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The Possessed



Awards: National Book Critics Circle Awards - Nominee

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About The Author

Elif BatumanElif Batuman

ELIF BATUMAN was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in Twin Peaks, San Francisco (near the radio tower). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Prize. She teaches literature at Stanford University.

photo: © Mikhail Lemkhin

Awards

National Book Critics Circle Awards - Nominee

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Reading Group Gold

1. In his review of The Possessed for The New York Times, Dwight Garner called the book “crucially and fundamentally . . . an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?” To what extent have you brought your life closer to your favorite books? How did Elif Batuman’s literary obsessions bring her closer to her own identity?

2. How has Russia’s eccentric history—marked by equal measures of extravagance and brutality—shaped its storytelling style? In what ways is fiction better than journalism for capturing history? What stranger-than-fiction aspects of Russian history did you discover by reading The Possessed?

3. “Babel in California” lets all readers vicariously experience not only the Babel conference and exhibition but also the tragicomedies of organizing the event. As Batuman delved into archival research, examined Babel’s mug shots, and met his survivors, what image of Isaac Babel emerged? Who had the more accurate knowledge of the author, his family or the scholars who had devoted their careers to him?

4. The Possessed begins with a plot summary of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and its portrayal of intoxicating love. Discuss the various types of love explored in Batuman’s essays and in the fiction she analyzes. How does her love for Eric change? What stoked the passion of Bolshevik revolutionaries? How did Batuman manage her love affair with academia (with which she broke up on more than one occasion)?

5. Which passages made you laugh out loud? How does the author’s sense of the absurd mirror the absurdity in much of her beloved literature? How is she able to seamlessly blend the ridiculous with the sophisticated?

6. How does Batuman’s expertise in linguistics affect the way she reads fiction in translation? How does it affect her “reading” of the people she meets at home and abroad while pursuing her research? How does your own use of language reflect your sense of self?

7. Discuss Batuman’s travels in Europe outside Russia. What does she discover about national identity during her encounters in Turkey (in the capital, Ankara, where she stayed in her grandmother’s apartment), Uzbekistan, and other neighboring countries? What did national identity mean to the Russian authors who immersed themselves in the world outside their homeland (Dostoevsky’s life in Italy, Pushkin’s affinity for France, Turgenev’s years in Baden-Baden)?

8. Batuman offers a bleak depiction of America’s creative writing scene, rejecting an opportunity to join a creative writing program on Cape Cod. In your opinion, what is the impact of America’s many MFA programs on contemporary fiction? How do these programs compare to the societies that produced such authors as Chekhov (a descendant of serfs) and Tolstoy (an aristocrat)?

9. Would your perception of Tolstoy’s work change if you knew that he had been murdered?

10. What does The Possessed say about the differences between communities of writers, scholars, critics, and translators? Do you share Tolstoy’s criticism of Chekhov’s work and his dislike for The Brothers Karamazov? Do you share Batuman’s boredom with the novels of the Turkish Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk?

11. What aspects of Russian history are summarized in Empress Anna’s ghoulish House of Ice? Why has it inspired so many creative works, in the visual arts as well as in literature?

12. If The Possessed were a novel, what would you say about the protagonist? How do the essays form one narrative about a young woman’s transformation? What does she learn about Jewish alienation, writing, grad school, and ancestry? What does she learn from the minor characters, such as Matej, her friend who ends up becoming a monk in the book’s closing scenes?

13. Batuman’s introduction includes the observation, inspired by Michel Foucault, that Don Quixote “had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book” (page 17). Near the end, Batuman applies René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire: the notion that our identity is shaped by our desire to be other people, not simply to have what they have. How do these philosophies serve to bring the essays full circle? How are the threads of identity and literature woven throughout The Possessed?

14. How did The Possessed change the way you feel about the word “Caucasian”?

15. Batuman tells us that The Possessed takes its title from the Dostoevsky novel alternately titled, in translation, The Demons. In turn, the novel took its title from a biblical narrative in which demons leave a man whom they have possessed and enter a herd of swine. Are any of the scholars and authors featured in Batuman’s book purged of their demons?

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