Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Elif Batuman is on my radar. I enjoyed her entertaining bibliomemoir about her fascination with Russian literature, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

And her debut novel, The Idiot, is charming and very, very funny. It charts the coming of age of Selin, a freshman at Harvard who is the daughter of Turkish immigrants (she was raised in New Jersey). Harvard, as she describes it, is just so weird: if  you went to a state university,  Batuman’s intellectual but naive virgin heroine will make you chuckle—she is very smart but we were worldly in comparison!

The narrator, Selin, a nerdish freshman, is baffled by the underpinnings of language in context: she is perplexed by the discourse of her eccentric roommates, the nuances of e-mail (which is new in 1995), and the intentions of Ivan, a charming Hungarian student, who sends her intense e-mails.  Does he like her?

Elif Batuman

The culture of Harvard is very demanding:  when  Selin learns that everyone applies and interviews for seminars, she tentatively sets out on a quest.   After many rejections she is accepted in a nonfiction film seminar,  because, she believes, the professor had an even worse cold than she did during the interview. And then there’s her art studio class, “Constructed Worlds,” in which Gary, a visiting artist, incites them to visit museums and demand to see what’s not on display. (Turns out what’s not on display isn’t interesting.)

But it is verbal language that most interests Selin: she takes  linguistics, Russian, and a disappointing course in the 19th-century novel and the city in Russia, England, and France.

She likes Russian very much, but the  textbook tells the eerie story of a character named Nina who travels to Siberia in search of an engineer who disappears. They enact the stories in class, but what do they mean?

As for  literature classes, Selin says,

I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant. That was how my mother and I had always talked about literature. “I need you to read this, too,” she would say, handing me a New Yorker story in which an unhappily married man had to get a rabies shot, “so you can tell me what it really means.” She believed, and I did, too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.

Her professor talks about the inadequacies of translation (there is a lot of Balzac), and reads to them from Russian and French, but she doesn’t understand a word. During the question periods at the end of class, he claims he cannot understand the students’ dumbest, most obvious questions. Selin observes, ”The breakdown of communication was very depressing to me.”

In many ways, the novel is about the breakdown of communication. Ivan already has a girlfriend, but he also more or less dates Selin, and what DOES he mean?  Ivan will be in Hungary for a short time during the summer and he suggests she might enjoy teaching English in a Hungarian village.   She jumps at the chance.  But it is not what she expected–she gets along with her host families, but never has a moment alone.  And does she see Ivan?  Hardly ever.

The book is beautifully-written, and my only criticism is that the college parts go on a little too long.  I was fascinated by her teaching experience in Hungary.  But it all dovetails, and  If you like college novels, this is great summer read. Warning: Batuman’s Harvard is nothing like the Vassar of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, the Radcliffe of Alice Adams’ Superior Women, or the University of Michigan of Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives.  She has her own voice, and her own ideas.

Batuman’s Harvard is very different from Marge Piercy’s University of Michigan.