Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Idiot by Elif Batuman review

A young woman discovers the difference between life and literature in a warm, funny portrayal of university life in the 90s

Image from article, with caption: An alternative world lived through books … Elif Batuman.

Do events matter more when witnessed in real life than in books? Does language necessarily render experience second-hand? In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books. Now she’s continued this project in a long and enjoyably literary novel, The Idiot.
At the start of the book, the autobiographical heroine Selin has just arrived as an undergraduate at Harvard and is worrying about how to live. How does she make friends? How does she fall in love? How does she come to understand the relationship between art and life, words and world? Taking a linguistics class, she disagrees with her teacher, who believes that people think in the same way whatever language they think in. Selin is sure that she’s formed by her languages – English and Turkish.
She is told by a new friend that she’s unusual in having an aesthetic view of the world rather than a moral one, and knows too that she has a pronounced tendency to live her life as a narrative. But what happens once you try to put other people into your story? The chance to explore this comes through email, which enables Selin to conduct a writing project with the potential to spill into life. An interesting aspect of The Idiot is that it’s a gently historical novel, offering a defamiliarised account of the mid to late 1990s. The plot would be quite different if the characters had mobile phones instead of landlines, and if email were less new and strange.

At first, presented with a university email address, Selin doesn’t know what to use it for. However, she quickly discovers that she can create an email relationship more real than those she’s experiencing in the flesh. She writes to fellow student Ivan, an older boy in her Russian language class, putting them both in the personae of inhabitants of their Russian textbook. The characters in question are engaged in a doomed love affair, rendered peculiar by the limited beginner’s Russian available to them. In taking on these roles, Selin and Ivan are able to expose themselves to each other while hiding behind the barrier of fiction. Quickly, this relationship becomes more painfully affecting than any of Selin’s other friendships. She parses Ivan’s messages as she is learning to parse the texts in her classes, bemused by the enigmatic responses he offers her when she tries out tentative declarations of love. “The seduced atom has energies that seduce people,” he writes, perhaps speaking of her, “and these rarely get lost”. 

What they have created seems to those around Selin both dangerous and unreal. But she remains a sincere enough reader to be convinced that the shared fantasy – the world brought into being by two minds – can have an existence of its own. Ivan is more ambivalent, or perhaps simply more fearful. “My love for you is for the person writing these letters,” he tells her, reminding her that he has a girlfriend already.
At every stage, he encourages her only to rebuff her, apparently too frightened to allow the world of print to take on living form. What Selin is discovering is that however real the world created by language may be, we can disown it at any moment. Confronted by the physical reality of his girlfriend and her day-to-day claims, she cannot compete.
A summary of this kind makes the novel sound like a treatise, which is exactly what it is not. The voice throughout is colloquial and humorous. And as a reading experience, it is enjoyable: a generously capacious book that creates an alternative world for the reader to inhabit in a manner comparable to the Russian novels that Batuman loves. Part of the pleasure is that many of the characters are unusually likable. Selin’s friends are consistently warm, curious and interesting, despite waking her up with their snoring or dismissing her love for Ivan. Even her interfering mother is generally sensible in her advice. 

The likability tends to be confined to the female characters, however. In The Possessed Batuman describes herself at this age as guided by Isabel Archer’s observation in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady that “one should never regret a generous error”. In the novel, Isabel is thwarted by marrying a man capable neither of generosity nor of seeing himself at fault. Selin makes a similar mistake in her choice of Ivan. Though they both lead each other on without quite knowing what they are setting loose, Ivan’s fault is greater because there’s a sense that he is never prepared to relinquish control or risk any vulnerability. 
We can allow words to shape our world and allow the books we read to guide us as we direct and interpret our lives. And, most importantly, we can make generous errors. The book’s epigraph is from Marcel Proust and it is brilliantly chosen. In Within a Budding Grove, the narrator remarks that there is hardly an action we perform in our youth that we don’t later long to annul. But what we ought to regret, he says, is not the actions of the past but the fact that we no longer possess the spontaneity that made us perform them. “Adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”What is at stake here is whether Selin can continue to commit generous errors in the face of such humiliation; whether she can continue so earnestly in her attempt to learn how to live. The triumph of Batuman’s book is to make this period of youth matter. The narrator occasionally mocks the immaturity of the protagonist, and Selin knows that the stories she writes are bad and the experiences she has are provisional because she is so young. However, the questions she is asking about the world are questions to take seriously; the novel discourages us from dismissing them as youthful preoccupations.
Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury).

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