The PossessedPosted: April 12, 2021
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.
Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.
She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.
We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).
Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.