The Possessed

Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Batuman, Elif, 1977-

Book - 2010
Average Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.
The Possessed
Baker & Taylor
An award-winning Stanford University literary professor documents the stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives in occasionally absurd ways to pay tribute to Russian classics, describing their investigations of historical events, emulations of author habits and more. Original.

McMillan Palgrave
One of The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year
No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making ofKing Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and theLondon Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. InThe Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place inThe Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.

& Taylor

An award-winning Stanford University literary professor documents the stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives in occasionally absurd ways to pay tribute to Russian classics.

Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780374532185
Branch Call Number: 891.7 B
Characteristics: 296 p. ; 21 cm.


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Nov 04, 2014
  • JulieT584 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Elif Bautman's book reminds me of this one funny part of being a librarian: there's this really strong cultural image of <i>librarian</i> that all librarians kind of live with and react to. If you don't take yourself too seriously, you can have a lot of fun with this. Elif Bautman does this with her intellectualism, with her status as a grad student and an academic. She academizes life and applies life to her academics. She is learned and very interesting, and this is highlighted by the fact that she loves her studies but does not take them, or herself, too seriously.

I super enjoyed this book.

But the last chapter was crap: rough and disjointed.

May 01, 2013
  • jaclyn_michelle rated this: 5 stars out of 5.
“In fact I had no historical consciousness in those days, and no interest in acquiring one. It struck me as narrow-minded to privilege historical events, simply because things happened to have worked out that way. Why be a slave to the arbitrary truth? I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years–it took the experience of lived time–to realize that they are really the same thing.” (page 10)
I added Batuman’s The Possessed to my 30 Before 30 Literary Bucket List for several reasons: 1) I follow her on Twitter and find her tweets hilarious and endearing (and her twitter handle is nothing short of amazing). 2) I LOVE narrative nonfiction. I personally feel like I absorb more information when it’s contextualized within the author’s personal experience. 3) I’ve read her work for The New Yorker before (I especially liked her piece on the Davilov bells). 4) I’m rereading Anna Karenina this summer, and figured a refresher course of sorts on Russian literature was probably in order. I read Crime and Punishment in high school and a few Chekhov plays in college, so my Russian lit experience is fairly limited. Any additional historical/biographical content/context can be nothing but helpful.
I was not disappointed. Batuman is nothing short of delightful! The Possessed was perfectly balanced between incredibly interesting information (from Babel to Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and back again) and Batuman’s anecdotes, and was completely accessible. The flow, the pace, the style…it just worked.
My favorite chapter: “Who Killed Tolstoy?”, in which Batuman shares her experience staying at Yasnaya Polyana (which is the estate where Tolstoy was born, spent most of his life, and wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina) for the International Tolstoy Conference and weaves in research to support her hypothesis that Tolstoy could have potentially been murdered. Very funny. Absolutely fascinating.
Fun fact: Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate : snakes :: Earnest Hemingway’s Key West house : three toed cats. “‘There are no cats at the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana,’ begins Amy Mandelker’s well-known study, Framing Anna Karenina: ‘Curled, or rather, coiled in the sunny patches in the Tolstoy house, protecting it from pestilential infestations, instead of the expected feline emblems of domesticity…[are] snakes…The ancestors of these ophibian house pets were adopted by Tolstoy’s ailurophobic wife, Sofia Andreyevna [Sonya], to rid the house of rodents.’ I was contemplating these lines on the second morning of talks, when I counted a total of four cats actually inside of the conference room. That said, in fairness to Amy Mandelker, you couldn’t accuse Yasnaya Polyana of a shortage of snakes. At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy’s editions of Kant: he had seen a snake right there in the archive.” (page 117)
Rubric rating: 8.5. I really hope she’s working on another book!!! Or revives her blog.

Dec 07, 2010

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. Her descriptions of life in Samarkand, living with her boyfriend and studying with a series of eccentrics is told dead-pan and makes you laugh out loud.


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