Elif Batuman has generously bestowed her wit and intelligence and insight on journalism, and now, even more generously, on fiction. The Possessed, her 2010 collection of essays subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is unforgettable, perhaps because it is so unpredictable. Part memoir, part literary criticism, part travelogue, the essays echo pleasantly in The Idiot, her first novel.
Batuman thanks Dostoevsky in her acknowledgments, saying, “When it came to titles, and not just titles, what writer could ever touch the hem of your lofty garment?” I have not read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot since I took it off the school library shelf thinking it was a comic novel. Finally, fifty years later, I am right. Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny. It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.
The Idiot opens on a freshman student’s first day at Harvard, and perhaps you have just sighed and thought, Oh that again, oh them again, perhaps I’ll just reread Lucky Jim. By all means, reread Lucky Jim if you are so inclined. (I was disappointed when I went back to it, but you may be luckier.) But before you do, read this book, revel in this book, an academic novel that is not only about the absurdity of higher learning but is also about the love of learning. Batuman has written a romantic comedy about the romance of language, a metacomic novel of ideas, and an adventure in grammar. The Idiot is an epic tale of words and the people who love them and live by them.
Batuman’s novel begins in 1995, when e-mail is still something of a novelty:
I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would “have” it. “You’ll be so fancy,” said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, “sending your e, mails.” She emphasized the “e” and paused before “mail.”
Those are the first lines of the book, and they set up so much so quietly, so amusingly—the narrator, Selin, is not one of those kids in the avant-garde of popular culture, she is studious and shy, she is embedded in an extended family that feels free to comment on her life, and her aunt speaks with a foreign intonation, which Selin finds interesting and whimsical enough to point out, and simultaneously dismisses as annoying. As for “e, mails,” they become increasingly important, one of a number of manifestations of language that Batuman employs in The Idiot. E-mails will indeed make Selin feel fancy; they will make her miserable as well, as she embarks on a campus e-mail epistolary romance that is eloquent, emotionally awkward, and suitably pretentious.
Selin grew up as an only child in…
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