Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

I just finished reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, on the recommendation of several of my Russian literature teachers/professors several years ago. Now that I’ve finally read it, I’d like to recommend it to everyone I know, in the hope that in the next several years, they will all read it too! Because it’s probably one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and also one with which I’ve identified with most personally. I feel like you can just put it in someone’s hands–a relative’s, or those of a stranger who’s just asked what you do for a living–and say, HERE, READ THIS. IT IS A RARE INSIGHT INTO THE MIND OF A GRADUATE STUDENT IN LITERATURE. INTO WHAT IT’S LIKE TO DO RUSSIAN/SOVIET STUDIES. INTO WHAT TRAVELING IN RUSSIA/THE FORMER USSR/AREAS ADJACENT IS LIKE IN THE 21ST CENTURY.

Which is funny, because I’m so unfond of cover blurbs that promise a rare insight into anything, much less something as essentializing as what I’ve written above. But I feel like in this case it almost holds true. Of course, I’m not sure if the familiarity I read in it, or the memories it evokes in me, will translate for the audience I’ve outline above, either. It may read as nonsense if you’re not already here with us–the doctoral student in literature, or those trained in REES (Russian & Eastern European Studies), that is.

The book itself is a non-linear history of Elif Batuman’s time in the Comparative Literature PhD at Stanford, which spans the vagaries of conference planning and logistics, the slippage between the innards and outsides of literary texts, an eventful summer in Sanarkand (Uzbekistan), and what you can find in the streets of St. Petersburg–which is at once both unbelievable yet completely mundane. Because if you have ever traveled to Russia (or its neighboring countries), you’ve likely found that many things happen very suddenly, often in the cover of night, with no explanation given–and/or an explanation that appears to be such a non sequitur it only serves to disexplain further. That’s just the way it is.

I’ll close by offering two of my favorite short segments. If you think they’re hilarious, you should read this book. If you have no idea why anyone might think they’re so hilarious, you should also read this book.

I was plagued by a recurring nightmare about penguins. I had applied for a grant to go to Russia on a homestay, and the household I got assigned to was a family of penguins in Antarctica. “But penguins don’t even have a language!” I protested. In fact, those penguins did have a language, with two branches, one epic-narrative and one lyric-folkloric. I was jerked awake by the pounding of my own heart. (Batuman 174)

I was to write a report about the role of Lazhechnikov in the Russian cultural imagination, and also take some photographs of a house in Petersburg where Maxim Gorky had once lived. (Having copied the address wrong, I ended up taking pictures of a neighboring Yolki-Palki: one of a chain of affordable nineteenth-century-themed taverns. Finding it odd that the Russians had turned Gorky’s house into a Yolki-Palki, I remember going inside afterward to eat a pirozhok and contemplate the vagaries of history.) (Batuman 182)

With regard to this last quote, I don’t mean I found it funny in a “smile lightly” sort of way–I mean I broke into audible laughter twice during my transcription of it just now. You’re either laughing with me as you read this or backing away slowly. But have you ever been to a Yolki-Palki?

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