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.