Alec Scott's Reviews > The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
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Nov 05, 10

Read in October, 2010

A lovely wit infuses this book, but she gets sidetracked. Initially she writes (beautifully) about her reaction to the great Russian writers -- and that's what the title promises the book will be about. But then she starts to tell us, detail for detail, about her rather hapless study journeys to Russia, and the whole thing become a bagatelle -- slightly amusing but insignificant. Still, she's great at thumbnail sketches of people -- as witness: "Cowper, best remembed as the author of the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" was literally driven mad in 1763 by his anxiety over the entrance examination for a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords. After three suicide attempts, he wound up in an asylum where he began writing poetry, his most famous is called "Hatred and Vengeance, my eternal portion." A friend, Lady Austen, trying to steer him to more neutral topics, asked him to write a blank-verse people about "this sofa" ..." And she loves and quotes Henry James which always gets points with me: from Portrait of a Lady: "Afterwards, however, she always remembered that one should never regret a generous error."

A.
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