If you haven’t read anything by Elif Batuman, do yourself a favour – immediately borrow (or better, buy) a copy of her 2010 National Book Critics Circle-nominated The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. This erudite, witty, sensuous, cerebral and self-deprecating work of non-fiction explores the unexpectedly hilarious topics of graduate study of Russian literature and summer visits to Samarkand in Tajikistan, among many others.
One of the most inspiring aspects of The Possessed was the way forward it points for first-person nonfiction. While Batuman was the only person who could have written this particular book, it would be difficult to call this book a “pure” memoir. She herself is not centre-stage in every scene she writes. She is not the sun about which the earth of her stories revolve. She is always present as an observer, but she knows when there is someone more interesting for the reader to pay attention to – such as a highly idiosyncratic descendent of a famous Russian novelist at an unforgettable conference she attends, or the Tolstoy academic who soils his pants on a long bus ride and refuses to remove them. But having Batuman’s company as she reads, thinks, experiences, and recounts her intellectual travel adventures is a thrilling, personal and profound experience.
Being always late to a good party, I have only just discovered Batuman’s account of a 12-hour staging of Dostoevsky’s Demons (originally called The Possessed, thus her book’s title), written for The Paris Review. For this modest and marvellous piece of work she will soon receive the inaugural Terry Southern Award for Humor. (Terry Southern wrote the screenplay for Dr Strangelove, among other accomplishments.)
Have a great weekend.