The book is much as you would expect it to be based on that one piece. It's self-centred and occasionally overly precious, but I loved it anyway.
It's a bit uneven. The American and Russian sections are wonderful; Batuman can be an incredibly funny writer as well as a very moving one, and when she writes about things she knows and loves she's a joy to read. The Samarkand sections though, despite being set in Samarkand, do not work for me. Apparently Batuman did not enjoy her time there, and so from the fond humour of the other sections we move abruptly toward this sort of thing:
The Uzbek soccer fans' lack of identification with the Turkish national team was what finally made me see that Uzbekistan wasn't a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness. Uzbekistan was more like a worse-off Turkey, with an even more depressing national literature. Even I, who was always making fun of Orhan Pamuk, could see that if Pamuk were magically ceded over to the Uzbeks, they would have cause for a national holiday.
On the whole, though, the sheer, joyous love that informs most of the book makes up for moments like this. It's not perfect, but it's highly recommended.
An edited version of the (tragically short) piece below appeared in Saturday's Indian Express.
In her introduction to The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman says of Cervantes' Don Quixote that he “had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book”. The Possessed is a collection of essays which shows Batuman herself doing much the same thing, immersing herself in books, looking for parallels and answers to her lived experiences. Describing her own transformation into a literature student she asks “wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” Batuman speaks eloquently and joyfully of love and the experience of being obsessed.
This is not a book about Russian literature, but about Batuman's love of it and her developing relationship with it. Batuman claims that what first attracted her to the Russians was a sense of half-understanding and absurdity, and this is reflected in the strange and hilarious forms that her study of the language takes. It is (like any love story) completely self-indulgent.
In “Babel in California” a conference on Isaac Babel descends into chaos. “Who Killed Tolstoy?” has her wandering around Tolstoy's estates as part of an investigation into Tolstoy's “murder” (a subject chosen more for the purposes of funding than for any beliefs the author might have). Missing suitcases, unrepentant airport staff (“are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?”) and incontinent old gentleman all play a part in a comic piece that also speaks thoughtfully of death.
“Summer in Samarkand” is divided into three parts that are scattered throughout the book. These sections do not deal directly with Russian literature – the essays are an account of a summer spent learning Uzbek – yet Batuman's commentaries on Uzbek language and literature are very much in keeping with the rest of the book. If they jar with the rest of the book it is more because of the tone of humour. The affectionate delight in absurdity that characterises the portions of the book set in America and Russia is gone, and the writing suffers as a result.
The last piece, “The Possessed”, is named after a Dostoevsky novel and makes clear its parallels with Batuman's graduate school circle. Things come together, and characters mentioned in passing in earlier essays come into focus. This is the darkest section of the book. Yet Batuman concludes “if I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” And if there are no answers, Batuman shows us that love can still be an end in itself.