Summary and book reviews of The Possessed by Elif Batuman

The Possessed

Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

By Elif Batuman

The Possessed
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Paperback: Feb 2010,
    304 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Julie Wan

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Book Summary

The true but unlikely stories of lives devoted — Absurdly! Melancholically! Beautifully! — to the Russian classics.

No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.

Babel in California

When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale. (I brought my bathroom scale to the library and weighed it, ten volumes at a time.) Dostoevsky comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev in twenty-eight, Pushkin in seventeen. Even Lermontov, a lyric poet killed in a duel at age twenty-seven, has four volumes. It’s different in France, where definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzac’s entire Human Comedy in twelve volumes, and his remaining writings in two volumes, for a combined total weight of eighteen pounds.

The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to...

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Reviews

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As a book reviewer who was also once a linguistics major ultimately drawn to literature, there is some inherent bias in my enthusiasm for this book. But that, in some ways, is the point of Batuman's work: Literature and life are always intersecting; the reader is bound to find symbols, comparisons, and significance at every turn; and one can't help but read one's life into the story - or the story into one's life. All disclaimers aside, however, this book is both amusing and insightful. Batuman has a rare combination of gifts as an academic and a storyteller, and The Possessed takes the form of a collection of essays that's part literary criticism, part humor writing, part travelogue, and part memoir.   (Reviewed by Julie Wan).

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Media Reviews
The San Francisco Chronicle

...Batuman isn't quite sure if she or the literature is her subject. There are passages so good I wish I could have written them, and then there are others where I'm reminded of the self-important posing of graduate students.

The New York Times - Dwight Garner

…funny and melancholy…Each of these essays unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen…Perhaps Ms. Batuman's best quality as a writer, though—beyond her calm, lapidary prose—is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she's feeling…It's a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.

The Christian Science Monitor

It’s not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism... The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature.

The Los Angeles Times

There's something melancholy, as well as beautiful, in using literature not just to illuminate experience but actually to create it. Batuman's writing waltzes in a space in which books and life reflect each other. The effect is dizzying sometimes, and maybe that's one of her points; her roving sensibility deliriously encompasses many styles and moods. If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why.

Library Journal

Starred Review. [A] wildly entertaining romp through academia and the Russian literary pantheon that does justice to a literature that is deservedly praised but under-read. Highly recommended for book lovers of all sorts.

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About the Author
Elif Batuman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey, but she comes from a Turkish family. Her name, Elif, is actually the Turkish word for alif or aleph, the first letter of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. Because she was born a very skinny and long baby, her parents named her after the letter, which is drawn as a straight line.

Batuman tracks the trajectory of her love affair with Russian literature in the introduction to The Possessed. It began with a copy of Anna Karenina in her grandmother's apartment. For her, this book encapsulates Russianness in its ability to be "simultaneously incredibly funny and sad," she told The Boston Globe.

When Batuman enrolled as a linguistics student at Harvard ...

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