I can’t speak Russian. I haven’t read any of the seminal works of the country’s literary greats. And I can’t see Russia from the porch of my house. Typically, this would mean a book that is one part-memoir about the author’s time studying Russian literature and another part exploration of the linguistic development of languages in the Soviet Republics would leave me high and dry. That “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” didn’t is a testament to Elif Batuman’s story telling skills. Thats not to say there weren’t times where I felt like I was diving into some serious academic esoterica, but it was always interesting and well-written.
At the outset, humble readers (a tad presumptuous on the plural, I know), I apologize for the lack of details below. This is the first in the series of books I read but failed to review over the last two months. These posts will be immediately recognizable because they will inevitably include red herrings that will hopefully distract you from the notable tardiness.
Batuman’s memoir/linguistics guide/travelogue is broken down into different chapters that focus on various parts of her experience with Russian. These sections includes tales from her post-grad studies at Stanford to her unintended summer abroad in Samarkland learning the Uzbek language. The summer in Samarkland, where the reader is introduced to the linguistic developments of languages in the Soviet Republics, is more than just a dry explanation of linguistics. It is a vivid description of the locales she lived in and visited, as well the people she met.
The Samarkland story is broken into three different sections. This editorial decision gives the reader a chance to mull over different characters in her life while we wait for the conclusion of her summer. While her glum boyfriend and super shady landlady are interesting, the real stars of Samarkland are the teachers she works with on a daily basis: Muzzafar and Dilorom.
Experts in Uzbek, able to speak at least two languages, they are woefully underpaid due to a state structure that misappropriates academic salaries to those who sit around with fancy titles and do little else. These academics toil in buildings that are rundown and lack the libraries of their academic contemporaries who call Western Europe and America home. Nevertheless, Batuman makes clear that these two tireless individuals teach her all they can and they deserve more in return from their government and country.
Having never read any of the Russian works that Batuman mentions throughout the book, I found myself taking her description and analysis as my own. Being unfamiliar with many of the authors beyond their names and works, I was not only appreciative of the biographical information she provided, but found it really interesting. One section of the book describes her experience at a Leo Tolstoy conference where she presented a fledgling theory that he was killed and also looks into a possible Anna Kareina/Alice In Wonderland comparison. Batuman also chronicles her trip to St. Petersburg to see the recreation of Anna Ionavova’s Ice House.
Toward the beginning of the book, there is the story of writer Isaac Babel and how his relationship with the political leaders of his day changed over time. The tale of the Babel Conference she helped put together, which included Babel’s wife and daughter and a lot of craziness along with her writing on the story Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, are where Batuman turns the focus away from the language and literature to herself and her classmates.
After explaining Dostoevsky’s Demons, Batuman describes how she felt herself and her classmates were following their colleague Matej, in a fashion like those in the story. Matej is mentioned periodically throughout the book, but it is only at the end where the full blown story between himself, Batuman, and their classmates is explained.
It was while reading “Possessed” this April that I had the worst interview ever. Not bad. Not awkward. Just the worst. I have had interviews where I’ve Biden’ed up, putting my foot in my mouth. I have had interviews where it is clear the interviewer and I just don’t mesh. This was not the case in April.
I had applied for a communications job with a New York City Councilor. A week or two later, I heard back from someone in their office. They wanted me to come down that week. I booked my bus ticket from Boston to NYC. I would go down the night before and after the interview, I would come back.
I get to the interview about 15 minutes early. I once had a boss tell me, “If you’re early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late, you are history.” That has a way of sticking with you. The person interviewing me is about five minutes late. I get it. Schedules are in a state of perpetual flux in politics. Then I’m kept waiting another ten minutes. Finally, I get brought in for the interview. My resume and cover letter are pulled out and glanced over.
The first question is, “Are you still at Fordham?” My resume, very clearly states I graduated in 2010 – and that I’m living in Boston. Taken aback a little, I say, “No” and explain what the classes covered. My most recent experience on my resume is as Communications Director for a City Council candidate in Boston. There were zero questions about that job. The first question about my old job in New York City is, “How did you get it?” Not anything about my responsibilities, my experience, or what I learned in my time there. Combined with all zero questions about my current job, I was trying to figure out why these were the questions asked.
Towards the end of the interview, I was asked if I had seen the job description. I answered in the affirmative, saying I saw it in the posting for the position. The interviewer proceeded to recite it verbatim to me and upon completion, go silent. Thinking I was expected to answer this non-question, I made something up about how I fit the requirements for the job. At the end of the interview, I asked if I could leave my messenger bag and duffel bag there to use the bathroom. I was told I could and then asked, “Did you come down from Boston?” At this point, my head wanted to burst because it says Boston on the very top of my resume!
Walking from the office to the subway, I was absolutely frustrated. I had taken two days off from work and spent money I didn’t really have to interview for a job that seemed like a good fit. And upon arrival, it seemed as the person interviewing me was either 100% unprepared or 100% disinterested in the interview. I thought my time had been wasted and that the staffer was doing the Councilor a disservice by not taking this process seriously.
There were several times over the last two months that I thought about writing a post about this experience. I kept walking back the idea, thinking it wasn’t worth it, and since I had never heard back at all about the interview that there was an infinitesimal chance I’d get it. A week ago that all changed. I got a form email from the person who interviewed me. It read:
“Thank you for taking the time to send our hiring committee your resume. Unfortunately, at this time you will not be asked to interview….”
The email continued to explain why they wouldn’t be brining me in for an interview. You know, despite the fact that they had actually brought me in for an interview. That, my friends, is a front runner for email of the year. I like the Councilor this staffer works for. That is part of the reason I applied for the job. My hope is they realize the sloppiness and poor job this person is doing sooner rather than later.