Coming of Age at Harvard and in Hungary

Elif Batuman’s novel is written with prism-like, masterful prose

The Idiot begins with Selin, the novel’s main character, arriving at Harvard for her freshman year. She navigates uncomfortable dorm politics and struggles with which posters to put up where, and what they will say about her. When, under pressure from her roommate, she picks one depicting Einstein, she is subjected to an almost endless parade of people criticizing her decision. To her, an Einstein poster seemed benign, but it had turned into a signal of her ignorance.

Elif Batuman’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story and Selin’s attempt to grow out of her innocence and ignorance is one of the book’s emotional thrusts. Batuman does this well. Still, the plot itself is simple and unsurprising. It spans about a calendar year and, as one does during the first year of college, Selin changes a lot. But the element that sets The Idiot apart is the writing itself.

“In The Possessed, she was effective. In The Idiot, she is masterful.”

In some ways, this novels feels like evidence for those who might argue that writing cannot be taught. Batuman’s eye is good, her descriptions so emphatically her own, it seems unbelievable that anyone could match it. A large part of it, certainly, is Selin’s depth as a character, but there are deep characters who do not see as clearly. Even in benign moments, the writing can feel revelatory. Here, for example, is how Selin describes walking into a dining hall.

[They] were open late for exam period. At a table near the door, two students were slumped over their books, either asleep or murdered. In a corner, a girl was staring at a stack of flash cards with incredibly ferocity, as if she was going to eat them.

The prose is simple and to the point and the manner in which Batuman deconstructs the familiar is impressive and makes reading, on a sentence-to-sentence level, a joy. Selin is a perceptive character, except, as is the case with many perceptive characters, when it comes to her own relationships, where she is often particularly hapless.

Selin is in love with an older student at Harvard named Ivan, and spends an unhealthy amount of time worrying about him and what he thinks of her. Their relationship begins innocently enough, first in class and then in simultaneously coy and provocative email exchanges. As it escalates, to date-but-not-date-nights and more frequent interactions, the fraught nature becomes clearer and clearer to the reader.

How much Selin knows about how bad the power dynamic between the two of them is, for the most part, unclear. One is left to assume: She does not know much about it.

Eventually, he introduces her to someone he knows that sends English teachers to Hungarian villages in order and Selin takes the opportunity. There is a small amount of introspection, though perhaps not enough, focusing on what set of incentives have caused her to do so. Ivan is Hungarian and will be in Hungary (though not always where she’ll be) and they would be able to see one another. She will also have an opportunity to learn more Hungarian, and she believes, rather deeply, that learning about one’s native language can be useful in learning about the person themselves.

This is discussed often in the book, and Selin uses Turkish (a language her family speaks) to convincingly justify her position.

Turkish, for example, had a suffix –mis, that you put on verbs to report anything you didn’t witness personally. You were always stating your degree of subjectivity. You were always thinking about it, every time you opened your mouth.

It is not difficult to see how something like that tense would require a speaker to alter their perception of their place in the world. The important caveat is that it seems to only apply when one is speaking Turkish and not every time someone fluent in Turkish speaks. The nuanced questions that this necessarily raises — does a Turkish speaker become more confident in conjecture in another language? Or is it an attitude one cannot get rid of? — are left unanswered, and Selin does not interrogate her point of view, or at least not early on enough to help her.

Ivan, on the other hand, has a more cynical view of language and its ultimate futility. He is a mathematician at Harvard and in his heart and language’s fundamental lack of objectivity is amusing to him. At one point, he tells Selin a wonderful joke about a scientist who is given a grant to study fleas.

He would shout, “Jump, and measure how far the flea jumped. After a while it got boring because the flea always jumped the same distance, so he pulled off the flea’s legs one by one. The distance got shorter and shorter, until finally, he had pulled off all six legs and he flea didn’t jump at all. “If you remove six legs,” the scientist concluded, “the flea cannot hear.”

It is, of course, a joke, but the subtext is that using language and one’s response to language as a means of understanding the world is fraught with room for error.

Batuman, through Ivan and Selin, manifests both arguments effectively. Her critical acumen in this and other areas is hard to miss throughout the novel, and it is one of the book’s unique delights. Her first book, The Possessed, is a critical memoir of her time studying Russian literature and she balances its twin interests well. Though the project of that book was different, the task of juggling narrative and argument is similar. In The Possessed, she was effective. In The Idiot, she is masterful.

Selin is a neurotic character and she is always concerned about something, as most college students are. Other books set in similar situations would and have shied away from genuinely engaging with the day-to-day issue that undergraduate students face with regard to their classes, but Batuman does not. Translations of her readings for her Russian class, for example, appear in the novel, as do her discussions of them with her classmates. It helps that Batuman is smart enough to make these exchanges interesting. She notes the way the story bends its sentences unnaturally to accommodate the students’ limited grammar and how their expanding grammar impacts the story as they read excerpts of it throughout the semester. This is, in a way, procedural. It is an acknowledgement of how language classes at American colleges and universities operate. But it is also made meaningful by how and when and where and with whom Selin discusses it.

At times, the novel can seem too stuffed full with characters and ideas that it can’t follow all of its relevant threads. Perhaps its inspiration from the Russians she admires (maybe, particularly, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and maybe, particularly, his excellent book The Idiot). Perhaps it is a commitment to an authentic portrayal of that time in a person’s life, when the newness and the nearness of college endlessly introduces students to people with whom they will only have a short term relationship. Whatever the reason, it can be exhausting and disappointing to lose grip of people so quickly.

Still, Batuman’s brilliance is always shining through. In her memoir, The Possessed, she writes about struggling to write a novel, how she would take large chunks of time to write and the frustration and aimlessness she felt doing so. The Idiot is proof that, however frustrating the work was, however many novels were started or abandoned or stuffed away, it was worth it.

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