Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2010

The Possessed, by Elif Batuman #BookReview

Although I grew up in a house full of classic literature, the only Russian author I came across on our shelves then was Leo Tolstoy when I read Anna Karenina.  I also read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at school, but that was in the days of the Cold War and it was on the reading list so that we could study the evils of communism rather than because of any literary merit it might have.

So I didn’t really discover  Russian Literature until I was an undergraduate.  There I read Solzhenitsyn’s allegory Cancer Ward, Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama Crime and Punishment, Mikhail Bulgakov’s strange modernist fantasy The Master and Margharita and Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous Lolita (though that is arguably more American than Russian). I also read some of Anton Chekhov’s plays, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard but the only one I’ve seen performed is The Seagull. 

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace remained an ambition unfulfilled until last year, and although I saw the film, I didn’t get round to reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago until last year either.  (You can read my ramblings about these two great books here.)  I have yet to read any of Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol or Ivan Turgenev though at least the latter’s Fathers and Sons is on the TBR and so is Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood. Update Jan 2015: most of these gaps in my reading have since been rectified, see the Russian Literature category under Author Origin in the RHS menu).

Despite these deficiencies, I was intrigued by the title of Elif Batuman’s book. The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, turned out to be a delight to read, even if (like me) you’ve never heard of some of the Russian authors she writes about.  I have already blogged about Batuman’s subversive attitude to the modern American approach to teaching creative writing, and I like her style.  She is funny, self-deprecating, knowledgeable and immensely entertaining.

She begins by writing about her adventures with Isaac Babel who was the subject of her first efforts as a researcher.  She gets locked into the library after hours and has to escape via a secret exit; she explores arcane disputes about Babel’s preoccupations with a fellow-student and she attends a hilarious conference where an assortment of would-be biographers struggle with the paucity of material about Babel. (Stalinists destroyed most of his writing and confiscated his belongings before making him a ‘non-person’.)  Not since I read David Lodge’s trilogy (Nice Work, Changing Places and Small World; and Michael Frayne’s Headlong have I enjoyed such a wry deconstruction of modern scholarship and its foibles.

The intricacies of grants funding in America led Batuman sideways to a stint in Turkey writing copy for a travel guide.  Here her independence was constrained by maternal paranoia about her safety – which resulted in a rather droll itinerary organised by her relations.  She visited the waterworks and a military restaurant, and alleviated her anxiety about the moribund state of the Turkish novel by reading Pushkin.  She had a lot more fun when she finally made it to Russia  for a Tolstoy conference on his estate.  I particularly enjoyed this section because, having seen the film The Last Station I could envisage the estate.  (The video below is way too long, and most of it’s in Russian, but there are some great photos of Tolstoy and the estate.)

Batuman’s title is an allusion to Dostoevesky’s The Possesseda novel I haven’t read.  It seemed an apt allusion, because the nuttiness of some of the academics is close to insanity, but once I’d looked up the Dostoevsky novel on Wikipedia which tells me that it explores ‘clashing ideologies’ I realised that the title is a pun.  Some of the most interesting bits in Batuman’s books expose bizarre aspects of Soviet ideology which persist today. In Summer in Samarakand  Batuman discovers first how the Soviets interfered with Uzbek language and culture to suppress any Nationalist hankerings, and then the Monty Pythonesque efforts to restore it, despite the fact that Uzbek ethnicity was a Soviet invention (p150).

Throughout the Soviet era, the state universities, the post offices, and all other government agencies operated in Russian.  During perestroika, the Soviets proposed a bill declaring Uzbek the ‘state language’: a purported concession to Uzbek nationalists.  The bill, which preserved Russian as the official ‘language of inter-ethnic communication’, only served to infuriate the Uzbek Writers’ Union. The poet Vahidov charged that, according to his textual analysis, the document itself had been translated into Uzbek from a Russian original; other writers demonstrated that the bill used the word Russian fifty-one times, and Uzbek only forty-seven times.  The Uzbek Young Pioneers magazine, Gulkhan, received hundreds of angry letters.  The editors wrote back, addressing their replies in Uzbek; the envelopes were all returned by the post office with a note in Russian: ‘Indicate address!’ The bill was modified in 1995, specifying that by 2005, the state language was to be Uzbek, written with a new Latin alphabet.  Everyone who had attained literacy after 1950 now needed to relearn the alphabet.  (p153)

It can’t be easy to want to visit Russia regularly when you are an impecunious student, but Batuman is nothing if not entrepreneurial.  In 2006  she got a gig in St Petersburg to write a piece about the reproduction of Anna the Great’s Ice Palace.   This cruel fancy features in a story called The Ice House by Ivan Lazhechnikov (1792-1869) though of course Batuman’s editor did not want her to write about that.  (It must be very frustrating to write for the print media these days, when everything is so trivialised.) I remember seeing the reproduction ice house on TV, but if you haven’t, there are panoramas here, but they are heavy on the bandwidth.

This is a terrific book, entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny in places but I also learned a lot about Russia and Russian writers (and as you might expect, have discovered a whole bunch of new ones to add to my wishlist.)

Angela Mayer interviewed Elif Batuman here and there’s a really nice review at the NY Times.  She  will be a guest at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and if you’re quick you might still be able to get a ticket.

PS Elif Batuman’s blog about her forthcoming trip to Australia is here.

Author: Elif Batuman
Title: The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Publisher: Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656644
Source: review copy courtesy of Text Publishing 


Responses

  1. […] Russian Books and the People Who Read Them enchanted me when I read it earlier this month.  (Click here to see my enthusiastic review.)  Batuman shared the story of how she stumbled into Russian […]


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