Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them (by Elif Batuman)

A book that's really hard to describe. Ian went to her book reading when she was in town and brought back signed copies for half the people he knows, so I finally decided to pick this up and read it for myself. It's less of a unified book and more of a series of disconnected stories or essays or meditations on various Russian (and Uzbek) writers and their works, as well as stories of, say, attending a conference on Tolstoy, touring the Petersburg ice palace, or spending a summer with a vaguely horrible woman in Uzbekistan.

It's incredibly erudite, well-written and not in the least overwritten, and both thought provoking and entertaining. I mean, it's really funny, and I did laugh out loud a lot while reading it. In spite of the complexity of the ideas (I found the discussion on mimetic theory super interesting) it's very readable; I tore through it in about two days. I wanted more on the novels that I have read--like War and Peace of course--and I wanted to read the novels that she talks about that I haven't gotten to yet--like Eugene Onegin.

I honestly don't know how to describe this book. If you like Russian novels, or even if you just like novels, you should give it a shot. Here's my favorite bit, about names in contemporary American writing:

The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value – so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis-ball machine: Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American), Hassan. Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision: On the one hand, the cat called King Spanky; on the other, the cat called Cat. In either case, the result somehow seemed false, contrived – unlike Tolstoy’s double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov’s characters, many of whom didn’t have names at all. In ‘Lady With Lapdog,’ Gurov’s wife, Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog.


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