Funny is when I frequently laugh out loud. Smile and laugh, chuckle even. Amusing is when I may smile a bit, nod my head even. I believed that this book was going to be very funny. I was merely amused a few times. I failed to see the great humor.
Then I thought it was going to parlay the humor into a comprehensive look at Russian literature. There really is only one in-depth overview of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. There is some interesting background on Tolstoy and Babel, and a little on Gogol, Pushkin and Chekhov. There is a lot more on some obscure writers of the former Soviet Union, especially Uzbekistan. The author spends a summer in Samarkind, and this time comprises the unifying sections of Elif Batuman’s book. I say “unifying”. But that’s another problem I had with the book. It just didn’t fit together well. The transition for one paragraph to another (not in all cases) is sometimes painfully inept.
Much of the book was very definitely “academic”. I hadn’t expected that. And the academic discussions seemed to me to be directed to an inadvertently (I’m sure) very limited audience.
So what did I like?
I liked this, certainly on “the second time” she read Babel:
There are certain books that one remembers together with the material circumstances of reading: how long it took, the time of year, the color of the cover. Often, it’s the material circumstances themselves that make you remember a book that way – but sometimes it’s the other way around. I’m sure that memory of that afternoon – the smell of rain and baking chocolate, the depressing apartment with its inflatable sofa, the sliding glass door that overlooked rainy palm trees and a Safeway parking lot – is due to the precious, almost-lost quality of Babel’s 1920 diary.
In fact it’s those sections of the book that are personal for the author, those that show Elif Batuman’s personality which are the most engaging in the book. More of that, less of the uninteresting (except for the chosen few) academic navel lint pickers. This would have gone a long way.
I’d almost like to take a chance on a possible novel by her, but with her constant trashing of Orhan Pamuk, this would be iffy. Maybe just a few beers.