Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
In his The Idiot – the original – Dostoyevsky set out on a mission to depict “the positively good and beautiful man.” The namesake, Prince Myshkin, has a goodness and open-hearted simplicity to him that others take as an absence of intellect and insight; and it makes him the perfect guinea pig to Dostoyevsky’s literary experiment to see what happens when such an individual is dropped among the conflicts, desires and passions of surrounding society.
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, too, is an experiment of sorts to discover what happens when someone lets an idealized character determine their moments of happiness, despair and everything in between – or, in less prosaic terms, how someone deals with a crush. This someone is American-Turkish Selin – Batuman’s semi-autobiographical outlet – who arrives at Harvard fresh-faced and very lost, baffled at room sharing, friendship, love, alcohol, and university email, because this is the 90s where Walkmans rather than smartphones rule the electronic world and social media is still waiting to be conceived.
It’s been said of Batuman that she tends to confine likeability to her female cast, and that rings true in The Idiot. For all their annoying oddities, the female characters are ultimately nothing but lovable in their quirkiness: I can forgive Selin’s psychoanalyzing friend Svetlana for her pretentiousness, and her mother for her constant telephone interferences, because, in the end, they are all unusually warm and caring. This sense of sisterhood and female empowerment is undoubtedly part of what has earned The Idiot its spot on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as its frequent appearances on bookshops’ recommendations for feminist reading.
Another, murkier reason, for its status as a feminist novel is the stark contrast of the female characters to Ivan, the Hungarian student in his final year and the one to receive all of Selin’s affection. A girl of the #metoo era, I can’t help shouting out ‘gaslighting!’ when the two strike up – well, the point is neither of them, nor the reader, seem to know quite what is going on. Selin and Ivan start a conversational relationship of sorts, which initially takes place through the novelty of email rather than anything face-to-face. Their emails are a bizarre collection of deep thoughts, some try-hard artsiness, and plenty of non-sequiturs – a case of postmodernism on point:
Would you trade wine and cheese for vodka and pickles? Why does a Greek hero have to fight his fate? Are dice a lethal weapon? Is there any way to escape the triviality-dungeon of conversations? Why did you stop coming to math?”
When the two do meet without the mediation of email, it is in their Russian class, where they are made to act out Nina in Siberia, a story about Nina searching for her lost love in Siberia. But neither the non-communicative email conversations nor their odd parallel Russian textbook lives, nor even discovering that Ivan has a girlfriend, stop Selin from following Ivan to Hungary at his suggestion, taking up a summer of teaching English in rural villages. The boundaries between what is real and what is made-up become increasingly blurred.
All this – writing words without much communicative function, and living life through fiction – has much in common with Batuman’s previous, debut, novel, The Possessed – also borrowing its title from Dostoyevsky –, an autobiographical account of studying Russian literature at Stanford, and a treatment of the relationship between art and life. In The Idiot, Selin faces questions of how much of her own and Ivan’s emotions are real, and whether anything in their emails or in Nina’s story has any repercussions for their relationship – if there even is one – in reality. The same goes for Selin’s ponderings about language: her linguistics class tackles the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, for example, i.e. the idea that language determines how an individual thinks, leaving her questioning how much of Ivan can be explained by his native Hungarian. And is she, as a Turkish-American, a different person in her two languages?
On the surface, The Idiot is all about head-in-the-clouds young love and crushes, but Batuman executes everything with her trademark humour, and a sharp insight into her favourite themes. It may be a book about youth and silliness, but it’s definitely more than an literary experiment with an idiot.
Anna is a student linguist and journalist.
Elif Batuman, The Idiot (Vintage, 2018) 978-1910702697, paperback, 422 pages.
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