It has taken much of a celebrated literary life for Elif Batuman to produce a novel. At the beginning of her wonderful 2010 book The Possessed —a chimera of memoir, travelogue and literary criticism — she declares:
I remember believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life… and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels.
Selin, the Turkish-American protagonist of her first novel, is engaged in gathering writerly experience at Harvard, reading novels and falling for Ivan, a Hungarian mathematics student with a girlfriend. The pair begin an online relationship at the dawn of email. But constantly reading too much into Ivan’s contributions pulls Selin into ‘a reality that they made up, just through language’. A student psychologist tells her: ‘From what you’ve described, it sounds as if he barely exists at all.’ Selin will spend an exhausting summer teaching English in Hungary on the off chance she might be close to Ivan, who recommended it.
The Idiot explores how highly educated young people can feel so ill-prepared for life, not ‘knowing anything’ or capable of doing ‘anything real’. Batuman captures the amplified, airless banality of the 1990s with flip sentences. ‘Peter went somewhere for some reason,’ or ‘Ivan preferred for things to be unique, otherwise it was like eating at McDonald’s when you could be eating at some random place.’
Light-hearted but of high quality, it falls into the loafing abroad, goofing and self-knowing genre. I am thinking of Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain’s 2013 Bildungsroman, in which another Harvardian goes to Prague in the 1990s. Both novels create a similar atmosphere and low-tension space in which nothing much happens in a lovely way over a longish book.
Batuman’s narrator shares experiences from The Possessed, sometimes worded identically. We hear of the same Russian textbooks, the same philosophy problems written on a board, the same student who goes to Turkey and becomes the subject of ‘some kind of exposé’ in Rolling Stone. The effect — bearing in mind Batuman’s suppression of much of her range to create the voice of a less sophisticated self — is of reading an Ur text to her first book.
The Idiot cleverly seems as though it was written before The Possessed. If you haven’t read any of Batuman, read the novel first, then the memoir.