Granta, £16.99, 298pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Possessed, By Elif Batuman

Any reader seriously interested in Russian literature should approach this book with caution. Clearly, Elif Batuman is a Russophile. But in these "adventures with Russian books and the people who read them", as she casts her eye over her favourite authors, the project seems largely driven by a search to find new, improbable "angles". In the pursuit of Tolstoy's murderer or the relationship between imagery used by Isaac Babel and the movie King Kong, Batuman sheds little light on the authors or their books, while wringing maximum comedy from the pursuit.

"What if", the author asks, "you read Lost Illusions and instead of moving to New York, living in a garret, self-publishing your poetry, writing book reviews and having love affairs –instead of living your own version of Lost Illusions... what if instead you went to Balzac's house and Madame Hanska's estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him – and then started writing?" Batuman answers her own rhetorical question: "That is the idea behind this book." The claim is puzzling. Many people do work at understanding an author in the way Batuman outlines: scholars and/or literary biographers.

Batuman has no aspirations of this kind, and total immersion has nothing to do with the hectic itinerary of The Possessed. The joke, that young novelists set out to write a novel that has already been written (and live an artistic life already led), is a good one, but the paragraph has a hollow core. 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?

This is old news, and requires a high degree of stylishness to be worth re-reading. Batuman elsewhere admits to being a novelist manqué. However, an autobiographical novel is what The Possessed in its most (apparently) honest moments resembles. We learn about the writer's mother in Ankara, her student life at Stanford, her travels, friends, lovers, teachers, and her usually successful efforts at raising research grants and pitching articles: all this is lively and interesting.

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. Central to the book is a sprawling but interesting essay on the experience of learning Uzbek, "Summer in Samarkand". It has been torn into three parts, and interspersed with other material, presumably to encourage the reader to go on believing that this is really a book about Russian novels. But it contains her most original writing.

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.

Dostoyevsky and autobiographical demons meet in the final chapter. In Florence "to research a magazine article about a Dante marathon," Batuman spots the house where Dostoyevsky finished The Idiot. So she plunges into an account of the novel whose title, Demons, was once mistranslated as The Possessed. Dostoevsky's political and philosophical themes are largely set aside in a reading that takes its theoretical position from René Girard, and finds the characters surrounding the protagonist Stavrogin to be victims of mimetic desire.

Put simply, this theory says that we do not wish to have, but to be, those whom we desire. It would account for the idea that writers try to live like the writers they admire, and write versions of the same books.

Batuman has almost as much fun with the creative-writing workshop as the literary conference, and she is rightly scathing of the kind in which the members read nothing but one another's efforts. But perhaps if she had learnt a little more about craft (a word she associates with wicker baskets) she might have produced a more cohesive book. And, as a stylist, she might have learned to resist cliché. In the chapter called "Babel in California" there is a paragraph in which Babel finds himself "on increasingly thin ice" and "Stalin presumably had bigger fish to fry." It concludes "What tipped the scale?" Whatever did, I doubt that the Cape Cod Writers' Workshop would let one of their number get away with such fishy writing.

Carol Rumens's 'De Chirico's Threads' is published by Seren

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence