The Possessed: Adventures in Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

19/03/11, The Times

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures in Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta, £16.99), ISBN: 978 1 84708 313 5

What a strange book this is: wildly original, creatively rambling (a compliment), barely coherent in structure; a book like no other that has sprung ex nihilo from the dauntingly erudite and slightly crazy (compliment again) mind of its author. The subtitle of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed may lead you to believe that it is about the abiding giants of Russian literature – Puskhin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky et al – yet it is no such thing, or only tangentially about them. Those tangents themselves are unexpected, mad and left-field. An example: a chapter on Tolstoy is actually about the International Tolstoy Conference on the author’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where distinctly unhinged and idiosyncratic academics present uproariously recherché and sometimes downright ridiculous papers and Batuman herself an absurd one on an extremely far-fetched conspiracy theory about Tolstoy’s death. The antics of the somewhat demented academics culminate with an event involving incontinence and refusal to part with soiled underwear on a bus journey to Chekhov’s house, Melikhovo. Rib-breakingly hilarious, yes, as if we have strayed into an absurdist farce, but also quite clever for it smuggles in an entertaining potted biography of Tolstoy, the relationship between Chekhov and Tolstoy, and information about a little-known Tolstoy play called The Living Corpse.

Throughout The Possessed, Batuman, a ‘Russianist’ at Stanford and now a member of the comparative literature faculty there, comes to things at a tilt, looking at them through glasses designed by a madman. The result is the funniest book I’ve read in a very long time: its deadpan, dry humour and its accumulation of absurdities will leave you helplessly rolling on your floor with laughter. After an introduction that outlines her reasons for pursuing literary studies over an MFA in Creative Writing – she wants (or perhaps that should be ‘wanted’ now) to write a novel – she launches into the circus that is academia through the events leading to and during a conference in Stanford on Isaac Babel, the author of the Red Cavalry stories, who was killed in 1941 in one of Stalin’s purges. Genuine illumination about Babel’s life and writings runs in counterpoint to the madcap capers of some insane people on both sides of the academic-layperson divide. It is like watching an Ionesco play written by the illegitimate love-child of Louis Theroux and Anne Fadiman.

The Possessed doesn’t so much crack open the giant edifice of Russian literature to show you the gleaming jewels of new meaning inside as reach for different meanings, not only in literature but also in the fiercely complicated ways books relate to and touch life, through that much-hallowed strategy in the humanities – an investigation of the peripheral. This is nowhere more marked than in the three intermittent chapters that provide the book with its spine, ‘Summer in Samarkand’. Staying at the home of a woman called Gulya in Samarkand, Batuman gamely attempts to learn the Uzbek language – tutored by a philosophy graduate student called Muzaffar whose speciality is the Marburg school of neo-Kantians (no, me neither) – in an effort to arrive at a new understanding of Russian from the margins of the Eastern Turkic languages spoken in countries which used to be part of the USSR. But a personal quest impels her too: being of Turkish origin, she had wanted to reconcile her genetic being, as it were, with her intellectual passion for the Uzbek language is related to both Turkish and Russian. She concludes, in a moment of sadness, that no such reconciliation is possible but the trajectory of the education gives the book some of its most blazingly funny incidents and, characteristically, a gemlike nugget of knowledge or revelation on each page. While you’re weeping with laughter at, say, the consistently bizarre and outlandish pronouncements of Dilorom, Batuman’s Old Uzbek literature tutor, or the comic descriptions, steeped in bathos and a kind of baffled incredulity, of Uzbek literature, you also end up wiser about what the Soviets did to the Uzbek language, about Pushkin’s Turkish travelogue, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alisher Navoi (the Uzbek Shakespeare), Uzbek bread … if you think these are outside the domain of your interests, think again for Batuman will keep you both gripped and laughing as she takes you through the tour. You emerge both delighted and educated: this book is perfectly Horatian in marrying the dulce and the utile the poet defined as the defining criterion of art.

But if there is an absurdist, even Dadaist, basso continuo running under the music of the book, making much of it appear a bit mad and a bit too loosely structured, there is method in that madness. Take the last chapter, titled ‘The Possessed’ (at last!), which deals with Dostoevsky’s Demons (also translated as The Possessed). Here Batuman brings such utterly disparate things together – the eponymous Dostoevsky novel; a visit to Florence, where Dostoevsky finished The Idiot; her obsessive on-off relationship with a charismatic and deranged Croatian fellow-graduate student at Stanford called Matej – that the very contiguity, unimagined before, yields a new set of meanings. The glue binding all these seemingly unrelated things is an influential 1961 book by René Girard, Desire, Deceit and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Recondite? Au contraire, it is a deeply personal envoi to what has been, on one important level, a personal book, bringing together, through a Girardian reading of Stavrogin, the mysterious and destructively magnetic central figure of Demons, her own life as a literary scholar and academic-in-training, her private life, and her thesis of academic scholarship as a form of madness. Scattered along the way, almost casually, are revelatory interpretations of some key texts of Russian literature: Chekhov’s story “Black Monk”; the troubled intersection between Demons and The Idiot.

Ranging across California, Hungary, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Italy, The Possessed then turns out to be a picaresque, a grand journey (the word ‘adventure’ in the subtitle is chosen mindfully) undertaken to unlock the answers literature holds and, like all great journeys, adds to the sum total of your life by bringing to it a kind of happiness you didn’t know could be offered by books.