If literature is the news that stays news, then it’s always a good time to revist Elif Batuman’s first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors. In this selection, Batuman gets a travel grant as a college student to investigate whether Leo Tolstoy was murdered. She examines his life for clues. She looks at his books and estate. She spends four days wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia.
“Things started out innocuously enough. ‘I’m a huge fan!’ I exclaimed. ‘Right back at you,’ Franzen replied, explaining that he had bought my book as a Christmas present for multiple people, though he hadn’t yet read it himself. ‘But I’ve read parts of it!’ I told him that I had loved Freedom, which is true and would have been a great ending point for our exchange. So it’s difficult to articulate what possessed me, at a later, boozier point in the dinner, to ask Franzen whether he had any weed.”
During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”