19 December 2011

The Possessed (Elif Batuman) . . . and a wee Christmas-y Gogol!

Missed the last meeting of the Russian year of the WORD Classics Book Group due to dumb ol' stupid ol' fun-ruining illness, but I did read the book, and it was indeed a fitting cap to the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Gogol experience. Elif Batuman's The Possessed is a joyous journey through the lives and peculiarities of people of all nations who find devote themselves to Russian literature. Batuman is an unapologetic member of their ranks, having almost accidentally found herself a Stanford graduate student in comparative literature.

But though she's got a wonderful analytical mind, her prose evades even a whiff of academic density. The long essay that (in three parts) forms the backbone of the collection, "Summer in Samarkand," details her experiences ostensibly learning Uzbek in that still-exotic city--it's a laugh-out-loud funny culture-shock story, a historical introduction to the complexities of Central Asia (as she learned later, "Uzbek" was not even a defined ethnicity or language until the Soviets decided it was in the early twentieth century), and a guide to a literary tradition largely unknown (and honestly somewhat nebulous) outside of the region. Her writing's lovely, witty, smart--even if you've never read a word of those daunting Russians, I highly recommend the book.

I also read, in the spirit of the season, a wee New Directions paperback edition of Gogol's novella, "The Night Before Christmas," a decidedly un-Moore-ish romp featuring the devil, guilty husbands hiding in sacks, and caroling for sausages. It's a fun, frisky folktale, and just cemented my opinion: Gogol is totes my favorite Russian writer!

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