I’ve been reading The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman on my daily commute and finished it earlier today. Knowing I was close to the end I brought a second book with me so I wouldn’t be without reading material.
The Possessed was an enjoyable reading experience. Most of the book was about Batuman’s time as a graduate student at Stanford in the comparative lit department as well as her various summer travel abroad experiences. And what sometimes surreal experiences she had. The idea behind the book is a series of questions:
What if you read Lost Illusions and, instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs–instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions, in order to someday write the same novel for twenty-first-century America–what if instead you went to Balzac’s house and Madame Hanska’s estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him–and then started writing?
So we follow Batuman as she immerses herself in Russian literature and the people who teach it and read it. We follow her to an international conference on Issac Babel. Nathalie Babel, Issac’s first daughter, was a special guest. At the age of 74 she spoke loudly in a deep, sepulchral voice. After a poorly researched presentation by one of the scholars at the conference who made some claims about lost manuscripts and letters, Nathalie stood up to tell a story about her “Puppy”
“LET ME TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT LETTERS.” The story was that Nathalie Babel had come into possession of a trunk of her father’s letters. […] I KNEW THE BIOGRAPHER WOULD COME,” she said, “BUT HE ANNOYED ME. SO I GIVE THE LETTERS TO MY AUNT. WHEN THE BIOGRAPHER CAME, I SAID, ‘I HAVE NOTHING.'” And where are the letters now? Nathalie Babel didn’t know. “MAYBE THEY ARE UNDER MY BED, I DON’T REMEMBER.” The panel ended in pandemonium.
Some might say time is a scholar’s worst enemy but clearly it is the family members of the deceased writer who are often the biggest nightmare.
Batuman spends a summer in Samarkand learning the Uzbek language and studying its literature. The people she meets there are kind and generous while others are stingy and domineering. But it makes for some good storytelling.
Along with her adventures is a good dose of Russian literature and various prevailing theories and interpretations. And Russian history is also abundant. I don’t know much about Russian history so many of the stories were new and so very weird at times, like the story of Anna Ioannovna, tsarina from 1730-1740. She was the niece of Peter the Great and had what sounds like a dwarf fetish. She built an ice palace and made her jester marry one of her servants and then spend their wedding night in the palace. The palace was reconstructed in 2006 and you can see photographs and read the article Batuman wrote about it.
The Possessed is not as bookish as I had imagined it would be, too much non-bookish personal memoir for that, but it was fun reading nonetheless. I finished it wanting to read more about Russian history as well as read Gogol and Babel and Pushkin and Dostoevsky. And I loved the end of the book. One of Batuman’s friends asks her after all was said and done if she were to do grad school over again knowing what she did now wouldn’t she choose a different path? Batuman replies
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.
I couldn’t agree more.