17 March 2010

The Possessed

I have yet to read Dostoevsky's The Possessed (which I think technically should be translated as The Demons or The Devils) but I do like me some Russian literature.  So does Elif Batuman - her collection of essays, The Possessed, revolves around Russian literature and the people who read it.

Batuman's The Possessed isn't so much a book examining Russian literature, i.e. lit crit, but how writers like Pushkin, Chekhov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky comment on the experience of being alive (see also Ilana Simons's A Life of One's Own or Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life).  She starts off with an essay about organizing an Isaac Babel conference while a graduate student at Stanford; the experience comes complete with dusty academics and eccentric Babel relatives (the essay appeared as "Babel in California" in the magazine "n+1").  Other essays cover the veneration of Tolstoy and his estate (which reminds me of Austen and Chawton pilgrimages), a summer spent in Uzbekistan in an Uzbek language intensive, looking for Pushkin in the Caucasus, and the reconstructed Ice Palace in St. Petersburg. 

Batuman has a very welcoming style of writing; it's funny and ironic but as a fellow lover of literature, Russian or not, it's like reading the thoughts of a kindred spirit.  I have a picture of myself standing outside Jane Austen's home in Bath (which I think is now a dentist's office while the Jane Austen museum is down the street in a different row house) so I completely understand the compulsion to finagle a trip to St. Petersburg so you can see the reconstructed Ice Palace on the Neva.  The multiple essays about Batuman's summer in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, not only show a culture moving out of the shadow of Soviet occupation but also the creation of a shared Uzbek culture and literature, something that did not exist prior to the creation of the Uzbek Soviet state.

I hope Batuman continues to write about her love of Russian literature; I really enjoyed the essays in The Possessed and made a little list of things I have yet to read.  Which reminds me, I probably need to run a Google search to find Batuman's essays not included in this book.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this and am just waiting for it to be delivered. I can't wait to read it