REVIEW | The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books
and the People Who Read Them [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Elif Batuman
genre: literary nonfiction essays
pages: 296
published: 2010
source: New York Public Library

“In fact I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one. It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years–it took the experience of lived time–to realize that they are really the same thing.” (page 10)

Elif-Bautman-2

I added Batuman’s The Possessed to my 30 Before 30 Literary Bucket List for several reasons:
1) I follow her on Twitter and find her tweets hilarious and endearing (and her twitter handle is nothing short of amazing).
2) I LOVE narrative nonfiction. I personally feel like I absorb more information when it’s contextualized within the author’s personal experience.
3) I’ve read her work for The New Yorker before (I especially liked her piece on the Davilov bells).
4) I’m rereading Anna Karenina this summer, and figured a refresher course of sorts on Russian literature was probably in order. I read Crime and Punishment in high school and a few Chekhov plays in college, so my Russian lit experience is fairly limited. Any additional historical/biographical content/context can be nothing but helpful.

I was not disappointed. Batuman is nothing short of delightful! The Possessed was perfectly balanced between incredibly interesting information (from Babel to Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and back again) and Batuman’s anecdotes, and was completely accessible. The flow, the pace, the style…it just worked.

My favorite chapter: “Who Killed Tolstoy?”, in which Batuman shares her experience staying at Yasnaya Polyana (which is the estate where Tolstoy was born, spent most of his life, and wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for the International Tolstoy Conference and weaves in research to support her hypothesis that Tolstoy could have potentially been murdered. Very funny. Absolutely fascinating.

Fun fact:
Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate : snakes :: Earnest Hemingway’s Key West house : three toed cats.

“‘There are no cats at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana,’ begins Amy Mandelker’s well-known study, Framing Anna Karenina:

‘Curled, or rather, coiled in the sunny patches in the Tolstoy house, protecting it from pestilential infestations, instead of the expected feline emblems of domesticity…[are] snakes…The ancestors of these ophibian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy’s ailurophobic wife, Sofia Andreyevna [Sonya], to rid the house of rodents.’

I was contemplating these lines on the second morning of talks, when I counted a total of four cats actually inside of the conference room. That said, in fairness to Amy Mandelker, you couldn’t accuse Yasnaya Polyana of a shortage of snakes. At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy’s editions of Kant: he had seen a snake right there in the archive.” (page 117)

Elif-Batuman

Rubric rating: 8.5. I really hope she’s working on another book!!! Or revives her blog.

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