Those Russians

Have you heard the latest about that stain on Pushkin’s couch? Turns out, thanks to DNA testing, that it is in fact his blood. After the duel that took his life in 1837, he lay on that couch and breathed his last breath. The couch, which calls St. Petersburg’s Pushkin Apartment Museum home, has been the subject of much speculation over the years. Thanks to modern science, we finally have the answer. Except now that the scientists have his DNA, the cloning debate has begun.

Elif Batuman  has been chronicling “Operation Sofa” over at the New Yorker’s Book Bench. Her new book Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them got a rave review in the Times.  Here are the first few paragraphs:

Early in Elif Batuman’s funny and melancholy first book, “The Possessed,” she describes her disillusionment, as a would-be novelist, with “the transcendentalist New England culture of ‘creative writing.’ ” The problem with creative writing programs, she says, is their obsession with craft.

“What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?” Ms. Batuman asks. “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

Ms. Batuman’s search for something more from literature than “brisk verbs and vivid nouns” led her, swooning but alert, into the arms of the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Babel.

And it led her to write this odd and oddly profound little book, one that’s ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of “King Kong,” working for the Let’s Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan. Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?

I’m adding this one to my reading list.  What is it about those Russians? Nobody does it quite like them.

Here’s a link to Batuman’s blog.


~ by Valerie Palmer on February 18, 2010.

One Response to “Those Russians”

  1. […] Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which you can read more about here. Should be a good […]

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