Satiated readers!  Please join me in getting excited again about The Possessed, in honor of next week’s UK launch! Conveniently, the book now looks completely different. I thought I would never like any cover as much as Roz Chast’s FSG paperback - but check out the new Granta hardcover, designed byMichael Salu:


FSG paperback, $15

Granta HC, £16.99

I love the original paperback, because it’s so scary and cheap, two of my favorite qualities.  But I also love the new hardcover, because it’s so trippy and classy, two more of my favorite qualities.

The new cover illustration is based on the dream sequence in “Who Killed Tolstoy?”:

I dreamed I was playing tennis against Tolstoy. As Alice in Wonderland plays croquet with a flamingo for a mallet, I was playing tennis with a goose for a racket. Lev Nikolayevich had a normal racket. I served the ball, producing a flurry of fluffy gray down. Tolstoy’s mighty backhand projected the ball far beyond the outermost limits of the tennis lawn, into the infinite dimension of total knowledge and human understanding. Match point.

It is, as Salu explains, “a dual cover, with either Elif or Tolstoy winning the rally depending on how the book is held”:



front (Elif winning) back (Tolstoy winning)



The decorative border is actually made up of drawings of different people and entities mentioned in the book.  I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this.  I felt like it was my birthday.

There is Isaac Babel and his rubber duck (along with, I think, a Mongol warrior):



There is Eeyore in a tiger suit/ the Registan in Samarkand:



Even the Opel with the canoe on top!



Salu’s overall design was inspired by “prerevolutionary Russian books”:



It’s great the prerevolutionary cut-off wasn’t taken too literally, because that way there was room for Andrei Bely and Lenin.




Next week I will be on a brief tour in Oxford, London, and Galway.  I’m doing a panel with Geoff Dyer at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, and a Royal Festival Hall talk with Pavel Basinsky (who recently won the Big Book prize for a fantastic-sounding book about Tolstoy).  There’s a mesmerizing web page for the festival event, with one of those alternating images – way beyond my html skills, but just imagine an eternal slideshow of these two pictures:

Regarding which, I leave you with the following from my UK publicist:

There is a very famous spoof history of England called 1066 and All That. For the section that explains the Civil War there is simply a cartoon of a Cavalier with long hair like a spaniel and fancy boots and a magnificent floppy hat next to an austere puritan Roundhead. The caption below simply says: “under these circumstances…”1

I sort of feel that way when I look at the picture of you with your vegetable and Pavel looking all cross.

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  1. “Charles I was a Cavalier King and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat, and gay attire. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties, and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.”

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  1. Amelia Says:

    Elif, it’s beautiful! I guess Roz Chast set the bar pretty high. But it does seem unfair to Tolstoy that he has to use an ordinary tennis racket and you get a butterfly net…

  2. Kara Says:

    I love the new cover. I love your book. Fighting the impulse to buy the UK edition while the US edition rests on my shelf! Probably not what you’d like to hear! Good thing for you I almost never win out over my impulses.

    (Also, “you with your vegetable”!)

  3. SW Foska Says:

    Again, sorry to miss these events. I will be being pretentious in some pretentiously distant cities around that time (albeit in an earnest and collaborateve way). Hope it goes well, SWF.

  4. Zach Carmichael Says:

    The spine is hilarious! I imagine a whole bunch of them lined up in a London bookshop(pe). The Brits always find the perfect mix of humo(u)r and class.

  5. Elizabeth Roberts Says:

    I heard about The Possessed from Damion Searles, writer and translator of NYC, on a visit to a redundant nuclear test site at Orford Ness during the tribute weekend to W G Sebald at Snape Maltings in Jan, I went straight into the bookshop in Aldeburgh to buy it – not in stock – but found it on the shop’s computer on Amazon and the proprietor and I couldn’t get past the cover – we both thought it must be a strip cartoon. But once I got the book I stayed up until 3am reading it, being a frequent visitor to Russia and Central Asia 1960-200 often with writers I wept with laughter and recognition. You are a genius. By the way, the portrait of the cavalier on your post is a detail, one of two brothers dressed up to the nines ( the sons of the Duke of Richmond I seem to remember), in an enormous life -size full- length portrait, – both were killed in the Civil War I believe – , which hangs in a school called Cobham Hall in Kent, former home of the Earls of Darnley, where my daughters went. Give my regards to Geoff whose ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ is my favourite book next to The Possessed. And The Tap Dancer by Andrew Barrow for some reason.

  6. Elizabeth Roberts Says:

    I mean 1960-2000. I am not a traveller backwards in time. I hope.

  7. Elizabeth Roberts Says:

    Lord Bernard Stuart was the younger son of the Duke of Lennox. Note for pedants: you know when a chap is the son of a Duke or an Earl because he is known as Lord Sam Slam. A life peer is Lord Slam or Sam Slam never Lord Sam Slam. Otherwise, how would you know the difference?

  8. Joshua Korn Says:

    So cool! I was going to say the only thing missing is King Kong, but then I spotted him. That is him right? Taking a swing at an airplane? I love it. Looks like they really spent a lot of time reading your book and making an awesome cover. I also kind of want to buy it again, just because of how great it looks.

    Incidentally, even though I try to avoid judging books by their covers, I was initially attracted to your book by the sweet paperback cover, even before I knew anything about it. 2 for 2 is pretty good.

  9. Geoff Roberts Says:

    It’s terrific and will sell an estimated million copies – dersverves to anyways. About your favourite qualities: do you just have four or do you have an infinite number. Would prefer the latter. the lettuce – was it food for the Koala bears?

  10. Elif Says:

    Thanks so much for the super-kind comments! Needless to say, I encourage everyone to buy both editions. That could mean the difference between unpaid overtime and a well-deserved vacation for my hardworking intern.

    @SW Foska, I will be sorry to miss you, but it’s important to carry on the collaborative work of earnestness and pretentiousness – I know I will be doing my bit.

    @Joshua Korn, that is totally King Kong!! I was so excited. I think the hero of the first Chinese Western is there too.

    @Geoff Roberts, my list of favorite qualities is now somewhere above nine – others include gloomy, incredulous, curmudgeonly, profound, and snide. Re: lettuce, it was actually a fascinating leafy green known in Turkey as heathen’s beet. I would not feed it to my koala colleagues, even though it can be neutralized by kiwis! The photograph was taken last year at a farmer’s market by chef Musa Dağdeviren.

  11. Elizabeth Roberts Says:

    With washed eyes I reached the end of The Possessed. The chapter on Dostoievsky’s book of the same name provoked the memory of a psychology class at UCL where we learned that a decorticated stickleback immediately becomes the leader of the shoal because, having no brain, it never hesitates. The nearest person to your description of Matvej /Stavrogin I have ever met is Michael Ignatieff who I am amazed (but why surprised?)to learn is in line to become Canada’s next Prime Minister. I loved your ‘Start the Week’ this am ( for overseas readers, that’s a BBCR4 programme)

  12. Dave Lull Says:

    BBC Radio 4
    Start the Week
    Available to listen
    Tom Sutcliffe and Terry Jones, Elif Batuman, Martin Sixsmith and David Runciman.

  13. Charlie Connelly Says:

    I am loving ‘The Possessed’: terrific writing and a fabulously produced book (I have the UK edition). Hats off to you, Elif. With the kind of classic timing only I could hope to achieve I managed to be in London when you were at Cuirt and then in Ireland when you were in London. Ah well.

    I did a Russian Studies degree in the early 90s but my language skills weren’t really up to it. For the literature extracts exam I thought I’d get around this linguistic shortfall by recording myself reading the English translations and then playing the tape on my Walkman while I was asleep, convincing myself that this would place the texts indelibly in my memory and I’d only need to recognise a couple of words in the exam extracts for the memorised translation to come gushing through my pen.

    I failed the subsequent exam so spectacularly there was a strong case for erecting some kind of statue of me. Not only that, at the height of a party we had in our house to celebrate the end of the exams shortly afterwards my housemate shoved a tape into the player only to find that instead of the Happy Mondays thumping out of the speakers the whole house was filled with my nasal cockney tones reciting the opening of ‘The Bronze Horseman’.


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