Among the charms of Ms. Batuman’s prose is her fond, funny way of describing the people around her. One professor’s mustache and mobile eyebrows give him 'the air of a 19th-century philanderer.' A boyfriend steps off an airplane looking 'as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy' ... Perhaps Ms. Batuman’s best quality as a writer, though — beyond her calm, lapidary prose — is the winsome and infectious delight she feels in the presence of literary genius and beauty. She’s the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head. You want to feel what she’s feeling ... There are moments in The Possessed where Ms. Batuman loses the threads of the stories she’s trying to tell, moments where plot summary or historical précis drag on too long. But these data-dump moments are rare ... It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
The memoir is a generous and democratic form, and perhaps the only form generous and democratic enough for someone like Batuman, who is one of those polyglot, firing-on-all-cylinders-at-all-times kind of individuals one doesn't often come across in smalltown England, or rural Ireland, or in the highlands of Scotland, or the Welsh valleys ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Batuman’s book is one of those fluid, ambiguous, trans-genre works that puzzled bookshop assistants shelve under memoir. Part personal recollection, part travel writing, part literary criticism, it has the remarkable quality of being so dazzlingly good in its unique genre that you wonder whether its author will ever produce anything quite as spectacular ever again ... Whether she took to the study of Russian literature because of a natural inclination to tragic-comedy, or whether her life obligingly began to mirror art is never quite clear, but the combination is both violently original and wholly entrancing ... To apprehend these things, and to explore them – as Batuman does in this preposterously engaging volume – with a mixture of high erudition and a fine sense of the ridiculous, is probably the best any writer can hope to do.
Any reader seriously interested in Russian literature should approach this book with caution ... It leaves the reader still not knowing why this book demanded to be written ... Many other works of fiction besides Russian novels feature in The Possessed. The free-ranging enthusiasm for literature produces refreshing encounters with texts, but sometimes on familiar theoretical territory. So boundaries between fiction and reality are fluid, and books are about other books? ... Batuman's writing is at its most entertaining when recording what readers must presume to be her experiences, and most dull when paraphrasing plots, or re-hashing biographical facts and scholarly opinions ... Batuman has a sharp eye for the absurdities of academics while benefiting, one can't help feeling, from their gullibility. She writes funny accounts of various literary conferences, though her humour can seem brashly cruel when directed at the old and infirm.
The Possessed, a collection of essays that can best be described as a series of academic misadventure stories, is possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years ... She wears her knowledge lightly, while at the same time still conveying her passion for the books and the people who made them ... By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well.
It’s pure love of Russian literature that fuels Batuman’s adventures that comprise the bulk of the novel ... The love of literature crystallizes for many readers when they first encounter a novel they so adore that they think: I wish I could just live inside of it. The Possessed has this desire at heart ... Batuman has the sort of non-fiction voice that not only indicates humor and intelligence but channels it: the reader feels funnier and smarter herself while reading ... But these questions acutely matter to The Possessed, and they in turn transform it from a series of essays and adventures into a novel, into a story, about love and the quest to actualize one’s passions – whether they be Russian literature, chivalric romances, or anything else – through uncompensated devotion.
Conversational seeming but neatly put together, with a controlled graphomaniac flow, and projecting a self-mocking but uncensoredly opinionated personality, her writing has voice in abundance. She’s good at delayed tumbles into bathos ... Page by page, she works up a confiding tone without trying too hard to make you forget that she’s performing; the effect is like reading a gossipy round-robin email from a tremendously entertaining and well-read person you’d have no qualms about hanging with but might think twice about bothering if she was making notes ... Not all of the pieces are 100 per cent successful. ‘Summer in Samarkand’ drags a bit and sometimes treats Uzbekistan as the kind of joke country that it might strike one as being if one went there in one’s mid-twenties to avoid teaching first year Russian.
It may seem unpromising for a writer as young as Batuman (she was born in 1977) to attempt a memoir based on such a conventional CV. Yet in writing about her own education, Batuman manages to make it sound wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat. What makes this possible is her wry, detached sense of humor, always on the lookout for scholarly absurdity, and the understated wit of her writing ... Experiences like these help to convince Batuman, who started out wanting to be a novelist, that the academic study of literature is not the end of literary pleasure, but a new, deeper beginning. She even argues that theory can help us navigate our own lives ... By fusing memoir and criticism, she shows how the life of literary scholarship is really lived—at its most ridiculous, and at its most unexpectedly sublime.
Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays ... Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of 'mimetic desire' vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why.