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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

3.8 7
by Elif Batuman

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One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year


No one who read Elif Batuman's first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. "Babel in California" told the true


One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year


No one who read Elif Batuman's first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. "Babel in California" told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel's last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel's secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman's subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy's ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin's wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In her comic, poignant, beguiling book, Batuman succeeds marvelously in illuminating her version of love.” —Reese Kwon, Virginia Quarterly Review

“At every step along the way, Batuman's observations are wonderfully vivid.” —Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

“Odd and oddly profound . . . Among the charms of Ms. Batuman's prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her . . . Perhaps Ms. Batuman's best quality as a writer though--beyond her calm, lapidary prose--is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she's feeling.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

“It's not surprising that some people never get over these books, and Batuman, for her part, goes to get a Ph.D. in Russian literature. Meanwhile, she travels through a country just poignant and absurd enough to showcase her capacious sense of humor (which has room for Isaac Babel, romantic mishaps, and missing luggage) . . . The main attraction is Elif Batuman herself.” —Benjamin Moser, Harper's Magazine

“Hilarious, wide-ranging, erudite, and memorable, The Possessed is a sui generis feast for the mind and the fancy, ants and all. And, unlikely though this may sound, by the time you've reached the end, you just may wish that you, like the author, had fallen down the rabbit hole of comp lit grad school. Batuman's exaltations of Russian literature could have ended up in scholarly treatises gathering dust in university stacks. Instead, she has made her subject glow with the energy of the enigma that drew her to it in the first place.” —Liesel Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

“A hugely entertaining mix of scholarly spelunking . . . and subtle personal revelation . . . Batuman, a gifted and almost painfully funny raconteur, encounters literary royalty and astronomer kings, as well as many epically borderline personalities who attend academic conferences. As it turns out, investigating how the lives of the masters informed their art leads to the revelation that oftentimes, it's art that gives shape to life.” —Megan O'Grady, Vogue ("People Are Talking About")

“While some parts of the essays read like spy thrillers, others are more like episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with academic stealing one another's parking spaces and then giving the finger . . . Batuman does what all great essayists do--she fills her readers with a passion for the subject at hand while simultaneously exploring its complexity.” —Simon Van Booy, Bookforum

“Batuman's audaciously funny debut . . . unravels the language, plots, and personal lives of the country's greatest writers. Part travelogue, part memoir, this book is ultimately about what happens when an unlikely infatuation becomes a life's work.” —Kristy Davis, O, The Oprah Magazine

“A good personal-academic essay blends the best qualities of [memoir and literary criticism]: the charm, humor, digressions, and confessions of personal writing with the intelligence, curiosity, and analytical boldness of lit crit. Batuman . . . [gets] the ratios pretty much exactly right.” —Sam Anderson, New York Magazine

“Batuman writes with superb wit . . . There's something melancholy, as well as beautiful, in using literature not just to illuminate experience but actually to create it. Batuman's writing waltzes in a space in which books and life reflect each other. The effect is dizzying sometimes, and maybe that's one of her points; her roving sensibility deliriously encompasses many styles and moods. If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.” —Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“I'm no great partisan of the Russian novel . . . So when I rave to you, dear readers, about Elif Batuman's hilarious and charming THE POSSESSED, understand that the author has entirely bewitched me despite my relative indifference to her subject. Ten pages in, I already knew I'd read her on pretty much anything. Which is not to say that THE POSSESSED failed to enlighted me about both Russian books and the people who adore them . . . I'm hooked.” —Laura Miller, Salon

“A deeply funny, fiercely intelligent portrait of the not-always-rational pursuit of knowledge. Though Batuman lavishes attention on the specifics of her passion--and may indeed inspire you to spend the rest of this winter holed up with a thick Russian novel--her book is really about the process of learning itself. It's a relatable, absorbing account of what it feels like to be infatuated with ideas, and to let them lead you to ever more weird and wonderful places.” —Eryn Loeb, Time Out New York

“The seven essays here are expansive, wide-ranging, almost impossible to categorize, merging criticism and personal experience, scholarship and life. Although bounded by the author's devotion to Russian literature, THE POSSESSED is really a kind of autobiography in reading, in which the characters are Tolstoy, Isaac Babel and Pushkin.” —David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times (Faces to Watch in 2010)

“Wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat . . . Shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived--at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime.” —Adam Kirsch, Slate

“Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years . . . By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well. She's an example of not just how to appreciate literature, but how to live life through literature--without losing yourself.” —Dallas Morning News

“A rare gem: a genuine affirmation of deep reading--of caring about ideas and being carried of by them--from an exceptional writer who's not event 35.” —San Francisco Weekly

“It's not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batuman's The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature . . . Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it.” —Christian Science Monitor

“It's hard not to fall for [Batuman's] witty, insightful accounts of the things she'll do for Russian literature.” —Bookslut

“If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear ‘Russian literature,' you think of college classes you wish you'd cut--and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter. But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.” —Scott Martel, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“In her delightful debut nonfiction book, The Possessed, writer Elif Batuman explores the eccentrics, the obsessives and the romantics like herself who study the dark works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin.” —Newark Star-Ledger

“Can the practice of literary scholarship and the art of literary criticism generate true tales of hilarity, pathos, and revelation? Yes, if you're Elif Batuman, a writer of extraordinary verve and acumen who braids together academic adventures, travelogues, biography, and autobiography to create scintillating essays.” —Booklist

“When reading Elif Batuman's The Possessed, her debut book of essays, it's easy to feel as though you are witnessing a love affair . . . the result is an intellectual thrill--both for her and her readers.” —The Economist

“Bright prose, spot-on wit, and extraordinary pithiness.” —Brooklyn Rail

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The subtitle of Batuman’s debut is “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” The giveaway is the Roz Chast cartoon on the jacket. A humorous journey through graduate school and Russian literature, The Possessed is proof positive that even the most daunting subject can be made interesting in the hands of a gifted writer.

When Batuman falls for the work of Isaac Babel, the result is her hyper-literate take on a one-sided love affair. She tries, again and again, to free herself from the shackles of a career in academia. She explores creative writing workshops and spends a summer learning Uzbek, but she can’t tear herself from her first love. She’s as doomed to be run over by a PhD in Russian literature as Anna Karenina was to be hit by a train.

Among her entertaining adventures, Batuman’s rabbit trails include some unconventional ideas that didn’t fit into her formal studies: the possibility that Tolstoy was murdered at 82, and the “immoral decadence” of the House of Ice, a copy of an 18th-century castle where Peter the Great’s niece forced two jesters to marry and spend their honeymoon night. Batuman’s writing skills range from creating dialogue for two frogs to canine narration, and endear readers to this creative, witty writer who enlivens even the most arcane corners of academia.

Dwight Garner
…funny and melancholy…Each of these essays unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen…Perhaps Ms. Batuman's best quality as a writer, though—beyond her calm, lapidary prose—is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she's feeling…It's a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
—The New York Times
Liesl Schillinger
Hilarious, wide-ranging, erudite and memorable, The Possessed is a sui generis feast for the mind and the fancy, ants and all. And, unlikely though this may sound, by the time you've reached the end, you just may wish that you, like the author, had fallen down the rabbit hole of comp lit grad school. Batuman's exaltations of Russian literature could have ended up in scholarly treatises gathering dust in university stacks. Instead, she has made her subject glow with the energy of the enigma that drew her to it in the first place: "the riddle of human behavior and the nature of love" bound up, indeed, with Russian. As a soulful Russian-language teacher might say as she hands out a piece of chocolate to her pet student: Molodets. Way to go.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays. Stanford lit prof Batuman (recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award) gleans clues to the conundrums of human existence by recalling scenes from her grad-student days in academe and exotic settings like Samarkand. A Tolstoy conference sparks her investigation into the possible murder, both physical and metaphysical, of the great man. She spends a summer in Samarkand reading impenetrable works in Old Uzbek as a window into Central Asia's enigmatic present. (Her baffled précis of one legend reads in part, “Bobur had an ignorant cousin, a soldier, who wasted all his time on revenge killings and on staging fights between chicken and sheep.”) The book climaxes in a Dostoyevskian psychodrama that swirls around a magnetic grad student in the comp-lit department. Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of “mimetic desire” vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In her first book, a picaresque memoir, Rona Jaffe Prize-winning essayist Batuman (literature, Stanford Univ.) takes the reader on a journey both literary and physical as she traces the evolution of her fascination with Russian literature across the globe and several centuries. Batuman writes in a voice that is frank, droll, and at times dryly hysterical. Her devoted, sometimes tangential study of Russian language and literature and the Dickensian cast of characters she meets in its pursuit will strike a chord with anyone who has been to graduate school and amuse even those who haven't. Footnoted translations of quotations in foreign languages would be helpful, but this is otherwise a wildly entertaining romp through academia and the Russian literary pantheon that does justice to a literature that is deservedly praised but underread. VERDICT Highly recommended for book lovers of all sorts, especially fans of Russian literature or metanonfiction such as Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.—Megan Hodge, Randolph-Macon Coll. Lib., Ashland, VA

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Read an Excerpt

Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale. (I brought my bathroom scale to the library and weighed it, ten volumes at a time.) Dostoevsky comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev in twenty-eight, Pushkin in seventeen. Even Lermontov, a lyric poet killed in a duel at age twenty-seven, has four volumes. It’s different in France, where definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzac’s entire Human Comedy in twelve volumes, and his remaining writings in two volumes, for a combined total weight of eighteen pounds.
The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s best-loved works all fit in the first volume: the Odessa, Childhood, and Petersburg cycles; Red Cavalry; and the 1920 diary, on which Red Cavalry is based. The compactness makes itself felt all the more acutely, since Babel’s oeuvre is known to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in 1939, Babel’s first words were, “They didn’t let me finish.” The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from Babel’s Moscow apartment. They seized and confiscated Babel himself, on charges of spying for France and even Austria. Neither manuscripts nor writer were seen again.
In the next years, Babel’s published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Rumors circulated—Babel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaper—but nobody knew for sure if he was dead or alive. In 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, Babel was officially exonerated, and the dossier of his criminal case made public. Inside was just one page: a certificate attesting to his death, under unknown circumstances, on March 17, 1941. Like Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” Babel had vanished, leaving behind a single sheet of paper.
Nobody really knows why Babel was arrested when he was. He had made powerful enemies early in his career with the publication of the Red Cavalry stories, which immortalize the botched Russo-Polish military campaign of 1920. In 1924, Commander Semyon Budyonny of the First Cavalry publicly accused Babel of “counterrevolutionary lies” and character assassination. In later years, as Budyonny rose in the Party system, from marshal of the Soviet Union to first deputy commissar for defense and Hero of the Soviet Union, Babel found himself on increasingly thin ice—especially after the death of his protector, Maxim Gorky, in 1936. Nonetheless, he survived the height of the Great Purge in 1937–38, and was arrested only in 1939, when World War II was just around the corner and Stalin presumably had bigger fish to fry. What tipped the scale?
The Nazi-Soviet pact might have played a role: because of Babel’s close ties with the French Left, his continued existence was necessary to maintain Soviet-French diplomatic relations—which became a moot point once Stalin sided with Hitler. Some evidence suggests that Babel was arrested in preparation for one last show trial that was to accuse the entire intellectual elite, from the film legend Sergei Eisenstein to the polar explorer Otto Schmidt, but which was called off in September when Hitler invaded Poland.
Some scholars attribute Babel’s arrest to his bizarre relationship with the former people’s commissar Nikolai Yezhov: Babel had had an affair in the 1920s with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, Yezhov’s future wife, and it was said that, even in the 1930s, Babel would visit the couple at home where they would all play ninepins and listen to Yezhov tell gruesome stories about the gulag. When Lavrenty (“Stalin’s Butcher”) Beria came to power in 1938, he made a point of exterminating anyone who had ever had anything to do with Yezhov.
Others insist that Babel was arrested “for no reason at all,” and that to say otherwise is to commit the sin of attributing logic to the totalitarian machine.
When Babel’s box in the KGB archives was declassified in the 1990s, it became known that the warrant for his arrest had been issued thirty-five days after the fact. Following seventy-two hours of continuous interrogation and probably torture, Babel had signed a confession testifying that he had been recruited into a spy network in 1927 by Ilya Ehrenburg and for years systematically supplied André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation—the last detail apparently borrowed from Babel’s late screenplay, Number 4 Staraya Square (1939), which chronicles the byzantine intrigues among scientists in a plant devoted to the construction of Soviet dirigibles.
“I am innocent. I have never been a spy,” Babel says in the transcript of his twenty-minute “trial,” which took place in Beria’s chambers. “I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others . . . I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.” Babel was executed by firing squad in the basement of the Lubyanka on January 26, 1940, and his body was dumped in a communal grave. Nineteen forty, not 1941: even the death certificate had been a lie.
The first time I read Isaac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even “realized” the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
In this class we were assigned to read “My First Goose,” the story of a Jewish intellectual’s first night at a new Red Army billet during the 1920 campaign. Immediately upon his arrival, his new comrades, illiterate Cossacks, greet him by throwing his suitcase in the street. The intellectual, noticing a goose waddling around the billet, steps on its neck, impales it on a saber, and orders the landlady to cook it for his dinner. The Cossacks then accept him as one of their own and make room for him at the fireside, where he reads them one of Lenin’s speeches from a recent issue of Pravda.
When I first read this story in college, it made absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose? What was so great about sitting around a campfire, reading Lenin? Among the stories we read in that class, Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog” moved me much more deeply. I especially remember the passage about how everyone has two lives—one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other “running its course in secret”—and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one. In fact, this theme of a second, secret life is extremely important to Babel, but I didn’t figure that out until later.
The second time I read Babel was in graduate school, for a seminar on literary biography. I read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Cavalry cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.
There are certain books that one remembers together with the material circumstances of reading: how long it took, the time of year, the color of the cover. Often, it’s the material circumstances themselves that make you remember a book that way—but sometimes it’s the other way around. I’m sure that my memory of that afternoon—the smell of rain and baking chocolate, the depressing apartment with its inflatable sofa, the sliding glass door that overlooked rainy palm trees and a Safeway parking lot—is due to the precious, almost-lost quality of Babel’s 1920 diary.
The diary starts on page fifty-five—Babel lost the first fifty-four pages. Three days later, another twenty-one pages go missing—a month’s worth of entries. “Slept badly, thinking of the manuscripts,” Babel writes. “Dejection, loss of energy, I know I will get over it, but when?” For the next couple of days, despite all his efforts, everything reminds him of the lost pages: “A peasant (Parfenty Melnik, the one who did his military service in Elisavetpol) complains that his horse is swollen with milk, they took away her foal, sadness, the manuscripts, the manuscripts . . .”
The diary isn’t about war, but about a writer during a war—about a writer voraciously experiencing war as a source of material. Viktor Shklovsky, who invented the theory that literary subject material is always secondary to literary form, was a great admirer of Babel. “He wasn’t alienated from life,” Shklovsky wrote. “But it always seemed to me that Babel, when he went to bed every night, appended his signature to the day he had just lived, as if it were a story.” Babel wasn’t alienated from life—to the contrary, he sought it out—but he was incapable of living it otherwise than as the material for literature.
The epigraph to the 1920 diary could be the famous phrase from the beginning of Don Quixote: “since I’m always reading, even scraps of paper I find in the street . . .” In Brody, in the aftermath of a pogrom, while looking for oats to feed his horse, Babel stumbles upon a German bookstore: “marvelous uncut books, albums . . . a chrestomathy, the history of all the Boleslaws . . . Tetmajer, new translations, a pile of new Polish national literature, textbooks. I rummage like a madman, I run around.” In a looted Polish estate, in a drawing room where horses are standing on the carpet, he discovers a chest of “extremely precious books”: “the constitution approved by the Sejm at the beginning of the 18th century, old folios from the times of Nicholas I, the Polish code of laws, precious bindings, Polish manuscripts of the 16th century, writings of monks, old French novels . . . French novels on little tables, many French and Polish books about child care, smashed intimate feminine accessories, remnants of butter in a butter dish—newlyweds?” In an abandoned Polish castle, he finds “French letters dated 1820, nôtre petit héros achève 7 semaines. My God, who wrote it, when . . .”
These materials are assimilated and expanded upon in the Red Cavalry stories, for example in “Berestechko,” whose narrator also finds a French letter in a Polish castle: “Paul, mon bien aimé, on dit que l’empereur Napoléon est mort, estce vrai? Moi, je me sens bien, les couches ont été faciles . . .” From the phrase “ nôtre petit héros achève 7 semaines,” Babel conjures the full precariousness of time, a point as delicately positioned in human history as a seven-week-old child, or a false rumor of Napoleon’s death.
Reading the whole Red Cavalry cycle after the diary, I understood “My First Goose.” I understood how important it was that the suitcase thrown in the street by the Cossacks was full of manuscripts and newspapers. I understood what it meant for Babel to read Lenin aloud to the Cossacks. It was the first hostile encounter of writing with life itself. “My First Goose,” like much of Red Cavalry, is about the price Babel paid for his literary material. Osip Mandelstam once asked Babel why he went out of his way to socialize with agents of the secret police, with people like Yezhov: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers? ‘No,’ Babel replied, ‘I don’t want to touch it with my fingers—I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like.’ ” But of course he had to touch it with his fingers. He had to shed blood with his own hands, if only that of a goose. Without that blood, Red Cavalry could never have been written. “It sometimes happens that I don’t spare myself and spend an hour kicking the enemy, or sometimes more than an hour,” observes one of Babel’s narrators, a Cossack swineherd turned Red Army general. “I want to understand life, to learn what it really is.”
The imperative to understand life and describe it provides an urgent, moving refrain in the 1920 diary.
“Describe the orderlies—the divisional chief of staff and the others—Cherkashin, Tarasov.”
“Describe Matyazh, Misha. Muzhiks, I want to penetrate their souls.”
Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always “what,” not “who.”
“What is Mikhail Karlovich?” “What is Zholnarkevich? A Pole? His feelings?”
“What are our soldiers?” “What are Cossacks?” “What is Bolshevism?”
“What is Kiperman? Describe his trousers.”
“Describe the work of a war correspondent, what is a war correspondent?” (At the time he wrote this sentence, Babel himself was technically a war correspondent.)
Sometimes he seems to beg the question, asking, of somebody called Vinokurov: “What is this gluttonous, pitiful, tall youth, with his soft voice, droopy soul, and sharp mind?”
“What is Grishchuk? Submissiveness, endless silence, boundless indolence. Fifty versts from home, hasn’t been home in six years, doesn’t run.”
“I go into the mill. What is a water mill? Describe.”
“Describe the forest.”
“Two emaciated horses, describe the horses.”
“Describe the air, the soldiers.”
“Describe the bazaar, baskets of cherries, the inside of the tavern.”
“Describe this unendurable rain.”
“Describe ‘rapid fire.’ ”
“Describe the wounded.”
“The intolerable desire to sleep—describe.”
“Absolutely must describe limping Gubanov, scourge of the regiment.”
“Describe Bakhturov, Ivan Ivanovich, and Petro.”
“The castle of Count Raciborski. A seventy-year-old man and his ninety-year-old mother. People say it was always just the two of them, that they’re crazy. Describe.”
Babel’s “describe” in his diaries shares a certain melancholy quality with Watson’s mention of those of Sherlock Holmes’s cases that do not appear in his annals: “the case of the Darlington substitution scandal,” the “singular affair of the aluminum crutch,” “the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra . . . for which the world is not yet prepared.” All the stories that will never be told—all the writers who were not allowed to finish! It’s much more comforting to think that, in their way, the promises have already been executed—that perhaps Babel has already sufficiently described limping Gubanov, scourge of the regiment, and that the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is, after all, already the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Babel does return to the Raciborskis in Red Cavalry: “A ninety-year-old countess and her son had lived in the castle. She had tormented him for not having given the dying clan any heirs, and—the muzhiks told me this—she used to beat him with the coachman’s whip.” But even with the Zolaesque note of hereditary vitiation, the Turgenevian kinkiness of the coachman’s whip, and the hinted Soviet rhetoric of a knightly Poland “gone berserk” (a phrase from Babel’s own propaganda work), the “description” is still just two sentences.
• • •
One of the most chilling relics to emerge from Babel’s KGB dossier was the pair of mug shots taken upon his arrest in 1939.
Photographed in profile, Babel gazes into the distance, chin raised, with an expression of pained resoluteness. Photographed face-on, however, he seems to be looking at something quite close to him. He seems to be looking at someone who he knows to be on the verge of committing a terrible action. Of these images, a German historian once observed: “Both show the writer without his glasses and with one black eye, medically speaking a monocle haematoma, evidence of the violence used against him.”
I felt sorry for the German historian. I understood that it was the inadequacy of “without his glasses and with one black eye” that drove him to use a phrase so absurd as “medically speaking a monocle haematoma.” The absence of glasses is unspeakably violent. You need long words, Latin words, to describe it. Babel was never photographed without his glasses. He never wrote without them, either. His narrator always has, to quote a popular line from the Odessa stories, “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Another famous line, spoken by Babel’s narrator to a nearsighted comrade at a beautiful Finnish winter resort: “I beg you, Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

ELIF BATUMAN was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in Twin Peaks, San Francisco (near the radio tower). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Prize. She teaches literature at Stanford University.

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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
HarryVane More than 1 year ago
Ms. Batuman's "The Possessed" is a graduate school journal gone mad. I expected an intriguing romp through the annals of Russian literature, however the reader is introduced into the thankless world of the lowly liberal arts graduate school student, Elif Batuman, and all of the degradations forthwith. While I truly enjoyed Batuman's brief discussions of Russian authors, the chapter on Isaac Babel is absolutely brilliant, those moments are all too brief. The rest of the time Batuman meanders between academic conferences, often belittling her colleagues and associates while prattling on about local encounters. While I do enjoy the occasional travelogue, I believe that Elif Batuman's "The Possessed" is nothing more than that with the occasional moment of relevancy, as well as the typical whine of the graduate student. Her writing style is concise, however this does not explain the financial success of the book. Perhaps former graduate students can relate to Batuman's mundane struggles, but I think it has more to do with her connection to the New Yorker.
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Meg-ABookishAffair More than 1 year ago
This book was a little bit different than what I expected (in a good way). The subtitle of the book is "Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." I guess I was expecting something about people who read Russian novels... not really sure what I was expecting actually. My book club chose the book so I just went along with the flow. This book is really more of a travel book. Elif Batuman always seems to be in the right place at the right time and gets to go to...moreThis book was a little bit different than what I expected (in a good way). The subtitle of the book is "Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." I guess I was expecting something about people who read Russian novels... not really sure what I was expecting actually. My book club chose the book so I just went along with the flow. This book is really more of a travel book. Elif Batuman always seems to be in the right place at the right time and gets to go to all of these fabulous places in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Some parts of it were definitely familiar as I was just in Ukraine back in August. It definitely made me laugh. Batuman also finds herself in some pretty funny situations (scary toilets in Uzbekistan or losing a famous writer's last living relatives in a huge airport or judging a boy's leg contest) that made me laugh even more. It's only when Batuman started talking about some of the Russian novels she has studied that I sort of lost interest. I haven't read very many Russian novels at all so many of those sections simply read as summaries to me and I didn't really get much out of them. Bottom line: Armchair travelers will love this one.
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