Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Jonathan Cape, 432pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781910702697

reviewed by Josie Mitchell

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is a portrait of the artist as a painfully young woman: naive, earnest and cripplingly self-conscious. Selin – daughter of Turkish immigrants and ‘tallest living member’ of her family, ‘male or female’ – has just started her first year at Harvard. It’s the mid-1990s, and email is brand new. Arriving on campus, Selin is offered an Ethernet cable: ‘What do we do with this, hang ourselves?’ Over the next twelve months, Selin buys an Einstein poster for her room, flirts disastrously with a Hungarian math grad, and, in a bid to impress him, takes an ill-fated trip to a remote Hungarian village to teach English and ‘spread American culture.’

This is Batuman’s second book, and like her first, it shares its title with a Dostoevsky novel. In The Possessed (2010), Batuman presents a chronicle of her time as a graduate student at Stanford, told through a series of essays on Russian novelists, from Babel to Tolstoy. The book records the eccentricities of cloistered scholars and their obsequious students, wittily mirroring the ‘descent into madness of a group of intellectuals’ in Dostoevsky’s original. Batuman is fascinated with the hermetic, often absurd world of academia, the worth of which she has debated at length in publications such as n+1 and the LRB. This literary criticism also provides a loose blueprint for her fictional work: ‘Write long novels, write pointless novels,’ she exhorts in an essay lamenting the short story’s tight sterility. ‘There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material,’ she assures us in an essay condemning the creative writing programme’s emphasis on ‘real or invented sociopolitical grievances.’ And on truth and beauty: ‘It took many years to realize . . . they really are the same thing.’

Whereas The Possessed covers Batuman at graduate school, her new novel is based on her time as a freshman; a prequel, if you will. The fact that one book is ‘memoir’ and another ‘fiction’ feels insignificant. Like Batuman, Selin is a ‘six-foot tall first-generation Turkish woman’ who grew up in New Jersey, and The Idiot can be read as the latest instalment in the variously fictionalised saga of Batuman’s journey through academia, a world she seems drawn to both venerate and ridicule.

In a series of arcane classes – Constructed Worlds, Linguistics 101 – Selin learns about artifice, performativity and the failure of language. Young, impressionable, the ideas weigh heavy on her. While those around her happily ingest and espouse the various philosophies and theories bouncing around the classroom, Selin cannot find a stable footing: ‘I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.’

The Possessed cast Batuman less as a participant and more a bemused observer of the antics of her fellow scholars, sparing her much of the ridicule she casts upon others. Selin too is one step removed. An aspiring writer, she calls to mind Nora Ephron’s ‘wallflower at the orgy’: a journalistic type, far too awkward to participate, stood by the wall taking notes, instinctively compiling anecdotes even mid-interaction. This passivity and taste for the ridiculous draws her naturally to headstrong personalities. In Russian class, Selin meets a Hungarian mathematician named Ivan, and before long they’re using the new email service to write one another oblique messages late into the night. Contemptuous of the ‘triviality-dungeon of conversations,’ he insists that they limit their communication to sporadic, insomniac messages. ‘I began to feel that I was living two lives,’ admits Selin, ‘one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school.’

Batuman is a brilliant chronicler of those awkward, ambitious years of semi-adulthood. And Selin’s sharp eye for the dissonance and absurdity of the everyday makes for joyous reading. In short, comic vignettes, Selin presents Harvard as a funhouse of overachievers jostling for space and attention. And the book nails something about the pretentiousness and conventionality of college students: anxious to belong, desperate to gain some cultural fluency. When Selin finally goes on a date with Ivan, she drinks the beer he buys her reluctantly and, too nervous to speak, listens to him say ‘funny, surprising, and charming things, all of which distressed me deeply.’ Selin’s incredulous tone captures the surrealism not just of scholarship but also the adolescent challenge of ‘behaving like a human being.’

Batuman is a New Yorker staff writer, and you can hear the influence of a publication that places such emphasis on a detached erudition and conversational tone. Her writing has been described as ‘almost helplessly epigrammatic,’ but there is also a moody, cumulative quality to the sentences: ‘I won four pounds of cashews in a raffle. For a couple of days I skipped lunch and dinner and ate just cashews. Every night I read until four, then slept until the alarm went off at eight. After morning classes, I slept some more and then went to more classes.’

Still, while the book is driven by a chronology of diaristic riffs, little actually develops, and the atmospheric pressure rarely builds. Instead, there is a flat, dreamlike quality to the way that Selin moves through Harvard, and later Hungary. Her affectless detachment tends to curb emotion, and charged moments are reported like weather forecasts: ‘I felt overwhelmed by fatigue;’ ‘This email filled me with unmixed joy;’ ‘I found this incredibly depressing.’ Over time, I came to crave a more unifying architecture, one that Selin, in her passive inertia, does not assert. But so too does Selin, who worries that her life lacks purpose and shape, feeling intermittently as if she has ‘fallen off the end of a conveyor belt.’

It’s worth noting that Batuman has made clear her conscious intention to explore this dilemma. She has described the novel form as ‘the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books.’ And in a way, The Idiot dramatises Selin’s failed attempt to construct a compelling narrative for herself to live in. In doing so, Batuman captures something of the struggle any person can face in forming their life into an enduringly comprehensible endeavour. In the hands of a less captivating writer, this might result in a dull or disorienting book. The Idiot is neither. Despite the novel’s amorphous structure, Batuman is a remarkably sharp observer of the idiosyncrasies of the mundane and the oddities that litter one’s path. And by placing a compassionate voice at the centre of her novel, she gives us a delightful, endearing character in Selin, while gently railing against conventional narrative form.