My Love Affair with Russia's Greatest
Byline: RICHARD GODWIN
THE POSSESSED: ADVENTURES WITH RUSSIAN BOOKS AND THE PEOPLE WHO READ THEM by Elif Batuman (Granta, [pounds sterling]16.99) EARLY ON in The Possessed, Elif Batuman -- who may yet turn out to be Mikhail Bulgakov reincarnated as a Turkish-American female -- describes her feelings on reading Anna Karenina as a teenager. Idling on her grandmother's velvet sofa in Ankara, she found in the novel an "otherworldly perfection"; it occupied "a supercharged gray zone between nature and culture".
The Possessed is an account of Batuman's subsequent possession by Russian literature and her post-grad career at Stanford University and it comes to occupy its own supercharged grey zone between literary criticism, travelogue, campus novel and memoir.
Batuman is interested in the ways in which literature can enrich real life and the delight of this book is how her adventures -- learning Uzbek in Samarkand, organising an Isaac Babel conference in California, visiting a reconstruction of Empress Anna I's ice palace in St Petersburg -- come to be "foreshadowed and benightmared" by the very authors she is studying. It is also a defence of literary academia over creative writing classes as a route to becoming a writer: "What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?" she asks in her introduction.
Back on her grandma's sofa, Batuman was particularly struck by the fact that both Anna's husband and her lover are called Alexei, while her daughter and maid are also called Anna: "The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life," she remarks. Undertaking a survey of contemporary American short stories for a magazine, she finds the names of the characters false and contrived. In Lady with the Lapdog, Chekhov doesn't even name the lapdog, she notes. "No American short story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog."
As her narratives take shape, Batuman is determined to bring to lived events some of that otherworldly perfection she finds in Russian literature. …