The Idiot. Elif Batuman.

Batuman, Elif. The Idiot. Penguin, New York, 2017. F; 1/21.

Batuman is a Turkish-American born in New York who has been called a “language freak and geek”. I imagine her undergrad arts degree from Harvard and PhD in comparative literature from Stanford would qualify her for that. She’s also a staff writer for the New Yorker which pretty well full-circles literary elitism in the United States, never mind she didn’t attend the Iowa Writers Workshop and has produced her first novel only in her mid-40s. Try as I might I couldn’t help liking this story. It’s painfully coming-of-age and there were times when I wanted to take semi-autobiographical protagonist Selin by her shoulders and give her a gentle shake. But she’s funny, at times very funny, and endearingly sensible as a nice 19-year-old girl facing reality unevenly suited to her inner life.

Selin meets and has a huge crush on few-years-older Ivan, a comparably brilliant math student, in one of her first-year Harvard classes. They circle one another via meetings and email (it not yet universally accepted in 1995) and live out that late-adolescent wanting and needing comfort in a relationship that is intellectual, gender-defining, and potentially romantic. Selin agrees to go off into Ivan’s native Hungary to teach English to the inhabitants of a small village as part of a summer program. She is supposed to meet Ivan there, and they meet, but (plot alert) it’s the essential paradox of this story and of both characters that they pass one another like the proverbial ships in the night (end plot alert).

Selin like Batuman is obsessed with language. Does a language direct thinking? “I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English—not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things.” and of the “maybe” tense in Turkish verbs:

One of the most common uses of the Turkish inferential … was in speaking to children. This, too, I remembered: “What seems to have happened to the doll?” The inferential tense allowed the speaker to assume the wonder and ignorance that children live in—that state when every piece of knowledge is basically hearsay.

She weighs moral ambiguity fearlessly:

The meanest girls, the ones who started secret clubs to ostracize the poorly dressed, delighted to see Cinderella triumph over her stepsisters. They rejoiced when the prince kissed her. Evidently, they not only saw themselves as noble and good, but also wanted to love and be loved. Maybe not by anyone and everyone, the way I wanted to be loved. But, for the right person, they were prepared to form a relation based on mutual kindness.

Romantic love and sex are kept at a certain distance but can’t be ignored and Selin is at all times painfully preoccupied with Ivan, certain in her mind that she can’t and won’t find the right words to say to him or even carry on a conversation, and tongue-tied in repeated critical situations where a comment or email of his is looking (or not) for her to take the next step. They are together in a bedroom in his parents house and a moth is flying around:

“You probably don’t want me to kill it,” he said. “Go right ahead,” I said. But he caught the moth and cupped it in his hands and said to open the window. I jumped out of bed and raised the sash, and he stood beside me and let the moth fly away. I remembered that I was wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, and got back into bed.

and more viscerally, lying on a swim raft in a lake when an older man politely asks if he can climb onto the raft:

I asked what he did by profession. He said he was a businessman. “Is it interesting?” I asked. “The point isn’t whether it’s interesting,” he said after a moment, and rubbed his thumb and index finger together. I felt a jolt of sexual current, and I was appalled. What was so attractive? His indifference to boredom? The way he had invoked money? What did I care about his money? I remembered how alienated I had felt in the Hungarian villages, listening to the Beatles sing about money and women—I’d thought it was some weird 1950s thing. But what if my body also responded in some way to money? What if that was the way women were? “So,” said the Russian man. “Are you here alone?”

She slips into the water and swims away.

We have both a girl coming of age and struggling with predictable and really terribly serious troubles of that time of life, and also a very unusually bright sensible character. For me each of them separately are gloriously invented. But it’s the fascination of these two sides of the character being somehow separate, and being left at the end with no resolution, that was for me the charm of, and eventually made me respect, this Pulitzer-finalist story. Was it one of those painfully beautiful things that are themselves the conversion-inviting experience independent of the narrative? Not quite. Was it an absorbing and fascinating story like the best thrillers or mysteries? No, not at all. I can’t put my finger on why I liked it so much, but I did.

It’s a short read. I’m making a moderately high recommendation. I think you could do a lot worse than risk spending a few hours with Selin and Elif Batuman.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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