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“…to immerse yourself, to become possessed…” #elifbatuman #dostoevsky @bananakarenina

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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman

There have been any number of fascinating books arriving at the Ramblings recently, and some of the most inspired were the two lovely Valentine’s Day gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. I reviewed the first of the pair, “To the River”, here and it was a most wonderful reading experience. The second book was perhaps a surprise – a book on the Russians which I don’t already have and which looked very intriguing. So it was a given that it would come off the shelves soon – I can’t resist the Russians….

Batuman is a new author to me; a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2010, “The Possessed” was her first book and also came out that year. Since then she’s also written a novel “The Idiot” (hmmmm – I sense a theme here…) and she describes herself as “A six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey”. “The Possessed” itself probably falls comfortably into that genre of what you might call ‘enhanced or themed memoir’ which seems to be so prevalent nowadays (you could perhaps put the Laing in there with it) and is none the worse for it – especially, from my point of view, when it turns out that the focus is on Batuman’s encounters with classic Russian literature and how it impacts on her. The result is a heady mix of memoir and experience with tales of how reading Russians has been a thread influencing important parts of her life – something with which I’d obviously empathise, though I don’t think mine has been quite so exciting!

Central to the book is a summer Batuman spent in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language in the company of her then boyfriend Eric. Three chapters on their adventures are dotted throughout the book, and like all of the narrative it’s entertaining, funny and yet often very moving. Batuman’s encounters with other cultures can be quite eye-opening, and there are often near disasters as she stumbles through situations not quite knowing what to expect. In fact, the subtitle would have more accurately started with the word “Misadventures”!

Isaac Babel

Inevitably, as the book deals very much with Batuman’s experiences in the university sector, there are tales of boredom and bad temper at academic conferences and these are often hilarious; her dry humour captures the silliness and the rivalries and the tensions of these events wonderfully – although there are many uncomfortable conversations which are funny to read about but would be less so to experience… There are encounters with Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky biographer and scholar; and with Isaac Babel’s daughters at a high-profile Babel conference, an event that sounds extraordinarily stressful! Her visit to the Tolstoy Conference at his estate was fascinating, ending with some fascinating musings on Tolstoy and Chekhov; interestingly, she finds less of Chekhov’s presence in her visit to his house than she does of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. Dostoevsky features in the book towards the end, in perhaps a rather low-key way, given that the title is from one of his books, and there is the inevitable comparison between the two authors. Batuman is definitely a woman who prefers Tolstoy and although I’d choose Dostoevsky in the debate, I had to smile at her analysis of his style!

“Like much of Dostoevsky’s work, Demons consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence.”

“The Possessed” is an unusual book in many ways; choosing to define your life by your experiences in the sphere of Russian literature is not your everyday approach. But a book that discovers the connections between “King Kong” and Babel has got to be special, and Batuman is always an engaging, witty and self-deprecating narrator. As well as telling of her fascinating (mis)adventures, which are entertaining enough on their own, she brings much insight to the Russian authors she discusses. Dangerously, she gives a list of books and sources at the end which set me off researching; frustratingly, some seem to be untranslated, but the core chapters in Samarkand drew on a piece of writing by Pushkin I hadn’t encountered and have unfortunately led to me having to invest in this:

Yes, I’ve already read the “Tales of Belkin” and have at least two translations of them on the shelves; however, this collection contained the only non-P/V version I could find of his travelogue “Journey to Arzrum” and so inevitably I need to read this after the Batuman.

“The Possessed” was really a marvellous read, a wonderful mixture of funny and entertaining memoir alongside some beautiful discussions of, and insights into, many of my favourite authors. I came out of it not only even more impressed with Mr. Kaggsy’s Book Choosing Skills, but also with a very strong need to read a book that’s been languishing on my TBR for too long and which has had a number of versions of its title in translation – yes, “The Possessed” or “The Demons” or in the version I’m embarking on, “The Devils”.

698 pages…

I’m really in the mood for FMD’s revelations and mass violence, and in the immortal words of Captain Oates, I May Be Some Time….. ;D

 

Hard-boiled gangsters – from the Ukraine!

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Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

By now, the Ramblings has probably become known as the haunt of some nutty woman who loves to go on about dead Russian authors (or at least so my OH would have you believe!) I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that (well, the bit about Russian authors, anyway) but looking back through my posts I’m surprised to see that I don’t appear to have written anything about Isaac Babel, apart from one short story and a report of a find of a huge collected book of his work. And bearing in mind what a highly regarded writer he is, I really should have read more of him that I have. So when I heard that the lovely Pushkin Press were bringing out a collection of his entitled “Odessa Stories” I was, of course, very interested.

odessaThe new volume brings together all of the stories Babel set in Odessa, the city of the author’s birth, and a wonderful selection they are too. Babel was a Jewish man living in a Ukrainian city and writing in Russian, and that cosmopolitan set up reflects the place itself. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, the stories capture a unique world and way of life which is now long gone. “Odessa Stories” was originally a shorter collection published in 1931, with the stories telling of the life of fictional Jewish mob boss, Benya Krik, and his gang. This expanded volume includes all Babel’s other stories and pieces covering his time in Odessa and the resulting book makes fascinating reading.

“Odessa Stories” is divided into three sections, and the first (entitled ‘Gangsters and Other “Old Odessans”‘) focuses on the ‘gangster’ stories of Benya Krik and his associates and enemies. Basically, the city seems to have been run at the time by the Jewish gangster community, and they have a morality all of their own. We hear of their battles, their loves and their hates, all told in a brilliant and lively voice. The stories read in a remarkably modern, almost colloquial way which works really well with the subject matter. Babel’s been described as a modernist, and certainly these tales are remarkably fresh.

The second section, ‘Childhood and Youth’, contains a group of semi-autobiographical stories (which translator Boris Dralyuk warns us against accepting too literally). The Babel-like narrator revisits his younger days, recalling his coming of age; the outstanding story is “The Story of My Dovecote”, which poignantly recalls the tragic effects of a pogrom that took place around the time of the 1905 Russian uprising. It’s visceral and moving, as the young man mourns the loss of an uncle and his precious doves, almost incapable of really grasping what’s going on around him. It is in these stories that the thread of anti-semitism becomes more clear, as the pogrom is seen through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening; although we as more wise readers can mourn the horror of hatred and intolerance.

Finally, a third part called ‘Loose Leaves and Apocrypha’ rounds up fragments – an essay on Odessa, a short story taking place on the day of Lenin’s funeral and a story which is a recent find and has been attributed to Babel, but probably isn’t by him.

220px-isaac_babel

This is a wonderful collection of stories, and Babel certainly seems to have found the perfect translator in the form of Dralyuk, who also provides an excellent introduction and notes. What’s fascinating about the stories is how they shatter the stereotype of the old-style Jewish family showing instead the modern, gutsy, lively folk of Babel’s Odessa. As the author says at one point:

Here it must be said that my people weren’t exactly your typical Jewish family. Our clan had its share of drunks, we seduced generals’ daughters and abandoned them at the border, and our grandfather forged signatures and composed blackmailing letters for deserted wives.

What’s also fascinating is watching the changes that take place in Odessa as the way of life evolves; towards the end of the stories, when the Revolution has happened and the Bolsheviks are taking over, the old guard of gangsters lose control of the city and the iron grip of the Soviets begins to take hold.

Really, I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s lively and entertaining, wonderfully written and gives a captivating yet poignant glimpse of a lost world. Plus it’s a beautifully produced Pushkin edition – so what more could you want? Babel’s life was tragically cut short by Stalin’s secret police when he was shot in January 1940; fortunately he left behind him a large body of work and you could find no better place to start reading him than with this lovely volume.

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