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THE POSSESSED / Elif Batuman

Batuman shares her profound knowledge and love of literature in a series of memoirs about her international travels doing research and attending seminars. The author grew up fluent in English and Turkish, studied Russian in school, and pursued Uzbek while in Samarkand. She examines her personal life, through the expressed lens of world literature which provides the deepest insights, expressed memorably by intrepid explorers of the human soul.

Most chapters focus on a specific writer and related matters of history and culture; three of the chapters cover Batuman’s stay in Samarkand and her studies and adventures there. “The House of Ice” gives the story of Empress Anna’s 19 feet high ice-construction on the river Neva in St. Petersburg in 1740. Dyed various colors, complete with ice-sculpted furnishings, it was built for the freezing honeymoon of 2 of Anna’s peculiar retinue—her jesters. An event that was central to a historic novel in 1935.

In another offering, Batuman walks us through the plot of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed and then offers a telling interpretation based on Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire.” However, after applying the theory to her own relationships, the author concludes Girard is wrong.

Batuman shares many comical and even zany encounters; visiting Hungary, she gets this response to her inquiry about Turkish elements in Hungarian: “Of course we have some Turkish words in our language… For example, ‘handcuffs.’ But that’s because you occupied our country for four hundred years.” (Addressing Batuman as being Turkish.)

After a spat with a fellow grad student, the author recognizes herself in a line by Mandelstam: “How good it is that I managed to love not the priestly flame of the icon lamp, but the little red flame of literary spite.”

Filled with colorful, eccentric characters, acute observations, funny anecdotes, and deeper elements of insight and wisdom, Batuman’s The Possessed will enliven your heart and mind.  Don 12/4/2019

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