The Charm of ‘The Idiot’: On Elif Batuman

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 2017

A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.

The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”

In “The Possessed,” Batuman detailed how her obsession with Russian novels carried her afield — to graduate school, to Samarkand and St. Petersburg, to mastering old Uzbek, with its 70 words for duck and 100 words for crying. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she continues to report from this territory, where political or romantic ideals battle it out with shabby realities, and her investigations are frequently sparked by fiction. Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” inspired an essay on head scarves; “Gone Girl,” a bleak and very funny piece on marriage.

“The Idiot” is Batuman’s new novel, and it follows a number of her entertaining broadsides on contemporary fiction. M.F.A. programs have propagated a puritan preoccupation with “craft,” she wrote in the London Review of Books in 2010, with whittling tidy, teachable, forgettable books while leaving the work of the novel — “the juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature” — to memoirs and essays. “For human interest, skillful storytelling, humor and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of ‘This American Life’ to be 99 percent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction.” “The Idiot,” a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book, is in many ways the embodiment of this essay. It lopes along like a highbrow episode of “Louie,” a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator, Selin, “an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.”

Selin — the language-intoxicated, 6-foot-tall Russophile daughter of Turkish immigrants — arrives at Harvard in the mid-90s, almost appallingly innocent. In the year we spend with her, she flirts with one classmate, in her stilted fashion; smokes a few cigarettes; travels to Hungary to teach English; dances perplexedly at a club — “It went on and on, the dancing. I kept wondering why we had to do it, and for how much longer.” Mainly, she reads — but how she reads. Batuman is wonderful on the joy of glutting oneself on books. In “The Possessed” she describes devouring “Anna Karenina” sprawled on her grandmother’s “super-bourgeois rose-colored velvet sofa, consuming massive quantities of grapes” and tearing through Babel while baking an ill-fated Black Forest cake; her memories of the Red Cavalry sequence forever mingled with “the smell of rain and baking chocolate.” A dictionary is a fetish object in “The Idiot,” and Batuman conveys Selin’s all-night reading benders with druggy fervor. Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book: judging a beauty contest of boys’ legs at a Hungarian summer camp, being given chase by a wild dog. Too often, the novel reads like a greatest-hits version of “The Possessed.”

But the real pleasures of Selin’s company come from her differences from the author, not their commonalities. She’s not the type to fire off manifestoes on the sterility of M.F.A. fiction (not yet, at least); she scarcely knows what to think and envies her classmates the quantity and confidence of their convictions. “It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions,” she says of a friend. “Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.” Selin is amazingly passive and almost seems miscast in her own life as protagonist. She’s a born Watson, a Boswell; her gift is not for the living, but the telling, for the shaping of a story. Inevitably, she gravitates to larger, louder personalities: worldly Svetlana and Ivan, a math scholar from Hungary — and the novel’s reluctant leading man.

Selin comes to believe she has two lives — one at school, the other in her cryptic email courtship of Ivan. The idea that our most important and exciting experiences occur in private, in secret, Batuman tells us, is from Chekhov, whose ghost presides benevolently over the book. Selin could be any number of his gentle, ineffectual intellectuals, whose very gentleness and ineffectuality make them so important, according to Nabokov. “In an age of ruddy Goliaths it is very useful to read about delicate Davids,” he remarked in one of his lectures at Cornell. “All this lovely weakness, all this Chekhovian dove-gray world is worth treasuring in the glare of those strong, self-sufficient worlds that are promised us by the worshipers of totalitarian states.”

But does Batuman judge Selin more harshly? The title, “The Idiot” — as with “The Possessed,” cribbed from Dostoyevsky — seems like an unfair indictment of gentle, hardworking Selin, but at its root, “idiot” is a benign word, even a strangely sweet one. It originally described someone who doesn’t serve in public life (from the Greek idios, pertaining to the self), someone who is a private individual, who belongs to herself. And so much of Selin’s heartache hinges on her efforts to bridge distances between her private and public selves, between her and other people, using the same tools we all reach for: language, travel, jokes. Sex belongs on this list, too, but Selin — and “The Idiot,” in fact — is curiously prim. I wondered about this; why this reticence about desire in a book about falling in love, and as a teenager at that? I wondered, too, why here, as in “The Possessed,” so many of the book’s more emotionally charged scenes happen offstage and are conveyed to us in summary, if at all. Batuman is an energetic and charming writer and, perhaps, there are wages to this kind of charm — namely in remembering to relinquish it when you need to, remembering to risk being messy, boring or obvious to get at those truths only fiction, she tells us, can access. But for all these moments of evasion, there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers. And in the way of the best characters, Batuman’s creations are not bound by the book that created them. They seem released into the world. Long after I finished “The Idiot,” I looked at every lanky girl with her nose in a book on the subway and thought: Selin.

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