It was love, therefore, not literary curiosity, that led her to help plan an Isaac Babel conference, ride a ferris wheel in Samarkand, and try to solve the mystery of Tolstoy's death. She has devoted years, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, to the study of Russian literature, and is as comfortable telling you about Dostoevsky's personal life as that of her language instructors.
By ELIF BATUMAN
The cast of characters in The Possessed is populated almost equally by dead authors and Batuman's classmates and professors. The ease with which they intermingle -- both in the book and in Batuman's life -- is telling. She, full of self-deprecation, would call it the evidence of how consuming her studies were.
While this is true in part, it's also true that she has a novelist's eye for the salient detail that will bring a character to life. Take, for example, the exchange she has with a fellow conference attendee:.
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Or her account of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland, who traveled to Russia to marry the tsar's niece:. On the way back to Courland, the teenage duke died, of alcohol poisoning. On his last night in Petersburg, he had engaged -- rashly, one feels -- in a drinking contest with Peter the Great. It's remarkable how often Russians talk and act exactly like characters from Russian novels. I once had a Russian professor who -- maybe because she was fuzzy on the word's exact connotation -- constantly asked me if I was demoralized.
Batuman captures this duality perfectly, describing the people she meets with curiosity and perception, but without hiding her bemusement at how quintessentially Russian they are. Why didn't she have a normal broom? Probably the same reason Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying.
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The same duality is present in Batuman's depiction of herself in the book, where she comes across both as a bright, passionate, talented traveler and writer, and as a prototypical grad student, caught up in love, cheap apartments, and departmental politics. Her immersion in literature studies, she says in the introduction, is meant to serve her goal of writing novels of her own. In this way, the adventures she describes are the beginning, middle, and end of her grad student days, but only the prologue of her career as a writer.
View all New York Times newsletters. Day after day, Batuman appears at the symposium in flip-flops, sweatpants and a flannel shirt. A different summer finds Batuman in Uzbekistan, where she has traveled against her will in fulfillment of a fellowship she cannot refuse, for fear of losing all future grant money. In the absence of any visible jam shortage, this behavior was difficult for me to understand. As a soulful Russian-language teacher might say as she hands out a piece of chocolate to her pet student: Molodets.
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