The Possessed by Elif Batuman

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.

Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic

For the title essay of Dubravka Ugresic‘s rewarding Karaoke Culture the author expands commonplace usage of “karaoke” (Japanese for “empty orchestra”) to embrace what Andrew Keen termed “the cult of the amateur”.

Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.

The internet, Ugresic argues, is the linchpin of a cultural transformation putting the creation of art and culture into the hands of amateurs, who are both creators and consumers of the material they appropriate, remake and recycle. Ugresic cites Alan Kirby’s argument and its adoption of the term “pseudo-modernism”.

Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product.

Ugresic may wistfully recall the time before this age of karaoke, but recognises its irrevocability.

Beyond the title essay of  one hundred and four pages in my edition, there are more than twenty further essays, some of a few pages, some extended. Ugresic writes with fervour and anger, but also with a great eye for absurdity. Beside the essays that speak of the heartache of exile and disappearance of motherland, are essays on the irrationality of hotel minibars.