The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them, by Elif Batuman
Odd, the things one finds when browsing the shelves. I found this jewel the other day, when I was looking for something, anything to read. What a great way to start summer reading: a visit to Samarkand, hi-jinks at graduate school seminars,encounters with strange yet endearing characters , dark hints about Tolstoy's death, and the link between King Kong and Isaac Babel.
Elif discovered her love of Russian novels one summer day.Bored, she picked up a threadbare copy of Anna Karenina in her grandmother's apartment in Ankara. Her mother, with her command of English not yet secure, asked Elif, "So what did it all mean, what was Tolstoy trying to say?". Her academic career has been the pursuit of the answer to that question.Batuman wanted to be a writer, but earned a degree in comparative literature. Upon graduation, creative writing, with its colonies,workshops and 'craft' held no allure. She decided on graduate school, and gave up writing her 'endless novel'. We are lucky she did.
What we have in The Possessed is a lengthy introduction (unlike many other introductions, worth reading), followed by several essays. Balufman in the essays organizes an Isaac Babel conference while discovering his works; a summer in Samarkand, where she studies Old Uzbek poetry and delves into the language of birds; in "Who Killed Tolstoy?" , she attends the four day International Tolstoy Conference, held at his last home Yasnaya Polyana. Aeroflot, the airline she flew, loses her luggage, so Batuman has to wear her sweats and flannel shirt with flip flops for the whole conference, a very Tolstoyan touch. She calls the airline every day, seeking her luggage. She is told, "Yes, I have your request right here. Address: Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's house. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul ?". How very Russian! This reader's favorite section is "The House of Ice" , the story of the modern recreation of an ice castle on the Neva river in Petersburg; the original was ordered by wiggy Tsarina Anna for the wedding night of two dwarves.
Anecdotes and droll humor abound in Batuman's book. She writes with passion and eruditon about her beloved field, and her fluid style is accessible to the general reader. Once or twice she skirts the edge of lit'ry theory (The Other in the novel, etc.) in an essay, but she recovers nicely. Highly recommended for summer reading.