Uzbekistan, in which she only talks about the country's Turkish roots (Batuman is the child of Turkish immigrants to the US). It's an amusing travelogue, but sarcastic translations of Turkish poetry is not what this book purports to be about. Batuman also jumps around chronologically - one chapter will be about her sophomore year in college, the next about her return to grad school after two years off, and in the third we're at her first year in grad school. I found this quite confusing, and again, I wasn't reading as closely as perhaps I should have been, but the book comes across as a light memoir and I didn't like that suddenly I was expected to be deducing, from very small hints, how old Batuman was at any given moment. And this is rather important given that she encountered different authors at different times. The last chapter was, unfortunately, almost pointless. She starts off discussing Dostoyevsky's The Demons (also translated as The Possessed) but then segues, clumsily, into a long saga of a gorgeous charismatic grad student in her social circle, and how, despite the fact that every woman in the state of California was in love with him, Elif Batuman was the only one who made it into his bed (this following the reveal that he had taken a vow of celibacy). Batuman's charming humor and refusal to take herself seriously disappear in this chapter, which reads like nothing so much as bragging / wish-fulfillment written by someone who just read The Secret History. It isn't like anything else in the book, and I hated ending with it. The rest of the book, timeline problems aside, is smart without being pretentious, funny without being cutesy, and infectiously infatuated with Russian literature, to the extent that I am going to re-read Anna Karenina as soon as I can, and will probably pick up Eugene Onegin, in which I'd never before had any interest. If it weren't for that last chapter, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, and I almost did anyway. I can recommend it. Just feel free to skip the end.
dabble58 reviewed this
Rated 5/5
Worth the read even for the description of the people who attend Russian Literature conferences. Fabulous, and one of those books which send you into a whole new look at a field of literature. I plan a long wallow, myself, but will wait for summer as so much writing from Russia talks about the cold...
mandyo_16 reviewed this
Rated 4/5
I found this a surprisingly engaging book, given that the author discusses at length literature I've never read and places I'll never go. It was fun to read about the author's academic passions.
giovannigf reviewed this
Rated 3/5
Batuman is clearly very intelligent and has a great eye for the absurd, but unfortunately the essays end up being too random and shapeless to make much of an impact. There are many good moments lost in the muddle. It's probably best to read her in small doses.

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