‘Her first book is a wonderful discovery’ – The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman is an American writer born to Turkish parents in New York. She grew up in New Jersey and in 2007 she received a doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and n + 1 magazine. She currently resides in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Her first book, sitting comfortably on the table in front of me, is called The Possessed – subtitled Adventures with Russian books and the People who read them. It’s a memoir of sorts introducing us to Elif herself, her fascination with the Russian language and Russian writers, many interesting journeys she undertakes in the book and the quite memorable descriptions of academic life which Elif is equally intrigued by.

Elif Batuman’s first contact with Russian-ness came through her violin teacher in New York.

‘Maxim wore black turtlenecks, played a mellow-toned, orange-colored violin, and produced an impression of being deeply absorbed by considerations and calculations beyond the normal range of human cognition.’

The second ‘Russian incident’ which brought Elif closer to Russian literature was discovering a 1970s Penguin edition of Anna Karenina in her grandmother’s apartment in Ankara.

‘I had run out of English books, and was especially happy to find one that was so long. Think of the time it must have taken for Tolstoy to write it! He hadn’t been ashamed to spend his time that way, rather than relaxing by playing Frisbee or attending a barbecue.’

Batuman writes that

Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherworldly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a supercharged gray zone between nature and culture.’

The fascinating journey we’re about to undertake begins. At first Elif Batuman finds nothing interesting in studying literature and starts studying linguistics. Eventually, she has to choose a foreign language as a requirement and that choice falls on Russian. Linguistics soon loses its appeal and eventually Elif receives a degree in literature with the aim of writing her first novel soon after. She, at one point, joins up with an artists’ colony on Cape Cod with the aim of doing some creative writing before starting work on her novel. This, as you can guess by now, doesn’t really go well. 

‘In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer’s formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?’

As you can probably guess, she turned down the writing fellowship. 

Through the chapters that follow our introduction to Elif and the beginnings of her academic life we’re treated to an amazing amount of details, small, funny anecdotes about various Russian authors. Best of all are the chapters on Isaac Babel, ‘Babel in California’ and Lev Tolstoy, ‘Who killed Tolstoy?’ The other chapters don’t lag behind too much but, for example, ‘Summer in Samarkand’ does drag a bit despite some fascinating revelations about the mighty Uzbek language (Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying), culture and history. I’m not too keen to reveal much more about this memoir because it reads much better than most novels I’ve read recently. Elif Batuman discovers another language, falls in love with it, studies it, undertakes some wonderful journeys in the process and decides to share it all in a witty and imaginative way. There’s a lot of literary theory, some very funny anecdotes about academic life, facts and quirky details you probably never knew about Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and many more.

Any Cop?: I can’t wait to see what Elif Batuman has in store for us next. Her first book is a wonderful discovery with, it has to be said, a fantastic design and cover illustration. Buy it and tell your friends to do the same.

Davor Jukic

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