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.
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"
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.