The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
by Elif Batuman
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
If you're perusing this magazine, chances are you went through a "Russian phase": that period when a curious, intellectually ambitious young reader, primed to enter literary adulthood, finally takes up Crime and Punishment or War and Peace. In The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman recalls her own adolescent encounter with Tolstoy. "Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a super-charged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small—so serious and so light—so strange and so natural?"
It's not surprising that some people never get over these books, and Batuman, for her part, goes on to get a Ph.D. in Russian literature. Meanwhile, she travels through a country just poignant and absurd enough to showcase her capacious sense of humor (which has room for Isaac Babel, romantic mishaps, and missing luggage). She fields questions from nationalist zealots ("Why is St. Patrick's Day so widely celebrated in Moscow . . . when nobody in Scotland knows a thing about Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg?" one fanatic demands); turns up at Yasnaya Polyana in sweatpants to regale "International Tolstoy Scholars" with a harebrained theory that Tolstoy was murdered; and spends a summer in Samarkand in a desperate attempt to enhance her post-grad-school CV by learning Uzbek (Batuman is Turkish-American, and the Uzbek language is a close relative of Turkish).
Her dedicated teachers are two patient Uzbeks paid a pittance to introduce her to their literature ("Was it my heart—a bird—that was caught in your locks that unfortunate night, or was it bats of some kind?") and culture ("In English we have an expression: 'like a bull in a china shop,'" Batuman tells her teacher. "That's how Genghis Khan was--but even worse," the teacher answers). The dull pewter of Uzbekistan's literary offerings makes Russia's great names seem all the more lustrous, but this book is only secondarily about literature: its main attraction is Elif Batuman herself.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.