The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
by Elif Batuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 290 pgs. Nonfiction.
Horselaughs and Slavic literature don't usually go together, but they do in this book as this six-foot-tall Turkish-American young woman recounts how she got into the Russian literature business in the first place and her subsequent adventures in academia. Batuman captures in all its cold sweaty clarity the experience of having to pick up a famous person from the airport for a conference, on, say the works of Isaac Babel (in this case Babel's loudmouth daughter) who continually asks her dinner companion whether it is TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME. Later a Russian customs officer asks her why she doesn't study the works of Jack London instead of Dostoevsky's because that would be easier and she wouldn't need a visa. When she applies to study in Russia she is shunted, for a variety of inexplicable reasons, to Uzbekistan where she encounters Old Uzbek epistolary love poetry in which one man's beloved is "cleaner than water," and, as Elif's teacher points out "Most people, like you and me, are dirtier than water . . . . but . . . if she puts her arm in the water, maybe the water will become cleaner." These fits and starts notwithstanding, Batuman ends on a serious note and her belief that the study of literature really can help us understand the nature of life, but before then, it's all laughs.