Elif 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.