Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

The book contains a pretty good essay on the Russian writer Isaac Babel; and a long lecture on The Death of Tolstoy which can be found online on the Harpers Magazine archive.  Other items were previously published in the New Yorker and elsewhere.  Sometimes you get elongated versions of other articles – for example, one chapter, The House of Ice builds on an article previously published in the New Yorker and is devoted telling the story of how in 2006 a replica of Empress Anna Ioannovna’s ice palace built in St. Petersburg.  Its all very interesting, a sort of first person travelogue, the sort of thing which would be published in Granta magazine, but its hard to see its how it fits into a book about Russian literature.

Three chapters are devoted to Batuman’s time in Samarkand where she was learning the Uzbek language.  Its all very funny and contains many amusing anecdotes such as how she learned to choose water-melons in the market by listening to them talk.

In the final chapter, Batuman visits Florence where Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot.  She moves on to discuss his novel The Possessed and after summarising the book in a few pages, she immediately lost me by interpreting the book in the context of René Girard theory of “mimetic desire” which was apparently “formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfilment”.

Four or five pages of discussion of this theory then follow, after which Batuman recounts a little tale of how when she returned to Stanford the department’s dynamics had completely changed as new people had arrived (including the charismatic Matej from Croatia) and others had left.  We get four or five pages of the impact on these changes and a fair amount about Matej’s impact on Batuman’s life, but I can’t for the life of me see how they relate to Dosteovsky’s book The Possessed.  But then Batuman’s writing jumps around so much its just as I said at the start of this review, like following a butterfly as it moves from one plant to another: its difficult to focus in on one particular topic before she’s off on another one.  I’d have had no problem with reading about Girard’s theory of mimetic desire in the midst of a book which had been leading up to it, but to just drop it into a chapter largely discussing personal relationships within her department reads like a first-year female student at University who’s reading her text books while eyeing up the boy at the next table.

I’m very disappointed with this book.  Its lack of focus and structure completely detracts from some of the good things it includes.  It seems a cheap way of putting a book together to me and if it had been subtitled “assorted writings of Elif Batuman” I wouldn’t have bothered with it.  The lure of reading about “the Russian literature reading experience” misled me in this case and I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re already into Batuman’s work.

18 thoughts on “Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

  1. I have nearly ordered this book many a time, but am now so glad that I hesitated. I completely agree that non-fiction is infinitely more satisfying when it has unity of purpose. I was intrigued by the book for its subtitle, and if it doesn’t live up to it, I confess I am much less interested in reading it! I have read several books that turned out to be collections of previously published material and every time that shows quite clearly and spoils the line of the book (with repetitions, lack of narrative arc and so on). It wouldn’t take so very much rewriting, surely, to make a coherent book out of the material? Thanks for the review and the warning.


    • Litlove – thanks for visiting. If I put you off the book I hope I haven’t been too hard on it. I recommend reading the reference from wutheringexpectations above – she writes about it in a much more erudite way than I did


  2. At least two Americans picked up on it! Here is me; you can follow the links to LanguageHat.

    The last chapter is a salvage job of a failed novel, which was to be Dostoevsky’s Possessed set among Stanford literature grad students. A Stavrogin-like figure gathers a cult of comp lit students and then – oh, who knows what.

    Some of this I teased out of reading interviews with Batuman, but most of it I inferred from the text, which, in typical postmodern hybrid fashion, is full of clues – look how clever she is!


    • Dear Amateur Reader – thanks for your fascinating take on this book. Cleverness for its own sake is never impressive and Batuman’s book left me completely cold. I couldn’t get away from this picture of an adolescent girl who couldn’t stop talking about her latest boyfriend. It all seemed rather childish somehow and while the fireworks were occasionally impressive they were soon over leaving a general feeling of disappointment.


  3. This comes across as being clever for its own sake & as self promotion, not what it states on the,label, this may make for an interesting diversion, but not if you bought it for a specific purpose. I also get annoyed at books that seem to be compiled from odds & sods merely to raise a buck or two, I’m sure if the writer was really enamoured with Russian lit, its people, they could have found the inspiration to write something fresh & not just collected from old scraps.


  4. Tom, I had a similar reaction to what little I read from this book when I had it checked out from the library a year or two ago (thankfully, somebody else recalled the book from me, pre-empting a decision about whether I wanted to give the book a further try or not). While I think Batuman’s probably an OK writer in small doses, my overriding impression of her was that she seemed a little too pleased with herself given what slight joy was to be found in her “tale” about Russian literature. Don’t think I’ll ever return to the book, but I’m surprised how much good publicity it’s received in other circles.


    • Hi Richard – I think Batuman is flavour of the month with a certain circle of USA literary types. I felt her work was a bit “smoke and mirrors” – all style and not a lot of substance. I also borrowed it from the library and its now back on the shelf – I’m glad I didn’t buy it!


  5. Your review reminds me of when I read Wild Swans. It got of course higher praise than this has, but the final third is essentially the author talking at great length about how beautiful and clever she is. I found it insufferable and wasn’t surprised she had no follow up success.

    Publishers don’t make clear it’s reprinted material of course because if they did people wouldn’t buy it. An unfortunate truth, but still a truth.

    Otherwise, eh, it just sounds bad. Style and not a lot of substance as you say. I’ve also noticed that the most favourable reviews tend to come from those with least knowledge of Russian literature. People who haven’t read any often find it makes them want to read some (which is a success, if they then do so). People who have read some seem much less taken.

    One to skip from my point of view anyway.


    • HI Max, yes, this one is definitely in that mould. The amazing thing is the large number of American literary types who seem to agree with her own opinion of herself. I’ve read a few Russian novels myself and was hoping for some encouragement to read a few more


    • Sue – thanks for visiting. This one has had very mixed reviews all round and I don’t think I’m alone in being disappointed with it. The problem with it is that it doesn’t do what it sets out to do


  6. I’m glad you wrote this review: the book is on my e-wish list and I nearly downloaded it the other night. I read some good reviews and others that were less favourable. I think I’ll give it a miss: I trust your judgement! There’s so much to read as it is.


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