Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 8 May 2013
I, Melachi ibn Amillar, being of unsound mind and body, did read Elif Batuman's "The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" (2010) in April 2013. The book gives an account of her travels, acquaintances and readings while enrolled on a postgraduate course on literature and languages in California. If that sounds a little odd, well so is the book, ranging from Stanford to Turkey to Uzbekistan and Saint Petersburg. Now, the central question, or joke, of the book is posed on page 57: "As a six-foot-tall first generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew." I, Melachi, have not read as much Russian literature as Ms Batuman, but have slept with more Russian women than her. Or so one imagines. But why, in short, would anyone care what I, or Elif Batuman, has to say about Russian literature? Perhaps cognizant of the answer to this, we are instead treated to the tragi-comic travails of jetsetting academics, in the manner of a David Lodge. Oddly, the narrator does not seem at all possessed -- she will go anywhere and do anything, providing she can get a grant. I assume there is some real scholarship going on as well, though, perhaps mercifully, we are spared this. As a travelogue with a linguistic bent it is interesting in parts, though rather haphazard. There are no cats in the book. There is a long section at the end about mimeticism involving a summary of the entire plot of "The Possessed" (the Russian novel, already rather well-known, I would have thought), the characters of which she seems to compare to those of her classmates, which I did not quite get.
But the strange thing about the book lies in the writing style. Just as the academics are portrayed as obsessed by their topics, when they clearly are not, the chapters are littered with bizarre statements that look as though they might be clever or amusing, but in fact are just strange. It is as though the text were translated from a Turkish original full of untranslatable wordplay. The style is so remorseless that it develops an horrific charm of its own. "I didn't care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years -- it took the experience of lived time -- to realize that they really are the same thing." (p.10). Quite. "[they] disinfected and bandaged his knee in a visibly efficient fashion." (p. 14). Not invisibly? And this splendid non-sequitur, on which I pondered deeply: "He had been chased several kilometers cross-country by a wild dog. He must be the kind of man who likes women, I remember thinking." (p.15). And: "'little feet'... Pushkin is not here referring... to his own feet. Nonetheless, I saw a pair of Pushkin's boots once in a museum, and they were very small." (p.89). "The gypsy looked at my palm and told me to beware of a woman called Mary ." (p. 91). Mary? "In Moscow, for the first and last [last?] time in my life, I dated bankers. Things didn't work out with the first banker [pray tell, perhaps?], but I still remember the second banker fondly... Rustem was saving up money to pay for parachuting lessons." (p. 93). Melachi does not know why Rustem wanted such lessons, but one suspects, and cannot blame him.
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