Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.
Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”
Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.
I have this book and plan to read it – until now I’ve only read Batuman’s essays in the various literary journals where she publishes. Each time I read her, I find myself admiring her obvious intelligence and skilled writing, but there is always a moment when she expresses what seems to me a petty dislike of a writer or a book, always as a kind of aside. In her recent (wonderful) essay in the LRB on Pamuk’s Museum, she made a point to say that she doesn’t usually like Nabokov references, or butterflies, before going on to tell us why The Museum of Innocence’s reference to Lolita was exceptionally successfull. That mention of not liking Nabokov references seemed so odd to me, and somewhat snobbish. But perhaps I am being unfair… The Possessed is sitting on my desk, quite high up in the TBR stack.
That sort of reference is also present in The Possessed, particularly her tedium with Pamuk. I brushed it aside as a naive pose for effect. You may have read some of the essays in The Possessed, as I understand all of have been published elsewhere.
And I meant to also say, that what you’ve really done with your post on Batuman is remind me that I should read Dyer. And soon.
If you are starting Dyer from scratch, start with his Lawrence book.
Thank you – that’s very helpful.
How useful did you find it as a guide to Russian literature, or is it a mistake in your view to read it with that in mind?
Dyer’s ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, subtitled ‘Wrestling with DH Lawrence’.
A mistake to think of it as a guide to Russian literature, of little use in that regard.
Thanks Anthony, all the reviews I’ve read so far judged it by that metric and many found it wanting as a result. I did wonder if that was the correct approach though.
Those reviewers expecting a guide perhaps failed to take on board the subtitle, which is accurate.