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The Possessed

Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Elif Batuman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374532184
ISBN13: 9780374532185

Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Runner Up for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

Elif Batuman's voice—unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature—has made her one of the most admired writers of her generation. Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman takes her reader to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg as she investigates a possible murder at Tolstoy's ancestral estate. The student devoted to the Russian classics will retrace Pushkin's wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.


Praise for The Possessed

"Odd and oddly profound . . . Among the charms of Ms. Batuman's prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her . . . Perhaps Ms. Batuman's best quality as a writer though—beyond her calm, lapidary prose—is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she's feeling."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"The seven essays here are expansive, wide-ranging, almost impossible to categorize, merging criticism and personal experience, scholarship and life. Although bounded by the author's devotion to Russian literature, The Possessed is really a kind of autobiography in reading, in which the characters are Tolstoy, Isaac Babel and Pushkin."—David Ulin, Los Angeles Times

"It's not surprising that some people never get over these books, and Batuman, for her part, goes to get a Ph.D. in Russian literature. Meanwhile, she travels through a country just poignant and absurd enough to showcase her capacious sense of humor (which has room for Isaac Babel, romantic mishaps, and missing luggage) . . . The main attraction is Elif Batuman herself."—Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine

"Hilarious, wide-ranging, erudite, and memorable, The Possessed is a sui generis feast for the mind and the fancy, ants and all. And, unlikely though this may sound, by the time you've reached the end, you just may wish that you, like the author, had fallen down the rabbit hole of comp lit grad school. Batuman's exaltations of Russian literature could have ended up in scholarly treatises gathering dust in university stacks. Instead, she has made her subject glow with the energy of the enigma that drew her to it in the first place."—Liesel Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

"Batuman writes with superb wit . . . There's something melancholy, as well as beautiful, in using literature not just to illuminate experience but actually to create it. Batuman's writing waltzes in a space in which books and life reflect each other. The effect is dizzying sometimes, and maybe that's one of her points; her roving sensibility deliriously encompasses many styles and moods. If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book."—Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"For Batuman, the Russian classics are a prism through which we can examine our own lives, whose close study might just lead us toward unlocking what she describes as ‘the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love.'"—Peter Terzian, The Boston Globe

"A hugely engaging mix of scholarly spelunking . . . and subtle personal revelation . . . Batuman, a gifted and almost painfully funny raconteur, encounters literary royalty and astronomer kings, as well as many epically borderline personalities who attend academic conferences. As it turns out, investigating how the lives of the masters informed their art leads to the revelation that oftentimes, it's art that gives shape to life."—Megan O'Grady, Vogue

"I'm no great partisan of the Russian novel . . . So when I rave to you, dear readers, about Elif Batuman's hilarious and charming The Possessed, understand that the author has entirely bewitched me despite my relative indifference to her subject. Ten pages in, I already knew I'd read her on pretty much anything. Which is not to say that The Possessed failed to enlighted me about both Russian books and the people who adore them . . . I'm hooked."—Laura Miller, Salon

"Wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat . . . Shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived—at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime."—Adam Kirsch, Slate

"If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear ‘Russian literature,' you think of college classes you wish you'd cut—and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter. But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy."—Scott Martel, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"A rare gem: a genuine affirmation of deep reading—of caring about ideas and being carried of by them—from an exceptional writer who's not event 35."SF Weekly

"It's not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batuman's The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature . . . Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it."The Christian Science Monitor

"Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years . . . By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well. She's an example of not just how to appreciate literature, but how to live life through literature—without losing yourself."The Dallas Morning News

"While some parts of the essays read like spy thrillers, others are more like episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with academic stealing one another's parking spaces and then giving the finger . . . Batuman does what all great essayists do—she fills her readers with a passion for the subject at hand while simultaneously exploring its complexity."—Simon Van Booy, Bookforum

"A good personal-academic essay blends the best qualities of [memoir and literary criticism]: the charm, humor, digressions, and confessions of personal writing with the intelligence, curiosity, and analytical boldness of lit crit. Batuman . . . [gets] the ratios pretty much exactly right."—Sam Anderson, New York magazine

"A deeply funny, fiercely intelligent portrait of the not-always-rational pursuit of knowledge. Though Batuman lavishes attention on the specifics of her passion—and may indeed inspire you to spend the rest of this winter holed up with a thick Russian novel—her book is really about the process of learning itself. It's a relatable, absorbing account of what it feels like to be infatuated with ideas, and to let them lead you to ever more weird and wonderful places."—Eryn Loeb, Time Out New York

"Can the practice of literary scholarship and the art of literary criticism generate true tales of hilarity, pathos, and revelation? Yes, if you're Batuman, a writer of extraordinary verve and acumen who braids together academic adventures, travelogues, biography, and autobiography to create scintillating essays . . . Batuman became enthralled by the great Russian writers, studied Russian, and, after some rough spots, embraced the study of literature as her life calling. Precision is Batuman's path to both humor and intensity, whether she's writing about her fellow comparative-lit grad students at Stanford, 'magic' library moments (such as discovering a link between Isaac Babel and King Kong), antic miscommunications at international literary conferences, a visit to St. Petersburg's ice palace, and, in several piquant installments, her strange summer in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language and literature. Candid and reflective, mischievous and erudite, Batuman writes nimble and passionate essays celebrating the invaluable and pleasurable ways literature can 'increase the sum total of human understanding.'"—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"In her first book, a picaresque memoir, Rona Jaffe Prize-winning essayist Batuman takes the reader on a journey both literary and physical as she traces the evolution of her fascination with Russian literature across the globe and several centuries. Batuman writes in a voice that is frank, droll, and at times dryly hysterical. Her devoted, sometimes tangential study of Russian language and literature and the Dickensian cast of characters she meets in its pursuit will strike a chord with anyone who has been to graduate school and amuse even those who haven't. Footnoted translations of quotations in foreign languages would be helpful, but this is otherwise a wildly entertaining romp through academia and the Russian literary pantheon that does justice to a literature that is deservedly praised but underread. Highly recommended for book lovers of all sorts, especially fans of Russian literature or metanonfiction such as Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road."—Megan Hodge, Randolph-Macon College Library, Ashland, Virginia, Library Journal

"Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays. Stanford lit prof Batuman (recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award) gleans clues to the conundrums of human existence by recalling scenes from her grad-student days in academe and exotic settings like Samarkand. A Tolstoy conference sparks her investigation into the possible murder, both physical and metaphysical, of the great man. She spends a summer in Samarkand reading impenetrable works in Old Uzbek as a window into Central Asia's enigmatic present. (Her baffled précis of one legend reads in part, Bobur had an ignorant cousin, a soldier, who wasted all his time on revenge killings and on staging fights between chicken and sheep.) The book climaxes in a Dostoyevskian psychodrama that swirls around a magnetic grad student in the comp-lit department. Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of mimetic desire vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author's Collected Works, they aren't aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The "millennium" edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and...

About the author

Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and The Idiot. The recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor, she also holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University.

© Mikhail Lemkhin

Elif Batuman

Official Links

Read Elif Batuman in the New Yorker