Elif Batuman’s ‘The Possessed’ Finds Absurdity and Sadness in Grad School
2016 was a very, very bad year no matter how you slice it. In tough times, comedy is often a form of escape that people turn to when they need comforting. With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick the one piece of comedy in any form that they turn to when they really need cheering up. We’ll be sharing their choices throughout the week in a package we’re calling “The Best Medicine.”
The Possessed is a memoir about Elif Batuman’s grad school program in Russian Literature. I realize this doesn’t seem funny on the surface. But big-picture, it warms my heart when people devote their lives to subjects the world at large finds useless (I majored in Italian, which you can only speak in one country). Moreover, this specific book hits me so hard on my intersectional funnybone: absurd conditions meeting a matter-of-fact response. Elements include Eastern Europeans, inescapable sadness, the futility of action (see also Shteyngart memoir Little Failure). I own two copies. One a dog-eared paperback, and one on Kindle for when I’m sad on-the-go. I can open it to any page and know I will be laughing out loud within minutes. It’s that powerful an antidote to me.
Here is all the introduction you need, on a summer spent studying Uzbek with her boyfriend:
Persian, [my teacher] told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound ‘hay hay’…What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to bode well for my summer vacation.