Monday, May 09, 2011

Elif Batuman: The Possessed

Like memoirs? Or books? Or intrigued by college and universities and students and intellectuals? Elif Batuman's "The Possessed" is probably going to be a good one for you, then. One of dad's recommendations, I was hesitant at first: Batuman studies Russian Literature at Harvard and Stanford and lives to tell and write about it. That didn't sound too promising: as many times as I try to read those "great books," I just can't do it. But you don't have to have read "Anna Karenina" or "War and Peace" to enjoy the book.

Batuman has a sense of humor, and I'm not sure, based on her book, that all Russian Lit scholars have one, which is part of why the book is so enjoyable. She wryly acknowledges that they all share angst and alienation, but also sees that not all of the scholars are intuitive that maybe the alienation is not as existential as they feel it is. After all, they are studying books and authors that have been deemed classics: a lot of sighing and arguing takes place while discussing some of the most-discussed literature of all time. Batuman doesn't focus only on the main Russian dudes- she travels to Uzbekistan and treats the Uzbek language and lesser known authors with the same benign irreverance as she reserves for the greats. I did get lost (as I am known to do) when she waxes philosophical, and almost totally lost it when she went onto mimetics near the end of "The Possessed." Fortunately, mimetics are something I studied (and then buried) in college- and was deeply amused to read Batuman's take on the subject. If you need a readable discussion of a fairly unreadable subject- trust me, you'll sound educated after you finish "The Possessed," this is a must-read.