Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Possessed (2010)

Elif Batuman, raised in New Jersey as a second-generation US daughter of Turkish parents, makes a lot of things sound like fun in her book you wouldn't necessarily think are fun, like learning Russian as an adult in order to study Russian literature. Actually, she doesn't pull any punches there—it sounds really hard. She details her adventures and travels making her way through graduate school. Yes, that's right, graduate school. Her passions are so infectious they transcend the more typically unpleasant hothouse cloisters of academe. She has her eye on the prize always. She loves Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes—they are critical markers into her fascination with Russian lit. She's skeptical of postmodern literary theory and today's MFA story writers, but she'll use theory in a pinch and her fondest desire is to write a novel, which actually came to fruition—The Idiot, published last year. One interesting and perhaps obvious point she raises is about the camps of division between those who prefer Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I don't think I had thought of as such before but makes perfect sense in a Beatles / Stones sort of way. She declares herself Tolstoyan and has no hesitation. I might be more Dostoevskian—the four sick men of Europe and all that—but I'm less certain. Still, Dostoevsky gets at least as much attention in this story plus the title reference to boot (and then again in her novel, which I don't know). Chekhov gets his too, and Pushkin, Turgenev, practically the whole gang. The subtitle has it about right: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It's lively and chatty, veering off into memoir territory with a good deal of charm, though it always snaps back to Russian literature again. Batuman is full of provocative ideas, explicating streams of literature, such as the heirs of Don Quixote, conscious and otherwise, and she's read so much it overwhelms me even to think about. It's a great big fun time.

In case it's not at the library.

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