The Possessed by Elif Batuman
18 July, 2012
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?
That is the idea behind this book.
Elif Batuman‘s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them is essentially an ode to Russian literature. Like everyone who has an interest in classic Russian literature, you often wonder what the pull is. What is it about these novels that keep you wanting to read them, coming back for more, even though they are often difficult, confusing and in most cases, put together like bricks? In The Possessed, Batuman goes beyond just deconstructing the novels she read and studied for her PhD, she looks for the inspirations behind them, follows in the footsteps of the writers, tries to understand the psyche that created such stories, often depressing, violent and fatal. The underlying melancholia, the vast hopelessness, the weight of history: where does it all come from? And in order to do that, she travels to the heart of the literature, to Russia and the countries that once formed its loose empire.
Written in flowing prose, Batuman chronicles her travails as a graduate student at Stanford trying to unravel the intricacies of the lives of persecuted Russian writers such as Isaac Babel.
The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch.
And yet, in the short tragic life of Babel, we see all that we need to know about the dangers of literature and literacy in Russia, often manifested in the importance and symbolism of a pair of glasses (something common in many a totalitarian regime). Taken away, they deprive a man from seeing and reading. For a writer whose life is words, it is akin to a death sentence.
Batuman also travels to Uzbekistan with an almost-estranged boyfriend, Eric. There she home-stays with a travel agent and takes lessons on the Uzbek language from a philosophy student and Uzbek literature from a professor. In doing so, we learn about the creation of the Uzbek language by the USSR which incorporated myths and hystories of the surrounding lands. Batuman, who is of Turkish origin, finds the parallels with the Turkish language and culture fascinating although this is often repudiated by the Uzbeks themselves. Although funny, it’s actually rather chilling to see how easily creation myths can be constructed, however hodge podge, and given to the people as literal truth and taken as such.
When Batuman travels to St. Petersburg to visit the recreation of the famed Ice House by the Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, and immortalised in the novel by Ivan Lazhechnikov, a contemporary of Pushkin’s, she finds herself only amongst tourists who have come to view the structure. The academics and experts whom she expected to hot foot it there were nowhere in sight. And when she confronts them, they come up with various excuses such as ‘why the need?’ and ‘it’s all in the book.’ Hilarious stuff.
The Possessed is a travelogue, a critique, an introduction of Russian literature all punctuated with such detail as the methods of torture used in Imperial Russia, the idiosynchracies of the people weighed down by history, and this is what makes the book so readable.
It’s true that Russia subjected its writers to an unusual degree of state control; consequently, it’s also true that nowhere in the world has literature been taken more seriously.
The Possessed is the original title of Dosteovsky’s novel The Demons with it’s ‘eerily handsome’ protagonist Stavrogin. Batuman writes about the The Demons as a novel that encompasses her own obsession with her Russian studies, it’s literary greats such as Tolstoy, Dosteovsky, Chekhov, Pushkin amongst more obscure writers.
I read this as a starter before my main course of Tolstoy’s War & Peace which I plan to read this summer. In fact, now I’ve got rather a long list of Russian novels I’d like to read including Dosteovsky’s The Demons. Having grown up with a father with Marxist leanings and a love of Russian literature, this book gave me a glimpse into why so many people find Russia so fascinating. Batuman’s The Possessed is a wonderfully erudite, honest and yet down to earth look at the destructive beauty of Russian literature and its history and after you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to get stuck into some Russian literature too.
I’ve been discussing this book with my family and friends and although no one has read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (apart from my American friend), I’m loving all the suggestions I’m getting about what Russian novel I need to read next amidst all the sighs about their complexity and perplexity, of course. Do also check out this article on Literary Russian London.
I would like to thank Granta Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review. I loved it!