Book Reviewed: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman
If I could go to graduate school for literature and magically pick any subject I wanted, language requirements be damned, I would always go for 19th-century Russian novels. I love love love Russian literature. I think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are two of the maybe 10 most important writers in the history of the world. I think their books depict humanity in its entirety in a way that no other type of literature ever has or ever will. I'll admit it: I'm a total nerd when it comes to my love for big Russian books.
So of course, Elif Batuman's book of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was right up my alley. The book came out in March, but I just heard about its existence a few weeks ago. When I saw a write-up about the book on NPR, I went straight to my wonderful library's website and put a copy on hold. Then, when it came in a few days later, I dropped all the other books on my "To Read" list to get to it at once. The book came with such glowing reviews, I was sure I'd love it.
Admittedly, the results were a little mixed for me. There are parts of the book I really loved, and I think Batuman is a natural, easy-going writer. But a few things about Batuman's point of view kind of annoyed me, which made for a not always perfect reading experience.
Overall, I really liked the book. Batuman has a lot going for her (including a preference of Tolstoy over Dostoevsky, a trait I share myself). She's obviously a genius, preficient in multiple languages, and she seems to make friends in academia pretty easily. She writes about her love of Russian novels in a way I understand and admire. When she talks about how she loves Dostoevsky's The Demons because of its many imperfections, I feel like I can geek out right alongside her. I feel that way about certain books, too! Her essays tend to focus on a single author or work, with a series of three connected essays, all titled "Summer in Samarkand," tying the book together as a whole.
Honestly, those three "Samarkand" essays didn't do much for me. Parts of them were interesting on a surface level, but I never got into them, partly because her travels in Uzbekistan just didn't appeal to me. Plus, I had no familiarity with the authors she described in those essays, and for once, familiarity was something I was looking for in this book. I just kind of slogged my way through those parts to get to some of the other stuff.
The other four essays were really great, though. For obvious reasons, my favorite was "Who Killed Tolstoy?", which manages to be interesting, smart, and very funny all at once. I actually learned a lot reading it, and the poignancy Batuman finds in the details of the lives of Russian authors, which she does to great affect throughout the entire book, is really wonderful in this essay. Meanwhile, "Babel in California" and "The House of Ice" were very educational. Reading them, I felt perfectly content to just sit and listen to Batuman teach me about things with which I had no experience. I like being able to do that when reading.
I think the most well-done piece in the book, though, is the title essay. The Possessed is both about Dostoevsky and about Batuman herself. In it, she writes about The Demons and how its story mirrored her relationship with her fellow grad students while she was at Stanford. Throughout the book, Batuman tends to sound so confident and mature and intellectual, and I think she lets down her defenses in this piece to tell an honest story about what it's like to be a hyper-smart, overeducated person dealing with other hyper-smart, overeducated people. She falls into odd and even stifling relationships with enigmatic people. She makes and loses friends. And she writes without casting any real judgments on anyone, including herself. Trust me. That is extremely rare for a writer. I was really quite in awe of how she pulled it off. More importantly, it was something I related to completely. When I started college, I found myself attracted to the kinds of unhappy people she found herself around, and it took me a year or so to figure out who I was in all the mess of outside influences. I totally "got" Batuman while reading this essay.
The reason I wasn't completely in love in the book has more to do with me than it does Batuman. I think some of her experiences just hit a little too close to home for me, to the point that the book became alienating at times. For one, she's never known a life outside of school. She jumped from college straight into graduate school and then into teaching herself (although she does admit to taking a little over a year off during grad school in a failed attempt to write a novel). As someone who had to take a (not-so-wanted) break between college and eventual grad school, it kind of annoyed me that she travelled all over the world but had so little experience in a non-school environment. Her overabundance of learning occasionally reminded me of how easily bruised me own ego is. I've never taken well to listening to people not a whole lot older than me who are obviously so much more knowledgeable. Also, she puts down creative writing graduate programs pretty blatantly in her introduction, and although I agree with some of her points, I think she's more uncomfortable around other writers than she's willing to admit. So that kind of annoyed me.
So, in the end, the book's problems had more to with my own issues than they had to do with the book itself. I learned a lot reading The Possessed, and it was fun to spend some time with a fellow Tolstoy nerd. Plus, Batuman reminded me a lot of my own hyper-intelligent, Russian-lit-studying friend, so I felt like I was spending time with someone I knew very well. Overall, a good read.
Plus, the book ends on an absolutely perfect note. Earlier, a friend of Batuman's tells her that he can't believe she continues to study literature, since it seems so pointless. He asks her what she would study if she could start all over again. And in the last paragraph of the book she comes to this conclusion: "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 could not agree more, Elif! Thank you!