'The Possessed': Open to anything, as long as it's Russian
Elif Batuman's "The Possessed" is a highly original memoir of one woman's obsession with Russian life and literature. Batuman discusses her book Monday June 21 at Seattle's University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
Elif BatumanThe author of "The Possessed" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
by Elif Batuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 296 pp., $15
The subtitle of Batuman's book: "Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them," doesn't begin to tell the tale of this quirky, funny, erudite hybrid of intellectual razzle-dazzle, graduate-school angst, youthful high spirits and a serious examination of aspects of Russians and their literature, never before undertaken in quite the same way. Batuman is the winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and an instructor at Stanford University. Her essays, even some of these, have appeared in The New Yorker, n+1 and Harper's.
The book is comprised of seven essays: a group of three titled "Summer in Samarkand," one on Isaac Babel, one on Tolstoy, one on the House of Ice in St. Petersburg, a palace commissioned by Empress Anna Ivanovna, and finally, Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Possessed."
Most of the adventures that inspired these essays take place because of the availability of graduate-school grants; it might not be what you had in mind to study, but you are qualified and it's something. That is how the author came to study Uzbek. Yes, Uzbek, that well-known language, some place between Turkish and Russian, that has over a hundred words for crying.
It is that sort of detail that brings the reader up short over and over again: The sui generis observations made by someone who is observant and open to anything. Her descriptions of life in Samarkand, living with her boyfriend and studying with a series of eccentrics, is told deadpan but makes you laugh out loud. There are ants in the jam; the landlady is a greedy, prescriptive harridan; their few sticks of furniture disappear — the list goes on. Elif soldiers on, trying to learn and remaining uncomplaining.
Reading Batuman is like a random Google search: Start in one place and let go of the reins. Go where it takes you. Was Tolstoy murdered? Maybe, let's take a look at it. Follow that tack until you lose interest or believe you have an answer, and then start on Babel. Go through countless folk tales, myths and downright lies on that subject and then move on to Dostoevsky.
It should not be inferred that Batuman is a flibbertigibbet, academically or personally. She is in dead earnest about her studies, diligent and one might say, possessed.
It is tempting to quote Batuman endlessly, but one or two will do. "Shklovsky ... recounts a near-death experience he had while working on a Red Army demolition squad: 'My arms were flung back; I was lifted, seared and turned head over heels ... I hardly had time for a fleeting thought about my book Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon. Who would write it now.' "
This is obsession. Batuman is aphoristic by style and nature. She tosses off one-liners, snippets, phrases that strike the reader as pitch-perfect. "Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?" "Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure."
She really says it all in the final sentence of the last essay: "If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them."
This collection is definitely a one-off — and one not to be missed.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.