The Idiot

Elif Batuman

Essentially a novel in two parts, the first comprises Selin’s first year at Harvard in the year 1995, as Selin chooses to study linguistics and Russian, meets a Hungarian mathematician, Ivan, begins emailing Ivan, and develops a crush on him through their correspondence. They have an awkward flirtation, being painfully unable to have a conversation outside of their strange emails. The second part covers the summer when Selin travels to Paris with her friend Svetlana and then Hungary to teach English in a small town, which she basically only does to try to see Ivan, even though this seems ill-advised. The book is episodic, focused on the humor and poignancy of banal moments. Usually that sounds like something I am interested in, but I felt terribly bored with the majority of The Idiot, though oddly I found it less tedious to read when I had large stretches to devote to it than dipping in and out.

While the title is stolen from Dostoyevsky, Selin’s reference to Tolstoy gives more of a guide to the intent of the book:

Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book. I would rather have talked to Ivan, the love interest, but somehow I didn’t get to decide. At the same time, I also felt that these superabundant personages weren’t irrelevant at all, but somehow the opposite, and that when Ivan had told me to make friends with the other kids, he had been telling me something important about the world, about how the fateful character in your life wasn’t the one who buried you in a rock, but the one who led you out to more people.

The second part of the book was definitely stronger for me. I’m just not sure the first part needed to be quite so long, except that Batuman was trying to mimic a Russian novel, so length and heft were necessary in that regard. While I found the themes of language and linguistics interesting, there was never a point where this came together beyond intriguing tidbits. My favorite: Selin is Turkish-American and early on talks about the Turkish suffix -miş which she says, “you put on verbs to report anything you didn’t witness personally.” A way of stating subjectivity, the suffix used mostly for fairy tales and gossip. She relates its usage to a cousin who would use it to report all the things she had heard Selin was guilty of saying or doing:

“You complained-miş to your mother,” Dilek would tell me in her quiet, precise voice. “The dog scared-miş you.” “You told-miş your parents that if Aunt Hülya came to America, she could live in your garage.” 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.”

Per the acknowledgements, this novel was written in 2000–1 and Batuman only revisited it recently. Her first published book The Possessed is non-fiction about Russian literature, and apparently it employs some of the same anecdotes as this novel. (If I were writing in Turkish, I would use -miş here since I read that in this Spectator review.) Reviews of The Possessed bring up similar responses to how I feel about The Idiot, so perhaps Batuman’s longer-form work just isn’t for me — disappointing, since I’ve enjoyed many of Elif Batuman’s essays and articles.