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 New Jersey with her Turkish mother, a relationship that is both deep and relaxed. Her parents are divorced and her father, about whom we hear very little, lives in Maryland. She is smart and hard-working enough to get into Harvard, and to recognize Harvard’s limits and her own. She has never heard of Fellini, but her high school beach reading was Camus’s The Plague. At one point, feeling acutely inadequate in a way any of us who has ever been eighteen will recognize, Selin thinks of all the places she has never been and all the things she has never done:
All I had ever done was visit my parents all the time—first one parent and then the other, with no sign of it ever stopping. Worse yet, I knew I had no one to blame but myself. If my mother told me not to do something, I didn’t do it. Everyone’s mother told them not to do things, but I was the only one who listened.
For Selin, “trying to accomplish things” is “the point of coffee.” One of Batuman’s many literary gifts is her ability, and inclination, to create small, comic bursts of insight into Selin’s temperament through observations like that, particularly about the banalities of student life, even, for example, the anxious drudgery of placement tests:
There was a quantitative reasoning test full of melancholy word problems—“The graph models the hypothetical mass in grams of a broiler chicken up to eighty weeks of age.”
Or an interview to get into a freshman seminar when Selin has a horrible cold, the professor droning on about the differences between creative and academic writing. Selin sits before him
nodding energetically and trying to determine whether any of the rectangles in my peripheral vision was a box of tissues. Unfortunately, they were all books…. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet—and this was ironic—there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.
The comic genius of Selin as a character is that she sees absurdity and creates absurdity by how she sees. She is a perfect comic creation, and a touching one, too: there is no malice in her. This is an unusual satirical novel in that way. Language is the medium and language is the comedian, language is the star and the prop, Chaplin and the globe he balances, the hungry fellow and the shoe he dines on.
Batuman has the comedian’s gift for understatement, a flawless sense of comic timing, and an eye for imagery that is always curious and never obtrusive. When Selin puts her coins in a Coke machine, “a can tumbled out like a body falling down the stairs.” When spring finally comes to snowy Cambridge, “gray dull snowbanks began melting to reveal all kinds of half-frozen garbage. The air smelled of dirt. You were always tripping over dead birds.” On a table in a Chinese restaurant stand “bottles of soy sauce like tiny women.” The comedy lurking in language and in life informs every aspect of Batuman’s novel, form and subject alike. Humor is not everything Batuman writes about, but it is everywhere in what she writes.
Batuman cherishes language, the sounds and sense and nonsense. When Selin rides the subway into Cambridge, she finds herself reorganizing the names of the Boston transit stations into an evocative, almost lyrical sequence:
Eliot, Holyoke, Copley Square,
Symphony, Wollaston, Hoosac Pier,
Marblehead, Maverick, Fenway Park,
Haymarket, Mattapan, Codman Yard,
Wonderland, Providence, Beacon Hill,
Watertown, Reservoir, Mystic Mall.
There is beauty in the world, and there are words, too. Selin is searching for a connection between them, for “the relationship between language and the world.” Her first stop on her quest is Linguistics 101. In class, she is excited to hear that language is “hardwired into the brain—infinite, regenerative, never the same twice,” that “the highest law, higher than Holy Scripture, was the ‘intuition of a native speaker.’” It makes sense to her:
Whenever my mother and I were talking about a book and I thought of something she hadn’t thought of, she would look at me and say admiringly, “You really speak English.”
This lovely aside, both earnest and ironic, full of affection and insight into Selin’s mother, a quick and elegant glimpse into their relationship filtered through a lens of language theory, is the kind of thing Batuman does so well. Her subject is often absurdity, her prose always restrained. Restrained, yet generous to both her characters and her readers. She sends Selin from theory to theory—philosophical, linguistic, literary, artistic, mathematical—all of them somehow evoking the complexities of language. Selin exists in language.
One of the first things Selin learns in Linguistics 101 is all the ways that Noam Chomsky is right and B.F. Skinner is wrong. Language is simply a biological faculty, grammar a universal instinct, which means that no one can be bad at it,
not even toddlers or black people. That’s what the book said: you might think that toddlers and black people had no grammar, but if you analyzed their utterances, they were actually following grammatical rules….
The class learns about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which “said that the language you spoke affected how you processed reality. We learned that it was wrong.” And not just wrong, but vile and essentially racist. Selin, however, is the girl who sees things in books her Turkish mother doesn’t see. “In my heart,” she confesses, “I knew that Whorf was right.” Different languages “forced you to think about different things.”
One of my favorite parts of The Idiot involves a Turkish verb tense. Batuman finds in this tense not so much a Whorfian worldview as a novelist’s world. Family relationships, hierarchy, resentment, rivalry, fear, motherly affection—much is revealed about Selin in Batuman’s discussion of a point of Turkish grammar. In Turkish, Batuman explains, there is a suffix that can be attached to verbs that changes the meaning of the tense. If you add the suffix -miş to a verb, it means you did not yourself see or experience what you are relating.
The suffix is a way of indicating indirect knowledge or hearsay, as if you added “it seems” or “I heard” or “apparently” to whatever you are saying. Selin experiences it as an accusatory or tattletale tense. “When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity.” She associates it primarily with a cousin. “You complained-miş to your mother,” the cousin would say. Or “The dog scared-miş you.” Whenever Selin hears -miş, she feels caught out. The dog did scare her. She did complain to her mother. “The -miş tense was one of the things I complained to my mother about.”
She later writes a research paper on -miş and begins to feel something like affection for it and its nuanced facility. She learns that it is called the evidentiary or inferential tense and that it is often used in speaking to children, as in “What seems to have happened to the doll?” The suffix, three simple letters, “allowed the speaker to assume the wonder and ignorance that children live in.”
Batuman’s attention to a Turkish suffix is not an aimless diversion, although it is diverting. Aside from their sheer grammar-groupie pleasure, these passages simultaneously demonstrate and describe what Batuman is doing. She has, first of all, created a character who herself lives in wonder and ignorance. In addition, the evidentiary -miş has “a kind of built-in bewilderment, it was automatically funny,” she writes—an uncanny description of her own style.
Selin’s discomfort with and pleasure in the -miş tense also helps us to understand the romance on which she is about to embark. It begins in her Russian class. The class is reading a primer, Nina in Siberia, each chapter unfolding with only the grammar they’ve learned by that point, eccentric wooden examples of which Batuman generously shares throughout the novel. In an early chapter, the absence of grammatical possibilities—no dative case, no verbs of motion—is tellingly appealing to Selin:
The story had a stilted feel, and yet while you were reading you felt totally inside its world, a world where reality mirrored the grammar constraints, and what Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist. There was no “went” or “sent,” no intention or causality—just unexplained appearances and disappearances.
Poor Nina goes to Siberia to find her boyfriend, Ivan, a student of physics who sneaks off to the collective reindeer research farm, Siberian Spark, in Novosibirsk, leaving only a mysterious farewell letter. As The Idiot proceeds, Nina in Siberia becomes a more and more random, bizarre mirror of Selin’s own relationship with a senior in her Russian class who is also named Ivan. Her wistful gratitude to the textbook’s grammatical restraints prepares us, if not her, for the confused, passive determination of her first love.
The romance begins when Selin, who is called Sonya in Russian class for reasons having to do with declension, has a chance after-class encounter with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. It is a classic romantic meeting—girl drops glove, boy picks up glove, gives glove back—transformed into charming Batuman farce: “‘Sonya!’ It was Ivan, extending a floppy blue slipper. ‘You dropped it.’” The “slipper” is one of her hideous new ski gloves. She and Ivan are often paired up in class for conversations in Russian based on their readings in Nina in Siberia, a tale that is not going so well for Nina. Ivan the Hungarian mathematics student, playing the part of Ivan the Russian physics student who ran off to Novosibirsk, has something he must tell Nina, played by Selin:
“Well,” he said. He looked at the floor and then looked at me. Lines appeared on his forehead. “I have a wife,” he said. “And it’s not you.”
I knew it wasn’t real—I knew it was just a story. But my stomach sank, my breath caught in my throat, a wave of nausea rose in my chest.
Spurned by a fictional character, Selin has fallen in love.
Checking her e-mail one day and finding only a request to chip in two dollars for someone’s birthday cake, Selin impulsively writes an e-mail to Ivan. Her letter is a play on the fictitious Ivan’s letter to Nina. When Ivan receives it, she writes, she will be in Siberia. She is quitting school because “questions of articulatory phonetics no longer interest” her:
I will live and work in Novosibirsk on the collective farm Siberian Spark. I know that you will understand me and that it will be better this way. I will never forget you.
Yours, Selin (Sonya)
And so, cloaked in the flat intonations of a nonsensical Russian primer, an epistolary flirtation begins. Ivan writes back a day later to tell her that he had a dream she would cheat on him with his future girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend and can she please tell him the plot of a Russian soap opera they are supposed to have been watching all semester. He does, in fact, have a girlfriend, but the correspondence continues. Ivan begins writing letters about fate and freedom. “He seemed really worried about the possibility that we might not have free will. Lucretius and quantum theory came into it.” Selin finds the idea that free will might indeed have limits to be a relief. Ivan, though, writes, “I am on the boundary of being a scientist, and so far the only scientific explanation for free will is that it is an illusion. I don’t like that.”
As the year progresses, the intensely desultory relationship continues with e-mail and the occasional awkward, though rather sweet, meeting. Selin is so tuned in to every shade of meaning when they meet that she misinterprets what Ivan says with startling precision:
“See you later,” I said.
“Yeah, eventually,” he said. “You notice we’re not very good at getting in touch.”
“We’ll get better,” I said.
He frowned. “You can call me, too, you know. You don’t have to wait for me to call.”
“Okay,” I said sadly: so he wasn’t going to call me.
And college life goes on. Selin’s best friend Svetlana teaches her to play squash, to which her response is, “The blue rubber ball was so small, so fast and crazy. To think this world was too deterministic for some people!” There is a series of disastrous attempts by Selin to teach English as a second language. She runs along the river and eats in the dining hall and wins a prize for a story she wrote. Through it all, there is the mystery of Ivan, of what he wants, what she wants, what either of them is willing to say or do.
For the summer, Selin plans to go to Paris with Svetlana and then join her mother in Turkey. At Ivan’s suggestion, she adds a detour to her journey. She joins a group of students who are to be implanted in Hungarian villages in order to spread American culture. He is staying in Budapest, and the implication is that she will see him on weekends, though by the time Selin leaves for Paris, she has stopped answering his e-mails. Selin believes that language, like math, is a self-sufficient system, but it is clearly insufficient for a girl in love. Especially with someone who already has a girlfriend.
Selin in Paris is not too different from Selin in Cambridge—funny, innocent, world-weary. What she sees is new, but in some ways everything she sees every day is new to Selin. Svetlana and her family, extremely rich Serbs, some of whom live in Paris, are an awfully entertaining crew:
“The boy who convinced you to go to Hungary, he must be very handsome,” Svetlana’s aunt Bojana told me. “You can find an excellent coffee in Budapest. I see that you are looking at my tea tray. Do you like it? It’s quite a good tray. I will make it a gift to you. But not now—only when you get married.”
In the Louvre, Svetlana finds herself strongly identifying with a tiny medieval Madonna “confronting a silver whale, apparently indoors,” but Selin identifies with none of the women in the paintings. When she finally does find something in a painting she identifies with, it is a sideboard.
And then there’s Hungary. Ivan has given her a phrasebook, Just Enough Hungarian:
The toilet is blocked. The gas is leaking. The boiler is not working. I have a toothache. I have broken my dentures. I have lost (my contact lenses, a filling, my bag, my car keys, my car, everything). Someone has stolen (my car, my passport, my money, my tickets, my wallet, everything)…. Don’t hang up. There’s a delay. I’m sorry I’m late. I don’t understand you. I think this is wrong. No, not that. That’s enough, thank you. I won’t take it, thank you. Please stop.
Selin does not encounter the many calamities anticipated by Just Enough Hungarian during her stay, but emotional misadventure does await her there. Luckily, she is very young, and ahead of her lies a lifetime of words and all the worlds they bring with them.