Review: The Possessed, Elif Batuman

If you are extremely attentive in a way that I am not, you may have noticed that I haven’t yet done a post on the second half of Doctor Zhivago. I finished the first half a few days ahead of schedule, and as a reward I let myself read some fun fiction, and one thing led to another and by the time the end of November rolled around I just hadn’t picked up Doctor Zhivago again. To compensate for being a bad readalong participant, and a bad reader who cannot appreciate classics of Russian literature, I checked out Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which is about Russian literature. Reading about Russian literature is nearly as good as reading it for real, right?

Elif Batuman, a first-generation Turkish woman and student of Russian literature, writes about her adventures trying to get a graduate degree in Russian. The book follows her to a conference on Russian writer Isaak Babel, to Uzbekistan where she pretends to be married and hides water from her landlady, to Tolstoy’s home in Russia, where she pursues her theory that Tolstoy was poisoned by his wife. Et al.

Batuman writes with very dry humor, allowing the eccentricities of the Russians, Uzbeks, and Stanford graduate students to speak for themselves. Though she provides context for the absurd things they do and say, she never overexplains or editorializes, and it can make for very, very funny reading. Here she talks about a summer camp in Budapest at which she more-or-less-accidentally became a counselor:

In the third week the village sent me to a children’s camp at a beautiful historic town on the Danube. All the female staff slept in a single cabin: me, a young English teacher, and five gym teachers. Unknown parties had strongly impressed upon the camp organizers that I, as an American, ate nothing but corn and watermelon. Every day, they brought me cans and cans of corn, and nearly a whole watermelon, which I ate alone in the cabin. In the absence of any formal duties I was pursued in their every free minute by a group of tiny, indefatigable Hungarian girls, who gently demanded that I play badminton with them and braid their hair.

I don’t know why that amuses me so much. I think it is because of how quickly I would get sick of corn and watermelon. I am already sick of corn and watermelon. The only good thing about watermelon is that I can say it in Chinese, xigua, and the only good thing about corn is you put it in several delicious things, like taco soup.

And not that I necessarily agree with this, because I don’t read enough short stories to know, but:

Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.

Also, this made me laugh. Batuman spends a lot of time in Uzbekistan. She is Turkish, and she slightly expects that Uzbekistan will be the exact meeting point between Turkish and Russian, the perfect country for her. But it is full of strange things. This was my favorite of all the strange things.

The Russians were very different from the English, who had sent to India not muzhiks but aristocrats. “Things would have gone better for us if we had been colonized by the English,” Dilorom said. It was one of their idees recues; they all thought of India as their missed fate — even little Shurik, when he came over to borrow my Oxford pocket Russian-English dictionary, which he said was the best dictionary he had ever seen in his life, and I believed him. “If we had been colonized by the British, I would already speak English,” he said apologetically.

I don’t really know how to review this book. Suffice it to say, whether or not you are interested in Russian literature (and I would say that, on balance, I am not), Elif Batuman plays up the absurdity of everyday encounters, which makes this a delightful read from start to finish. Watch for her very amusing dreams. Ordinarily I do not support the telling of dreams (though my family tells each other our dreams constantly), but Elif Batuman has interesting, vivid dreams. For more reviews, see the Book Blogs Search Engine.

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35 thoughts on “Review: The Possessed, Elif Batuman

  1. How is it that a daughter of mine hates Russian literature? (now that I come to think about it, ALL my daughters hate Russian literature).

    And YOUR dreams, in particular, are v. v. funny to me. Full of puns, which may be the lowest form of humor, but also are one of my favorites forms of humor. The trick, when telling a dream, is to keep it to two sentences.

    • I really, really do. If you tell me something is russian you reduce the odds of me reading it to next to nothing. Which is not at all fair, since I have not had a very good sampling. But it is still true.

      • so true: you left us to the mercy of the school system for Russian literature: is it any wonder we dislike it?

        Though you did a great job with us and Shakespeare, which I think is much more important.

  2. This looks very funny. And I’m not so much into the Russians, either. I did read Dr. Zhivago a couple of years ago for an IRL group. I finished it but didn’t love it. Maybe it would’ve helped more if I’d known more about Russian history.

    And how cool that you can say watermelon in Chinese! Do you speak Chinese or just that word?

    • I speak a very few words of Chinese. I can say “watermelon” and “swimming” and “hello” and “thank you” and “I have no hair” (untrue), and I can count very, very high.

  3. I started this a few months ago but didn’t make it very far. I had expected to be amused but my sense of humour didn’t seem to mesh well with Batuman’s and her overall tone irritated me, which is sad because this was one of those books I was so eager to like. Oh well, it happens.

    • Yeah, sometimes it goes that way. I can easily see how Batuman’s tone would be annoying to read — if she hadn’t made me laugh so much, I’d have objected to the tenor of some of what she was saying.

  4. I have your problem of “reading half – long long hiatus – reading second half” when it comes to reading Dickens for some reason. And I always stop halfway through, no matter how hard I tell myself not to! It must be because his books have this, “sit down for some tea and take your time” feel to them that I take ample advantage of.

  5. I have been doing an in-depth study of Doctor Zhivago this month as well….inspired by the Nonsuch Books read-along.

    I also just picked up this book , as a peripheral / tangential reading list reference …just finished the chapter on Babel last night.

    Also ordered ` Cement` by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov…a novel about the early Soviet factory system of the 1920`s…but am finding the subject matter too oppressive…will have to wait until after the Holidays to slog thru it.

  6. I don’t have much of an opinion on the Russians, simply because I’ve been too intimidated to make it very far at all with them. But I definitely want to read this, because as you say it sounds like it’s about a lot more than Russian literature.

    Also: I say yes please to pictures of New York at Christmas 😀

    • I tried! I swear I’ve tried. My camera is crappy at night, and the Christmas decorations just aren’t as exciting in the daytime.

      I do think you’d like The Possessed, by the way. It’s sly humor and lots of talk about books. All good things. 😀

  7. From what I’ve read of the other readalong participants’ reactions to Doctor Zhivago, you’re not alone in your difficulty with it. I’ve liked quite a number of Russian/Soviet novels I’ve read (The Master & Margarita, Anna Karenina and The Cancer Ward are probably my favorites), but I haven’t read Pasternak and can’t say the readalong posts have exactly moved him up my list!

    I like Batuman’s situational humor but I’m afraid I would have a negative reaction to her generalizations about Modern Literature all conforming to the standard MFA style – in my opinion a sweeping statement like that is too easy to be accurate. But the summer camp passage was pretty hilarious!

    • My sister gave me The Master and Margarita for my birthday, and I’ve been trying to get it together to read it all the way through. I quite liked the parts I did read, but it required a lot from my brain, and I always had to read it with a little notebook at my side to jot down characters’ names. So I haven’t been back to finish it yet.

      Yeah, no, I don’t necessarily agree with what she says there, but she says it in a way that makes me grin.

  8. I’ve never read Doctor Zhivago (and don’t intend too since I don’t care much for Russian literature either) but this seems infinitely more interesting. Although…I have been meaning to read Anna Karenina so maybe I’ll need to re-evaluate the no Russian lit thing.

    • If you do read Anna Karenina, I’ll be watching with interest to see what you think of it. My mother loves Leo Tolstoy, and I’ve never tried anything by him. Maybe he’d be my breakthrough Russian author.

  9. I am amused that not only did you pick out passages I didn’t even particularly notice, but that when I read them in your context–through your eyes, almost, because you’re a good writer–I find them funny now. This definitely speaks well of your writing, but I suspect it also speaks better of Batuman than I previously concluded.

    • I always think it’s interesting to see the passages people pick out from their reading. There are times when I glance at other people’s reviews of a book I’ve read, and notice we’ve both zeroed in on the same little fragments of writing; and other times, I’ll read passages in other people’s reviews as if I’ve never seen them before.

  10. I love books that do the absurd really well, and this one sounds like it does. I love the bit about the watermelon and corn, and also the hair braiding, and would have to conclude that based on this review and the quotes you included that this would definitely be the book for me. I also am not overly fond of dreams being discussed in books, but I have a feeling in this book I wouldn’t mind it. Adding this one to the list right now. Thanks for the very entertaining review!

    • She has a really funny dream where she’s reading blurbs on books that talk about the physical properties of the book. Like a review by F.R. Leavis that says the book under review will clap itself onto your nose if addressed as a proper Arab gentleman. That is an excellent dream. :p

  11. This really appeals to me – I’m a sucker for anything that talks about literature in unusual ways and I’m all for standing back and watching academic eccentricities in their raw state. I’ll have to see if I can get hold of it in the UK!

  12. You know, I expected to love this one, and then I did not. But I didn’t talk about in my blog, and now I can’t remember why! And I keep seeing all these praise-y posts and wondering what’s wrong with me. lol

    • I would have thought you’d like it, but only because you are all about the Russian stuff. There wasn’t anything about the content of the book that said EVA to me. What didn’t you like about it?

      • I honestly can’t remember! That’s why I wish I’d written about it on my blog. I didn’t hate it…I remember liking the bits where she was in Uzbekistan the best.

        I studied Russian from an international relations perspective, not from a lit perspective, so that might have been a factor too. But I think I just didn’t connect with her writing style, even though she seems like a cool person.

  13. LOVE this! I think I need to borrow this from the library – it sounds both literary and hilarious, and seeing as I love Russian literature and you don’t love Russian literature, and you still loved it, I don’t see how I can’t love it!!

  14. I haven’t read too many contemporary short stories set in the real world because those I’ve tried to read were all EXACTLY like the ones Batuman describes.

    That makes me want to read this book.

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