Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence--including her own.
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.