Wednesday, February 1, 2012

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

Last week was rough. A lot of it was no doubt related to nervousness about seeing my surgeon on Friday.

In November I saw her for a six-month follow-up - my biopsy had to be surgical, as they could not reach the calcifications with a needle biopsy, so I had one surgery at the beginning of March and then the lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy (two lymph nodes were removed and tested to make sure that the cancer had not become invasive) in April.

At an appointment with my medical oncologist in October, I pointed out a nodule right under the lumpectomy scar which was worrying me enormously. The area around the scar kept changing as the tissue settled, which made self-exams fairly terrifying, because every month it felt different. And of course every time I felt the lump, I would prod and poke until it was sore, and then panic because it was sore. 

My oncologist said, "I'm pretty sure that's scar tissue, but I'm glad you're seeing the surgeon next month."

When I saw the surgeon, she said, "I think that's scar tissue."

I said, "Can I get a different verb?"

She said, "No, but I'm happy to see you every month to check on it."

"Yes," I said. "Let us do that."

It shrank a bit, not noticeable to me because I am paranoid, but noticeable to her, over the next few months. In the weeks before my appointment I couldn't find it at all. The surgeon could, but barely, and said that definitely means it's scar tissue.

I walked out of the office thinking, "Hey, I'm not in a totally black mood anymore! Funny, that."

I will have an MRI in March, and that will tell us far more about whether the cancer has returned or not. Nerve-wracking, but this is frankly my best-case scenario for the next ten years: screenings every six months and always having it in the back of my mind. I will take that, with much gratitude, if I am lucky enough to have it.

Anyway, this is a roundabout route to the fact that I read Batuman's book in a fairly distracted manner, and it turns out I probably shouldn't have.

This is less a book about Russian literature and more a memoir of Batuman's college and grad school years. She did end up studying Russian literature and linguistics in those years, and talks lovingly and amusingly of the authors she read, but over half the book is about her summer in Uzbekistan, in which she only talks about the country's Turkish roots (Batuman is the child of Turkish immigrants to the US). It's an amusing travelogue, but sarcastic translations of Turkish poetry is not what this book purports to be about.

Batuman also jumps around chronologically - one chapter will be about her sophomore year in college, the next about her return to grad school after two years off, and in the third we're at her first year in grad school. I found this quite confusing, and again, I wasn't reading as closely as perhaps I should have been, but the book comes across as a light memoir and I didn't like that suddenly I was expected to be deducing, from very small hints, how old Batuman was at any given moment. And this is rather important given that she encountered different authors at different times. 

The last chapter was, unfortunately, almost pointless. She starts off discussing Dostoyevsky's The Demons (also translated as The Possessed) but then segues, clumsily, into a long saga of a gorgeous charismatic grad student in her social circle, and how, despite the fact that every woman in the state of California was in love with him, Elif Batuman was the only one who made it into his bed (this following the reveal that he had taken a vow of celibacy). Batuman's charming humor and refusal to take herself seriously disappear in this chapter, which reads like nothing so much as bragging / wish-fulfillment written by someone who just read The Secret History. It isn't like anything else in the book, and I hated ending with it. 

The rest of the book, timeline problems aside, is smart without being pretentious, funny without being cutesy, and infectiously infatuated with Russian literature, to the extent that I am going to re-read Anna Karenina as soon as I can, and will probably pick up Eugene Onegin, in which I'd never before had any interest (I've never read any Pushkin! this could be exciting). If it weren't for that last chapter, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, and I almost did anyway. I can recommend it. Just feel free to skip the end.

Next up: Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier. I am in the mood for light historical stuff.

1 comment:

  1. When I'm dictator, confessional nonfiction will carry a warning label. They can write it (I guess) but they won't be able to trick me into reading it.