Excerpt from The Possessed by Elif Batuman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Possessed

Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

By Elif Batuman

The Possessed
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  • Paperback: Feb 2010,
    304 pages.

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Julie Wan

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Print Excerpt


Others insist that Babel was arrested “for no reason at all,” and that to say otherwise is to commit the sin of attributing logic to the totalitarian machine.

When Babel’s box in the KGB archives was declassified in the 1990s, it became known that the warrant for his arrest had been issued thirty-five days after the fact. Following seventy-two hours of continuous interrogation and probably torture, Babel had signed a confession testifying that he had been recruited into a spy network in 1927 by Ilya Ehrenburg and for years systematically supplied André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation—the last detail apparently borrowed from Babel’s late screenplay, Number 4 Staraya Square (1939), which chronicles the byzantine intrigues among scientists in a plant devoted to the construction of Soviet dirigibles.

“I am innocent. I have never been a spy,” Babel says in the transcript of his twenty-minute “trial,” which took place in Beria’s chambers. “I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others . . . I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.” Babel was executed by firing squad in the basement of the Lubyanka on January 26, 1940, and his body was dumped in a communal grave. Nineteen forty, not 1941: even the death certificate had been a lie.

The first time I read Isaac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even “realized” the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.

In this class we were assigned to read “My First Goose,” the story of a Jewish intellectual’s first night at a new Red Army billet during the 1920 campaign. Immediately upon his arrival, his new comrades, illiterate Cossacks, greet him by throwing his suitcase in the street. The intellectual, noticing a goose waddling around the billet, steps on its neck, impales it on a saber, and orders the landlady to cook it for his dinner. The Cossacks then accept him as one of their own and make room for him at the fireside, where he reads them one of Lenin’s speeches from a recent issue of Pravda.

When I first read this story in college, it made absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose? What was so great about sitting around a campfire, reading Lenin? Among the stories we read in that class, Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog” moved me much more deeply. I especially remember the passage about how everyone has two lives—one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other “running its course in secret”—and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one. In fact, this theme of a second, secret life is extremely important to Babel, but I didn’t figure that out until later.

The second time I read Babel was in graduate school, for a seminar on literary biography. I read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Cavalry cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.

Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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