Iggy and Fyodor, meet your [Turkish] match
Early on in Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, the gimlet-eyed protagonist considers how she thinks differently in different languages. The year is 1995, and Selin Karadağ is a Turkish-American student in her first year at Harvard, where she enrols in Introductory Russian, The Psychology of Language, and Linguistics 101. In her linguistics class, Selin alights on a discarded theory about how one’s language determines the way they process events. ‘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’, Selin says. In Turkish, she explains, the suffix -miş is used to report anything one hasn’t witnessed personally, and has a kind of ‘I heard’ meaning: an admission of one’s own subjectivity; and, when other people direct -miş toward one, Selin says unhappily, ‘you knew that you [have] been invoked in your absence – not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity.’
Selin’s complicated relationship with words is further tangled up in a romance with an older Hungarian undergraduate named Ivan. Their initial correspondence at the college unfolds over a new, exciting medium fit for an aspiring writer like Selin: email. ‘Why was it more honourable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan?’ Selin asks herself. When analysing Balzac, she reasons, one is in a conversation with many others who have also read and interpreted Lost Illusions; in the case of Ivan’s emails, however, he had written specifically to her, so wasn’t parsing emails ‘in a way more authentic, and more human?’
For Selin, the pitfalls of love and language are serious, but Batuman’s unadorned prose is deliriously funny. When a summer opportunity brings Selin to a Hungarian village to teach English, her hosts offer to remove the taxidermied weasel from the room where she’ll be staying. Selin politely declines: ‘It seemed clear to me that if you really wanted to be a writer, you didn’t send away the weasel’. Nevertheless, there are also moments of unexpected heartache, like when Batuman describes the finality of hitting Ctrl-S on a missive intended to wound. The Idiot is more than a young writer’s coming-of-age story, as it explores how life’s narrative threads can unravel, as well as the limits of language, all in Batuman’s inimitable voice.
The character of Selin closely resembles Batuman, who also attended Harvard and was raised by Turkish immigrants in New Jersey. Batuman has described herself as an accidental essayist, because she had always intended to write fiction. In fact, The Idiot is based on a novel Batuman wrote years ago, when she was still in graduate school at Stanford. As she started working on a different novel around 2012, Batuman found she kept returning to flashback scenes that showed the protagonist’s time in college. It was then that she rediscovered the manuscript of her unpublished novel, which Batuman had written in her early twenties, and drew on experiences she’d had several years earlier in college. Because of the intervening years, the book felt to her as if it had been written by someone else – another writer from the vanished world of 1995. As a result, there was no need to cringe at the protagonist’s embarrassing moments in the text; Batuman actually liked the uncomfortable moments best, and they ultimately led her to choose the novel’s title.
An expert on Russian literature, Batuman has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford. In her dissertation, she argued that the novel form sees a writer try to arrange daily life’s fragmented, confusing experiences in a narrative as meaningful as his or her favourite books. Selin, too, struggles to fit her muddled relationship with Ivan into some kind of narrative. Although extremely perceptive, she is somewhat hapless and naïve. She arrives at Harvard with the ingrained belief that she is a writer, despite not knowing how a young person becomes such a thing. Only after a friend insists does Selin reluctantly submit a story to the campus literary magazine: ‘I had chosen a ten-point font, both to conserve paper and to discourage people from reading the story, which I didn’t think they would enjoy’.
The Idiot is more than a young writer’s coming-of-age story, as it explores how life’s narrative threads can unravel, as well as the limits of language, all in Batuman’s inimitable voice
Like Batuman’s previous book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them – a critically acclaimed memoir published in 2010 – The Idiot shares its title with a notable book by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Prince Myshkin, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, is a young and good-hearted outsider, having just returned to St. Petersburg after years spent in a sanatorium. In The Possessed, Batuman describes in a series of essays her love affair with Russian books, a summer in Uzbekistan, and her intense experience among similarly ‘possessed’ classmates in graduate school. All the while, the memoir examines literature as it relates to life (and vice versa), with Batuman’s signature wit and eye for the absurd. A few moments in The Idiot will be familiar to readers of The Possessed, such as a scene in Hungary where Selin, like Batuman, is told she must judge a boys’ leg contest; but the author’s unique style makes these surreal misadventures worth revisiting.
From 2010 to 2013, Batuman was writer-in-residence at Koç University in Istanbul, where she also covered Turkey as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her dispatches draw on a boundless curiosity about literature, history, and the arts in Anatolia and beyond: a story on the ancient megalithic site of Göbekli Tepe becomes a meditation on whether agriculture might have been the real fall of a Neolithic Adam and Eve, and her report on Byzantine shipwrecks (discovered during a trans-Bosphorus subway project) quotes the twentieth-century Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet. The essays are often infused with the same delightful, half-awkward moments of human interaction that make up The Idiot. In Batuman’s exploration of the fervent, Quixotic fans of the Turkish soccer team Beşiktaş, a worried taxi driver prepares her while en route to the match:
‘You’re going to hear all kinds of swearing’, he warns. ‘You’re going to hear unheard-of things that nobody should ever hear.’
‘It’s O.K.’, Batuman replies. ‘I’m trying to advance my knowledge of the Turkish language.’
Leo Carey, a senior editor at The New Yorker, emailed highlights from Batuman’s ten years’ worth of articles to readers last year. ‘Reading the pieces we’ve gathered here, you sometimes have the impression that they are part of one immense article, whose inexhaustible subject is the sheer strangeness and limitless fascination of human experience’, he wrote. ‘The world is simply a more interesting place when viewed through Batuman’s eyes.’
On April 11, Batuman introduced the film Yün Bebek (Wool Doll) at a screening in New York City. The film, which deals with violence against women in Turkey, was written and directed by Ümmiye Koçak, the founder of a women’s theatre troupe in the rural village of Arslanköy. ‘I learned so much in those years in Turkey’, Batuman said of her experience. ‘I wished I could have stayed longer. But I don’t think I learned more from any of the stories than I did from this one.’
During a recent reading of The Idiot, Batuman said an audience member had surprised her with a connection between her book and an article she’d written the theatre troupe. ‘You know, at first I thought that your book had nothing to do with the story about Ümmiye Koçak and the Arslanköy women,’ Batuman recalled the attendee saying, ‘but then I started to read it, and I realised that this is a book about education, and it’s a book about women’s education, and the point of The Idiot is that [the protagonist] goes to school’. Batuman acknowledged it was true:
Education is the most important thing, and yet, it’s never straightforward. It’s always an imaginative leap. As I was looking back at Ümmiye, I realised that education is almost a kind of theatre; It’s something that you have to enter into imaginatively — and improvise, and speak different languages, and assume different roles. And it’s something that takes on, ideally, a life of its own.