Talk about a book that had me from privyet, tovarish, kak vashi dilah?! Elif Batuman’s new-ish entrant into the eternally thrilling “academic memoir” genre could well be the product of a cunning (but financially pointless) marketing effort to appeal to the Dundas Demographic. It contains Slavs, soccer, Samarkand, semioticians, Soviets, samovars and Sherlock Holmes—and that’s just a partial inventory of the S’es among the goodies and oddments Batuman unearths as she rifles through her own immediate past and appealingly desultory mind.
Like Batuman, I am a victim of the Russia Virus—though I caught a milder version than the strain that caused the young Turkish-American author to divert an otherwise sane and promising life into obtaining a bloody Ph.D. in Russian Literature. Sadly, I now see my years studying Great Russian Language and Eternal Mysteries of Russian Soul receding into middle distance. My lingual skills have declined to the point where I can only manage a sad version of what Nabokov called kak zhivayesh?/ya zhivayu horosho (“How are you?”/”I’m doing fine”) Russian. (My intonation is still pretty good, I think.) In other words, if suddenly airlifted to Moscow, I could probably ask the whereabouts of the library and Metro station—good things to know—and possibly get myself arrested for loitering with intent.
But I remember—hell, I still feel—the mysterious magnetism of this shrinking language, the permanently dysfunctional accompanying culture and the galaxy-class literary art the two produce. As such, I am the perfect audience for Batuman’s funny little reminiscences of surreal academic conferences, random encounters with impenetrable Russian humanoids and the feverish, cloistered social world built upon meta-textual analyses of Dostoyevsky novels that not even Dostoyevsky understood. What I don’t know, after reading The Possessed, is what attraction it will hold for readers who have not been exposed to the strange, melancholy world of post-Soviet Russianness, where the planet’s greatest literature coexists with its most disastrous politics and least tasteful dining-room furniture. I can, however, strongly recommend that you go find out for yourself.
Batuman is an engaging guide to her own academic and intellectual life. Her course its fateful turn when our heroine receives a first-year Russian textbook featuring a sample dialogue in which a young man begs his estranged girlfriend to “forget me.” Dobro pazhalovat to Great Russian Language, American Studyentka! Things just get weirder from there, as the beguiled Batuman launches into studies of Uzbek lyric poetry, fruitless quests to identify Lev Tolstoy’s secret murderer (ah, so you ALSO deny that Tolstoy was murdered!) and some memorably bizarre interactions with surviving members of Isaac Babel’s family.
This is above-average material, but let’s give Batuman the credit she herself deserves: of every single person enrolled in graduate studies in the US at a given time, how many could provide an account of those studies that wouldn’t inspire thoughts of grievous bodily harm? Many, if not most, academics contrive to drain the life out of their chosen subjects, but Batuman skillfully vivifies hers. If you don’t come away from her account of the battlefield meeting between Babel and the eventual creator of Hollywood’s King Kong eager both to read Red Calvary and watch the movie, the failure is yours, not hers.
Like certain German military endeavors, The Possessed does get bogged down when it ventures more deeply into Soviet territory than is strategically advisable. Towards the end of Part Three (of three) of the book’s “Summer in Samarkand” chapters, Batuman’s account of her sojourn in the Uzbek city—where she goes to study Uzbek literature, only to discover that the concept is kind of oxymoronic—begins to feel as protracted as the experience itself must have done. Batuman’s narrative supply lines become over-extended and she finds her forces cut off somewhere north of the Hindu Kush. Eventually, she realizes that she needs to withdraw from the peripheries and focus on some major objectives.
And so she does. Tolstoy. Chekov. Pushkin. Dostoyevsky. Babel. The Possessed is at its best when it embraces the great wooly bears of Russian literature, the fervid mental life in and around their work and the truly weird and beautiful nation that birthed them. (I found myself ruing two major omissions. First, Gogol—he barely figures. Second, Moscow—particularly after spending 100 pages in Samarkand, I wondered how a book about Russian culture could say so little about the Russian-speaking world’s very heart. But let us not quibble over these things in re: a book in which the Turkey/Brazil World Cup semifinal plays a somewhat pivotal plot role.)
While Batuman’s portrayal of the grad-school social hothouse makes me glad I never messed with the enterprise, her loving and insightful treatment of Russian Lit’s big names left me hungry for their work itself. I suspect that was The Possessed generous aim, and on that score, the book succeeds.