Review: The Possessed by Elif Batuman – plus, win a copy

My online research suggests that any review of Elif Batuman’s remarkable book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them  must open with the reviewer musing on how to categorise it, before settling, uncomfortably, on ‘memoir’. And who am I to blow against the wind?

Let’s start with Elif’s own explanation of her underlying intentions, from the Introduction:

From Cervantes onward, the method of the novel has typically been imitation: the characters try to resemble the characters in the books they find meaningful. But what if you tried something different – what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor?

What if you read [Balzac’s] Lost Illusions and, instead of … living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews, and having love affairs – instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions, in order to someday write the same novel for twenty-first century America – what if you instead went to Balzac’s house and Madame Hanska’s estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him – and then started writing?

That is the idea behind this book.

Does that help you understand The Possessed? No, me neither, and I’ve read it. This is a very unusual book indeed: a haphazard non-linear dash through one woman’s youth, travels, career and unsatisfactory love-life; viewed, sort-of, through the prism of the great Russian novels. Plus a fairly detailed account of the Ice Palace built by Anna Ioannovna, niece of Peter the Great. I suppose I’ll have to follow the herd and settle, uncomfortably, on ‘memoir’, but we Dabblers will have an advantage in getting to grips with it because the reading experience is not at all dissimilar to following a personal blog, where themes and obsessions recur throughout posts on quite different topics, and a blogger might reveal aspects of herself in a haphazard, non-linear, dashing style. Elif is indeed a blogger – and like many bloggers, she is obsessed by two things: reading books, and writing about herself. That, I would suggest, is the simplest explanation of how her book came to be.

But whatever it is, The Possessed is extremely funny. The two academic conferences in California and Russia (for Isaac Babel and Tolstoy scholars respectively) are sublime comedies; Batuman has a gift for sketching memorable eccentrics in a few deadpan lines, and the dialogue, all inexplicable non-sequiturs and awkward miscommunication, wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie like The Royal Tenenbaums.

She’s frighteningly smart, as well as funny. Every page is rammed with crap-cutting insight, most literary-based, some human folly-based, many based on both. How’s this for a take-down of the product of creative-writing courses?…

What did craft ever have to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits…

…it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns – like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e…. Often, they answered the “five Ws and one H”.

…For example: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.”

The final section is an incongruity amongst incongruities: effectively an essay providing a literary criticism of Dostoevsky’s  novel Demons (aka The Possessed). Frankly I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I’ve always loathed literary criticism – in fact I dropped Eng Lit at university and switched to Philosophy because it seemed to me that literary criticism was for people who wanted to pretentiously name-drop philosophers in their writings and, indeed, conversation, without actually bothering to find out what those philosophers said. But had I met Elif or someone like her (could there be anyone else like her?) I might well have felt differently, because she obviously digs it and she’s considerably smarter than I am.  Strangely, none of the other online reviewers of The Possessed seem prepared to admit that Elif Batuman is smarter than they are, though it’s obviously true.

Win a copy of The Possessed

Courtesy of Granta, we have two hardback copies of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed to give away to members of the Dabbler Book Club. If you are already a member you will automatically be entered into the draw so you don’t have to do anything.

Otherwise, sign up below.

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You will be entered into the  draw and also be automatically entered into the free Dabbler Book Club, giving you the chance to get hold of monthly free books and other good stuff – see more information and Ts & Cs here.

The draw will take place on Monday 6 June. Good luck!

Ts &Cs: All entrants will automatically be entered into the Dabbler Book Club. This means that you will receive occasonal emails from us about the next monthly book and other offers. However, we will not pass your details on to any third party and you can unsubscribe at any time by emailing and requesting to be unsubscribed. Winners will be drawn at random from the Dabbler Book Club members at 5pm on Monday 6 June 2011. The judges’ decision is final. The Dabbler reserves the right to offer an alternative prize or to offer no prize and withdraw the competition at any time for any reason. More competitions are available at Free UK Competitions
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11 thoughts on “Review: The Possessed by Elif Batuman – plus, win a copy

  1. Worm
    May 25, 2011 at 12:39

    The description of the creative writing course is spot on! Wonder if every creative writing teacher in the world, in every language, exhorts their pupils to ‘murder your darlings’ and ‘show don’t tell’…..

    Dave Lull
    May 25, 2011 at 14:22

    Here’s Stanley Elkin in the Paris Review “The Art of Fiction No. 61” interview:

    ‘My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me, “Stanley, less is more.” He wanted to strike—oh, he had a marvelous eye for the “good” stuff—and that’s what he wanted to strike. I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess because I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough. There’s a famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in which Fitzgerald criticizes Wolfe for one of his novels. Fitzgerald tells him that Flaubert believed in the mot précis and that there are two kinds of writers—the putter-inners and the taker-outers. Wolfe, who probably was not as good a writer as Fitzgerald but evidently wrote a better letter, said, “Flaubert me no Flauberts. Shakespeare was a putter-inner, Melville was a putter-inner.”* I can’t remember who else was a putter-inner, but I’d rather be a putter-inner than a taker-outer.’

    ‘* The quote actually reads, “Flaubert me no Flauberts. . . . Shakespeare and Cervantes and Doustoievsky [sic] were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in.”’

    • Brit
      May 25, 2011 at 19:40

      Thanks Dave – great stuff.

      There are no hard and fast rules in this game. Good purple prosers are good, and bad ones are bad; and the same goes for the taker-outers.

    May 25, 2011 at 14:44

    ‘like many bloggers, she is obsessed by two things: reading books, and writing about herself.’

    Two of my three favourite things. The third being drinking. If only there was some way of combining the three.

    May 25, 2011 at 21:32

    This is indeed an enjoyable book and weirdly spent a week on the NYT bestseller list. There is also a section set in Samarkand threaded throughout the book, well worth a read for anyone interested in Central Asia, its history, culture and language.

  5. Gaw
    May 26, 2011 at 07:53

    It reminded me of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which, in my book, is a recommendation. I haven’t quite finished it or I might have some more to say (though it is strangely difficult as it’s such an unusual book – Brit done well). Anyway, I’m looking forward to the mystifying finale on The Possessed.

    • Brit
      May 26, 2011 at 09:35

      I found it very readable, not difficult at all.

      • Gaw
        May 26, 2011 at 16:26

        Difficult to review.

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