I picked up Elif Batuman’s The Possessed in need of some light relief after one of this year’s Oranges, brilliant though it was, touched a raw nerve and left me feeling a tad emotional.  I needed an antidote, something to induce tears of laughter and judging from a multitude of tweets, I could expect Batuman’s highly personal Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them to supply them aplenty.

It’s a tough ask at the best of times with me.  I find that humour pales very quickly with most comic reads ending up abandoned and that’s when I’m in a good mood!  Delighted to say that, while I never laughed out loud, I smiled a lot, and Batuman kept me reading to the end.

Firstly, let me say that The Possessed is not what I expected – and now that I’ve read this entertaining mix of  memoir, travel writing and literary criticism,  I’ve forgotten just what I did expect.  I certainly wasn’t anticipating a book written by a Russophile to start by comparing her experience to that of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or that her dreams would be so surreal!  Here’s an explanation of the cover:

I dreamed I was playing tennis with Tolstoy.  As Alice in Wonderland plays croquet with a flamingo for a mallet, I was playing tennis with a goose for a racket. Lev Nikolayevich had a normal racket; only I had a goose.  I served the ball, producing a flurry of fluffy gray down.  Tolstoy’s mighty backhand projected the ball far beyond the outermost limits of the tennis lawn, into the infinite dimension of total knowledge and human understanding.  Match point.

This in a chapter in which Batuman attempts to obtain a grant to research a by-her-own-admission-half-baked theory that Tolstoy was murdered! 

The book is structured into eight essays during the course of which Batuman travels through Russia and explains her relationship with and her interpretations of the great literary Russians:  Isaac Babel (I had never heard of him, still not sure if I want to read him), Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin.    These chapters are interspersed with a memoir of a summer spent in Samarkand, being treated as a second-class citizen by her landlady while learning Uzbek – a language in which there are over 100 words for crying  – and getting to grips with its literature.  I can’t say that the Uzbeki canon is for me but I did enjoy the portraits of the people she met:  the abusive landlady who kept the flushing toilet to herself and magnanimously bestowed a hole in the ground to her lodgers, her patient language and literature tutors who taught her for a whole summer for just $75 apiece (the going rate paid to them by the university).   And if that’s not enough, there’s a particularly fascinating chapter relating the macabre history of the original St Petersburg ice palace and its bed chamber, built in 1740.  (The following pictures are of the replica built in 2006.)

Ledyanoy Dvorets St Petersburg Russia
Ice Palace, St Petersburg by Piosima (Flickr)
Ice Bed
Ice Bed, St Petersburg by tortoisette (Flickr)
Brrrrrrrrr! Let’s get back to the book.  A final surprise or more expectations subverted.  I expected a comic book about Russian literature to have a lot more to say about Gogol.  He is mentioned but not extensively and, because the index lists the Russian works mentioned but not the page references, I can’t find them now.  Why is this important?  Well, I guarantee that you’ll emerge from this read craving a follow-up Russian read and I came out craving Gogol above all else.
This proved to be a charming, educative and therapeutic read for me.  Thank you, Elif  Batuman.  I’m really glad your Russian literary adventure began in earnest when Chekhov refused to name the characters in “The Lady and The Little Dog”.  Gladder still that years later you conclude: 
If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. 
I don’t see me exchanging my favourite hobby any time soon either.