Friday, February 18, 2011

The Possessed

I was intrigued by The Possessed when it was featured in Powell's Review-a-Day in May. I put it on my mental list of books to feature on the student services blog. Strangely enough our library has since acquired two copies of the book.

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
I stopped believing that "theory" had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed? (22)
Elif Batuman went to college intending to study linguistics in the belief that "learn[ing] the raw mechanism of language, the pure form itself" (10) would inform her development into a novelist. Her introduction to the Russian language inspired a fascination with Russianness, which eventually landed her in a PhD program studying the form of the Russian novel. Batuman has yet to publish a novel, but she's had great success as an essayist in large part due to her ability to make both literary theory and staid academic life accessible to a broad readership.

The Possessed is a book that defies genre classification: it's a travelogue and an intellectual coming of age tale with a healthy dose of literary criticism and dry humor. Some of the essays contained within The Possessed have appeared, in slightly different form, in Harper's Magazine, n+1, and The New Yorker, but when read together they become an ecclectic, cohesive whole.

The book's title is taken from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel Demons, the title of which had previously been translated as "The Possessed." In the book's final essay, Batuman admits that Demons "haunts [her] like a prophetic dream" (255) and then shows just how much certain things that happen between the students in her graduate program parallel the events of the novel. While the titular essay isn't the most entertaining in the book, it's a perfect illustration of The Possessed's theme: the intersection between life and literature.

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