Elif Batuman’s The Possessed is funny, downright hilarious even at times. Like the description of the scholars squabbling over a dinner table at the Babel conference in the opening chapter of the book or the trip to St Petersburg to report about the modern-day replica of Anna Ivanovna’s Ice Palace of which Batuman writes, “The ice palace had no clear purpose, but many unclear purposes. It was a torture device, a science experiment, a ethnographic museum, a work of art.” Still, I struggled to make my way through this book.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a bad piece of literature, but I found it lacking in some sort of overall coherence. The book admits to being an adventure with Russian books and the people who read them, but a considerably large section of the book (three of the seven chapters) chronicles Batuman’s experiences of a summer spent in Samarkand familiarizing herself with Uzbek, its literature and the people who read it. “I believed that out-of-the-way places and literatures are never wasted on writers,” Batuman explains. Interesting as they were, her experiences of her summer in Uzbekistan seemed slightly out of place, “Like a Christmas ornament without a Christmas tree.”
Sure, the book is dotted with interesting facts about both cultures. But be it Samarkand, San Francisco or St. Petersburg, I found it difficult to keep up with Batuman as she drifted through this part literary criticism, part travelogue and part autobiography, without staying on one topic for too long or greatly developing on her ideas. I left the book with a feeling of wanting something more, no, much more especially from a book of which a fair amount of content has been previously published.
Batuman spent seven years studying the Russian novel and in this, her first book writes in the introduction, “….what if you tried something different – what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor? What if you did it all yourself, instead of inventing a fictional character? What if you wrote a book and it was all true?” Batuman strove for her “something different” and describes her years of study as a time when, ”Events and places succeed one another like items on a shopping list.” Given the object of her passion – Russian Literature – the absurdity and weirdness of human nature in each scenario has been very well portrayed.