Patron Saints of Literary Gloom

Posessed The Economist reviews Elif Batuman's Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:

ACADEMICS are rarely reliable guides to literature. The magic that draws eggheads to certain books tends to get bludgeoned by theory, jargon and the need to be obscure. This is what makes “The Possessed” such a joy to read. In a handful of essays about Russian books and the people who read them (published in America last year), Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American professor with a doctorate from Stanford University, infectiously conveys the dreamlike inscrutability of Russian literature. With personal anecdotes about Tolstoy conferences, ice-castles in St Petersburg and a summer spent in Samarkand, she also captures the way life can be as mystifying and profound as these books.

Ms Batuman describes her route to a PhD in comparative literature with unusual verve. Perhaps this is because her explanation feels slightly defensive. An aspiring novelist, she had long assumed that fiction must come from experience, not from the study of other books. But there was something about Russian literature, indeed about “Russianness”, that tugged at her ever since her first violin lessons with a fascinatingly odd Russian man named Maxim. Something of a contemporary Eugene Onegin, Maxim wore black turtlenecks and appeared “deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition”. Mercurial and unpredictable, he was the kind of man who could only be explained by Pushkin or Tolstoy, if by anyone at all.

But it was at university that Ms Batuman came around to the idea that Russian — the language and the literature — was the best way to comprehend “the riddle of human behaviour and the nature of love”. When she describes the “otherworldly perfection” of “Anna Karenina”, her pulse quickens: “How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small…so strange and so natural?” She marvels that the heroine doesn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book goes on for 19 more chapters after her death. She recalls her first Russian- language textbook, which featured a story about a woman who goes to visit her boyfriend only to discover a note saying, “Forget me.” Intent on exploring how literature echoes and influences experience, is it any wonder that Ms Batuman chose to “immerse” herself in this world of compelling ambiguity?