This novel made me feel nostalgic. Set at Harvard in the mid-to-late 1990s Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” follows a freshman named Selin as she navigates the uncertain territory of college life, young love and finding a direction in life. I went to college at this exact same time in Boston (at a much smaller, non-ivy league school) and shared many of Selin’s experiences of starting to use email for the first time and riding on the T or the MBTA subway around the city. Selin comes from a privileged Turkish background and vaguely wants to be a writer (although when her first short story is published she finds no joy in it and even feels embarrassed.) She studies literature and languages: Russian, in particular. A large portion of this novel is taken up with the intricacies of campus living and then follows Selin to Hungary where she attempts to teach English in small villages. It’s plot is somewhat aimless – just as Selin’s life is somewhat aimless as she grapples to find meaning and purpose. This is the kind of book that is bound to frustrate and bore some readers (I definitely felt this way through some parts), but it also has a bewitching sense of humour and an endearingly oddball sensibility.
Something I really enjoyed in the first section of this novel were periodic exercises in Selin’s Russian class that involved learning the language through ‘The Story of Nina’. This is the journey of a fictional character named Nina who seeks to find a man that she loves who has moved away to work. There’s a special kind of absurdity in exercise books about characters acting out situations for the benefit of demonstrating grammar and phrases for students of language. They state things in non-realistic and obvious ways. This was the basis for Eugene Ionesco’s classic absurdist play ‘The Bald Soprano’ where two English couples out of a ‘learn English textbook’ The Smiths and The Martins converse in a way that is increasingly bombastic and fragmented. Selin feels an odd connection with Nina’s ongoing saga: “Of everything I had read that semester, ‘The Story of Nina’ had somehow spoken to me the most directly, and had promised to reveal something about the mysterious relationship between language and the world.” It shows how Selin isn’t just seeking an academic career, but longs to better understand an individual’s relationship to their experiences and how those experiences are coded in language.
Selin also tests the interplay between language and life in a relationship she develops with fellow-student Ivan. Although they know each other in reality, they form a different kind of intimacy through email exchanges. It’s somewhat ironic that Selin wryly comments that heroines in great Russian novels and even ‘The Story of Nina’ are about heroines who primarily obsess over a man. Yet, that’s exactly what Selin does as well. But this is only natural in someone who has just gone to university, hasn’t had sex and becomes preoccupied with the idea of romance. It’s her draw towards Ivan which compels her to travel to Hungary to teach in a programme that Ivan is connected to. This estrangement intensifies the displacement Selin already feels in her new adult life. She describes how “being alive felt like some incredibly long card game where you didn’t know if the point was to get cards or lose them, or what you had to do to get cards or lose them.”
Batuman has a knack for describing the awkward transition into adulthood with unerring accuracy. For instance, as we grow older we develop a very different feeling for the passage of time. Selin describes at one point how “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time – the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.” This reflects how as adults we start to become much more aware of the transitory nature of large life events and how the deadness of time in between can be compounded by an increasing awareness of our own mortality.
The kinds of pleasures and insights found in “The Idiot” feel like they would vary depending on where the reader is in life and also someone’s reading mood. I’ve heard responses from students who have identified so strongly with this novel and consequently loved it. Academic life is curiously removed from reality which causes a sense of crisis in some students who might suddenly realise like Selin that “I really didn’t know how to do anything real. I didn’t know how to move to a new city, or have sex, or have a real job, or make someone fall in love with me, or do any kind of study that wasn’t just a self-improvement project.” While this novel gave me a lot of nostalgic twinges, many of the student experiences are far removed from my reality so I couldn’t help feeling impatient with long passages obsessing over the dynamics of social groups or the tedium of waiting for the cafeteria to open. At times I enjoyed sinking into the meandering feeling of it and the dry humour of Selin’s observations, but, as it’s such a long novel, it often felt like it indulged in these experiences too much.