The Possessed, by Elif Batuman

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on April 8, 2011


You might remember that I received Ms Batuman’s book as a Christmas gift, a gift that I had hoped would spur me to actually read a Russian novels. It was up to her: could she convince me to actually read past the opening 18 pages of Anna Karenina, figure out which Alexi is which, and continue AFTER ol’ Anna has perished and there is still all of Part 8 to go?

The answer: not yet. But it’s only April. There’s still eight and a half months before my goal ruined. Check back with me in November.

That being said, I hated, then loved, then kind of liked, then really liked, TP:AWRBATPWRT. Her jumping off point (the one that initially put a bad taste in my mouth) is describing all the ways she dislikes short stories and contemporary short story writers, something I initially recoiled at until I realized she only dislikes a certain sort of short story writer, and as it turns out, so do I. Case in point:

I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brink verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to the result somehow wasn’t a novel. E. Batuman, The Possessed

But after my initial sensitivity (I really like short stories) I got hooked in Ms Batuman’s quirky, proud-to-be-different, mildly self-deprecating life story. She acknowledges that dedicating one’s life to Russian literature is nuts. She knows that her passion isn’t necessarily shared with her reader, and therefore makes it accessible to those of us who haven’t ever cracked the spine of Babel’s diary (and who probably never will).

I will be the first to say that TP:AWRBATPWRT will be most fulfilling to someone who knows all the inside references to Tolstoy, Chekhov,
Dostoevsky, Nabokov and the gang. However, the rest of us will get a crash course in one woman’s opnion of what makes The Russian’s great while enjoying her incredible journeys through the (often backwards world) of Eastern Europe and its people.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: