The Possessed

The Possessed


'In some complicated way, The Possessed is a book about the relationship between art and life – towards the end there is a detailed engagement with René Girard's theory of the novel and mimetic desire. But it's also a simple book about the relationship between art and life. Or, rather, it's a complicated book about the simple relationship between the two. "The second time I read Babel was in graduate school, for a seminar on literary biography. I read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Cavalry cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel immortalised for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalised for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat."


There are many times, as here, when Batuman embodies that great New Yorker tradition of intelligent, lightly comic non-fiction, as practised by, say, EB White, or Ludwig Bemelmans, or even the great hangdog himself, James Thurber, with his forever perplexed protagonists. Batuman's literary criticism, for example, is perhaps higher on quirk than it is on content. Of Anna Karenina: "The heroine didn't turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for 19 more chapters after her death, and Anna's lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna's maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna's son and Levin's half brother were both Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life." And bathos is always around the corner. "The people of Samarkand probably weren't thrilled to have all those yawning chasms in their sidewalks, but they made the most of things by using them to incinerate their household garbage."


In the end, all memoirs tend to end up as a defence of something, or someone – usually oneself. Batuman's is a defence of reading as a form of living. It therefore echoes the message that Augustine heard in the garden, all those years ago, and which urged him towards his own great Confessions: "Tolle lege" ("Take up and read").'


- from a review by Ian Sansom April 2011, featured in The Guardian


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