Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Possessed

As part of my continuing effort to broaden my reading, and also because ReadersGuide enjoyed it, I picked up The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman several weeks ago, and have been making my very slow way through it ever since. Last night I finally finished the thing, and was glad--mostly because I was done with it, and a little because I'd persevered.

There is nothing about this book that would ordinarily attract me. The cover has what look like comic book illustrations (I am not a person who will read a graphic novel; I've never even cared for animation). It's about a graduate student who is reading Russian literature, something I overdosed on during my teenage years and haven't felt much of a need to revisit.

But the writing does have some peripheral charms. I loved revelations like this one about the author's mother:
"My mother believed that people harbored essential stances of like or dislike toward others, and betrayed those stances in their words and actions. If you came out looking terrible in a photograph, it was a sign that the person who took it didn't really like you."
(I don't personally believe this, of course. If it were true, that would mean that no one in my extended family going back for at least three generations ever liked any of the other family members.)

Another one of the peripheral charms is the occasional odd bit of information Elif uncovers, like that "in Galicia in July 1920, the future creator of King Kong was interrogated by the future creator of Red Cavalry," that "Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying," or that a poet in the court of Peter the Great's daughter, Trediakovsky, "was said to have written exactly one hundred books, each boring enough to induce seizures."

I also enjoyed both Elif's sense of humor and her love of literature. At one point she is confronted by people who are "skeptical or even offended" by her love of Russian literature, and she says:

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness....On these ground I once became impatient with a colleague...who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."
"Right," I finally said "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."

This may not strike you as funny as it did me, unless you're also a six-foot-tall woman.

One part actually made me laugh out loud, when Elif dreams cover blurbs for a novel entitled Past Days:

Kicking this book will cause pages nineteen and twenty to stick together. (In the paperback edition, the stuck pages will be fourteen and fifteen.)"
--F.R. Leavis

Northrop Frye has stated that, when addressed in the form of a proper Arab gentleman, the book will clap itself over the nose of the reader's worst enemy and remain there until the enemy has touched something that once touched a camel.

This book certainly brought back some memories of graduate school--I might recommend it to anyone who is contemplating graduate school in literature--but it didn't change my views on anything or give me new insights into reading Babel or Tolstoy. I will say that it's my best Critical Monkey reading experience so far.


Jenny said...

I read part of this at the bookstore, expecting to be bored out of my mind. I am NOT a fan of Russian literature. But it was quite charming, actually! I laughed and laughed at the Russian woman who kept going WHY DO YOU DESPISE ME? I need to see if my library's gotten this in so I can read it in full.

Aarti said...

I really like the Russian literature I've read, but I don't think I'd want to read ABOUT liking Russian literature...

Harriet said...

That part made me laugh out loud as posted and I should probably check this book out. I was somewhat obsessed with Russian literature in high school and college, so much so that I took Russian and also an entire class just on Dostoevsky. And it was fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Jeanne! That's Roz Chast on the cover -- not some graphic novelist!

The part about the alienation of the short Jewish guy made me laugh, too.

Anonymous said...

Harriet, you should read it.

Jeanne said...

Okay, I looked up Roz Chast. She sounds like a good cartoonist, but I'm a person who only laughs at the occasional Charles Addams--it helps if it's a one picture joke, rather than one of those multi-panel ones.

Jodie said...

Hurray you finally found a Critical Monkey that did not suck! Like Aarti I'm not sure I want to read about liking Russian lit, at least not until I have read some more books by Russian authors.

readersguide said...

Oh dear, this Roz Chast situation has to be fixed. I think you should start with Childproof. Probably available at the library.