The Possessed – Elif Batuman

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Five words from the blurb: funny, thoughtful, Russian, writers, travels

I love the idea of Russian literature, but I have to admit that it scares me and so I have yet to try any (apart from The Master And Margarita, which scared me even more!) This book appealed to me because it allows the reader to glimpse into the world of Russian literature in an entertaining and less imposing way.

The Possessed is part memoir, part travelogue and follows Batuman through her Russian studies at Stanford University, to her adventures travelling through California, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Hungary and Russia. The book is littered with interesting little snippets of information about Russian authors and their texts.

On the third day of the Tolstoy conference, a professor from Yale read a paper on tennis. In Anna Karenina, he began, Tolstoy represents tennis in a very negative light. Anna and Vronsky swat futilely at the tiny ball, poised on the edge of a vast spiritual and moral abyss. When he wrote that scene, Tolstoy himself had never played tennis, which he only knew as an English fad. At the age of sixty-eight, Tolstoy was given a tennis racket and taught the rules of the game. He became an instant tennis addict.

But unfortunately I was less keen on the travelogue aspects of the book and frequently found my mind drifting from the page. There were too many unnecessary details and I felt that these detracted from the more insightful sections about Russian literature.

A few days after visiting Gur-i-Amir, we went to the old Soviet department store in the Russian part of the city to buy Eric some pants.

I’m pleased that I read The Possessed because it has inspired me to pick up some of the Russian classics, but I wish that the book had concentrated on the books rather than the travelling.


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  1. stujallen says:

    I c ame out this wanting to read Gogol ,I agree the travel was more evident than the books hope she writes another thou she has a way of making russian books appeal and I m not huge fan of russian fiction and always feel I should read more Jackie ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, yes it made me want to read Gogol too – now I just need to lay my hands on a copy.

  2. Jenny says:

    I enjoyed some of the travel parts — like when she talked about going to the summer camp where they fed her corn and watermelons — and some of the book parts, but with the book parts and the travel parts, there were some parts I thought dragged terribly.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, You are right – some of the travelogue sections were quite good and some of the bookish bits weren’t, but on the whole the travel bits held my attention much less than the book bits. :-(

  3. parrish says:

    Not read this, but am a big fan of Russian Lit, a great one to try is Turgenev.

    1. Jackie says:

      parrish, Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll keep an eye out for some Turgenev. :-)

  4. Bellezza says:

    Jackie! Don’t be scared of Russian books! They’re some of the best literature available. I love Tolstoy, love him, and of course, Pasternak and Dostoeyesky. Perhaps Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon would be a good place for you to dive in further?

    1. Jackie says:

      Bellezza, I’m sure you’re right about Russian books being fantastic- I guess I just need to dive in. I’m not normally a fan of short stories though, so perhaps I’ll start with one of the others.

  5. Annabel says:

    Or Chekov short stories. Or go contemporary and read either of Olga Grushin’s novels… I think I’ll leave this book though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Yes – I’ve heard great things about Grushin. I’ll have to see if my library stocks her books. :-)

  6. sakura says:

    Both Anna Karenina and Crime & Punishment were surprisingly accessible reads. I loved them both. I’ve got this on my shelf and am dying to read it. May do it soon:)

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