"The Possessed" is Constance Garnett's translation of Бесы, Fyodor Dostoevsky's strangest completed novel. (It really is an odd book--you'd think putting all the most Dostoevskian of characters and tropes together in one book would produce a wonderfully typical Dostoevsky novel, but no. More on that later, perhaps.) That title is usually translated nowadays as Demons, restoring the blame that the passive tone of "The Possessed" removes from the characters.
So this isn't about that book. I've just finished the book that genuinely possesses this title in English: Elif Batuman's 2010 memoir of graduate school in comparative literature. Batuman chose her title consciously, wryly and aptly, with the same skillful wittiness that pervades the book. The subtitle is "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." Anyone who knows me even a little knows this has something to do with me, so I bought the book at a library sale.
I adored Batuman's style and approach to humor. I found the personal descriptions and anecdotes enthralling. Although I hadn't known much about Isaac Babel (and really, still don't), the description of the Babel conference in the early chapters was extremely curious and evocative. It seemed so chaotic, but I wished I'd been there, really, with all my heart, and I recognized flashes of people I've known and wanted to know in the descriptions of Batuman's fellow academics. (And in the embarrassing, quasi-religious literary fervor of the former computer-programming major, I, once a mathematics major, saw a bit of myself. And I raised the book over my lightly reddened face.)
So it has delightful bits! But if you pick this book up because you want to feel kinship with others who've been swept up in a passion for the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Turgenev, Chekhov, (oh, and on and on), you should probably read the first few chapters and the last one. (I did just that, immediately after finishing the book in its entirety.) There is a long segment between those two, dealing with Batuman's foray into Uzbek literature and culture, during which she deals only peripherally with "Russian books and the people who read them" and much more with the relationships among Russian, Turkish, and Uzbek cultures. Only Batuman's lively, intelligent writing can brighten these topics for me. One can't be fascinated with everything. But I shouldn't have to make that apology--I was promised a book about people like me, people forever brought to their knees by great Russian literature. I got that. But only about half as much of it as I wanted.
I oughtn't include too many spoilers. But the last chapter, really. This is where life and art finally begin to intertwine, this is what I started reading this book for; and now it's nearly over. "If this were a novel," I said to my only reading friend after finishing the book and slamming it shut in tantalized exasperation, "I'd never forgive the author. She's just introduced the most captivating character, the one who most encapsulates the ethos of the book's topic, and left him hanging as an undeveloped plot thread." This is no exaggeration. You will likely feel the same way.
But overall, although my feelings about this book are extremely mixed, they are a mix of powerfully positive feelings and mildly negative ones. That works up to a reserved recommendation, sparkled with tremendous enthusiasm for certain segments and finishing with anticipation for Batuman's next work.