Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010, where, most recently, she has written about the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the corpse flower, and her familial homeland, Turkey. That same year, Batuman published her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Bridging travelogue and literary criticism, Batuman’s collection crackled not only with intelligence, but also with biting humor. Originally pitched as a novel, Batuman was convinced instead to write a nonfiction book about her experiences as a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Stanford University. Her connections between literature, language, and the need to be understood problematize the condition of basic communication today. While we live in a global society with instant gratification and multimedia chatter, it remains a challenge to be listened to and heard.
In The Idiot, her first novel, which comes out this month, Batuman returns to academia. Selin, a freshman at Harvard, belongs to the last generation of Americans to grow up without the Internet. A young woman who wants to be a writer without fully understanding what that means, Selin is curious and hungry to make the most of all that her rich education has to offer: language courses, seminars in art, but also—especially—the pull of an electronic epistolary entanglement with Ivan, a fellow student in her Russian language class. Batuman captures the paradoxical experience of extreme loneliness combined with tangible connection that embodies life as an undergrad.
Talking with Batuman via email about language, storytelling, friendship, and the romance of finding yourself made me think anew about the importance of fiction. Novels can do the work of informing and educating while also creating a space to ponder the possibilities we lose when we fixate on cause and effect alone. In this complex and often disheartening political landscape, especially, we need fiction as well as nonfiction. We also need humor and a thorough self-awareness. Batuman’s fluency in both genres—and her insight into the relationships between made-up stories and positive truths—is key to surviving this time of alt facts, fake news, and doublespeak.
—Lauren LeBlanc for Guernica
Guernica: In your novel, in writing about Selin’s linguistic courses, you mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that language determines thought. Was it important for you to use Selin’s experiences as a student and as an ESL teacher in order to show the various ways that she attempts to wrap her head around relationships and the different worlds we live in?
Elif Batuman: Yes, the ESL aspect was really important to me. One of my favorite literary theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin, wrote that the defining characteristic of the novel is its unprecedented level of “heteroglossia”—the way it brings together so many different registers of language. He doesn’t mean national languages, but rather the sublanguages we all navigate between every day: legal language, liturgical language, the language of advertising or folk songs, the language of the 1880s or the 1980s, of hip-hop, of Google Maps, of Reddit, of the New York Times, high language, low language, everything. I think there’s something really powerful about the idea of the novel as a space that can bring all these languages together—not just aggregate them, like the Internet is so good at doing, but bring them into a dialogue.
One of the kinds of language that I was really interested in was nonnative English. My parents both grew up in Turkey and went to American high schools, followed by an English-language medical school. When I was little, they mostly spoke and read to me in this beautiful, fluent, but nonnative English. Of course, everyone is used to speaking a slightly different “language” with their parents than with their peers, because spoken language changes every generation—like they say, the past is a foreign country—but I think this is intensified for children whose parents also grew up in a geographically foreign country.
In college, for the first time I had close friends who were nonnative English speakers, and I was really impressed and moved by the way they talked and wrote, by the combination of sophistication and innocence and inventiveness. There’s a line like that in The Portrait of a Lady, about Henrietta Stackpole: “there was something earnest and inventive in her tone, which at times, in its brilliant deliberation, suggested a person of high culture speaking a foreign language.” I didn’t feel at the time like I had ever seen that quality represented in literature quite as I wanted to—like, not at all patronizingly. So definitely nonnative English was a language I wanted both to represent and to investigate in The Idiot.
Guernica: Given that you’ve established your career as a nonfiction writer—2010’s The Possessed as well as your work as a staff writer at The New Yorker—why did this particular story need to be told as a novel?
Elif Batuman: Well, it’s actually kind of an accident that I established my career as a nonfiction writer. From childhood I wanted to be a novelist. I actually wrote the first draft of The Idiot in my early twenties, many years before either The Possessed or The New Yorker. In fact, I originally wanted The Possessed to be a novel: I was pitching it as a fictional retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons [often translated as The Possessed] set in the Russian literature program of a Stanford-like university. For some reason, nobody wanted to publish this novel. There was more interest in a memoir about my own Dostoevskian experiences studying Russian literature. The basic idea was: nobody wants to read a whole novel about depressed grad students, but with a nonfiction book, some people might read it in the hope of learning about the Russian novels they never had time to read themselves. It was supposed to be sort of a time-saving device.
It isn’t actually obvious to me that people are less able to learn about Russian novels from reading a novel about grad students than from reading a nonfiction book about grad students. But anyway, that’s how The Possessed ended up nonfiction. With The Idiot, I wrote it first and then told everyone it was a novel, and was really relieved that nobody told me to call it a memoir just because it’s about someone with the same national/educational/cultural background as me.
My feeling is that, if you’re writing a book where you want to make a positive truth claim—you know, like, “This really happened, and it’s important that it really happened, and you can call up everyone mentioned in it on the phone and they will tell you it’s true”—then you should absolutely call it nonfiction or memoir. If you don’t want to make that claim—if that’s not what’s important to you; if you’re more interested in storytelling and interiority and interpersonal relationships than in objective, checkable facts about the world—then why wouldn’t you call it a novel, and take advantage of what that gets you, of the extra freedom, of belonging to the tradition of the novel?
Guernica: Did you in some way aspire to retell Dostoevsky’s The Idiot through your book? Could you speak to the parallels you’ve established by choosing to echo Dostoevsky’s titles?
Elif Batuman: My intention wasn’t to retell Dostoevsky’s Idiot (though I guess that book was also about a young and clueless person who thinks a lot about the right way to live, falls in love, and does a certain amount of running around in not the world’s most efficient way). Thematically, Dostoevsky is definitely present, because Selin is studying Russian, reads Dostoevsky, and talks about it with Ivan. In my Idiot, Ivan is the one who likes Dostoevsky; Selin says he makes her feel embarrassed and tired. But I think Selin might be more influenced by Dostoevsky than she realizes, in the way she experiences the whole world as a dialogue of interior and exterior voices. In a way, she’s a person who always has a whole psychological novel going on inside her head, and where would the psychological novel be without Dostoevsky?
I first thought of the title when I was working on a novel about a writer similar to me, who had written a book called The Idiot (similar to my book The Possessed). I didn’t end up finishing that novel, but the idea of a Batuman-like person writing an autobiographical book called The Idiot stayed with me. When I reread the draft of this novel about college, so full of awkwardness, I felt like The Idiot was the only possible title.
I wouldn’t say I feel kinship with Dostoevsky, so much as admiration, especially for his titles. For what it’s worth, the titles I used aren’t actually 100 percent replicas: The Possessed is a once-popular English rendering of Dostoevsky’s novel Besy, now more frequently, and more literally, translated as The Demons. And the Russian word for idiot is gendered, so in Russian my version would actually be Idiotka!
Guernica: Your book, which is set in 1995, opens with the line, “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.” What prompted you to set your novel at this distinct moment when a veritable Pandora’s box of chatter was poised to crack open?
Elif Batuman: You know, I wrote the first draft of this novel in the early 2000s, and email already played a big role—that part is 100 percent from my own experience. I was a freshman in 1995 and first got email at college, and it blew my mind. But I didn’t write the opening lines until 2015, when I was revising that original draft, which at that point I hadn’t read for fifteen years. So there definitely was a choice to accentuate the email theme, which I made in our present historical moment. When I reread the draft, I was really struck by how differently I now viewed email, how it had become a burden, something to get away from or declare “amnesty” from.
Yesterday I was doing an interview where someone asked if I was influenced at all by Elena Ferrante, and I remembered that I read the Neapolitan trilogy around the same time that I was working on The Idiot, and that one thing I was really moved by was the description of word processing—when Lila introduces Lena to word processing and it’s this total game changer for her as a writer. I think maybe reading that helped me give the discovery of email a certain weight in the opening of the novel.
Guernica: Your heroine Selin has an obsessive epistolary relationship with Ivan, her older Russian language classmate, which will hit close to home for readers. Her friendship with another classmate, Svetlana, is also sometimes conducted by email. When Svetlana writes Selin, during break, separated by countries, she interrupts her own rambling letter to say, “I really wish we could have one of our long talks.” It reminded me how formative and passionate same-sex friendships are. Young women today can maintain constant communicate through Snapchat and texting, but is this fragmented and ephemeral form of communication a substitute for letter writing and lengthy talks?
Elif Batuman: Oh, that’s a great question. I don’t think anything can substitute long talks, and long talks are somehow never as easy to schedule again as they were in school, when most people—at least in my little socioeconomic corner of the world—live not with their families or sexual partners, but with same-sex friends. I really miss that from college. I never really thought at the time about how things would never be that way again.
I do agree that people are shaped by friendship as much as by romance. I remember talking about this with Emily Gould, in the context of her novel Friendship: she pointed out that, whereas in a romantic relationship you can use sex as an escape valve for tensions, in friendship you’re forced to talk through it, so in a way you reach a more profound level of intimacy, and you have to do a whole different kind of inventive work that doesn’t happen in romantic relationships.
Guernica: You also talk about the quality of time and the condition of waiting. So much of early adulthood is framed around requirements, academic calendars, and expectations. Selin muses, “It occurred to me that it might take more than a year—maybe as many as seven years—to learn to feel nineteen.” At what point do we, if ever, feel as though we are the age we are now?
Elif Batuman: Oh man, I think time just goes faster and faster. I’m saying this a few months away from my fortieth birthday. I don’t know when and if one’s identity ever does catch up with one’s actual age. Personally I feel like I just got the hang of thirty-five.
I do think that feeling of constant accumulating outdatedness is really productive, really central, for the novel. If you think about Don Quixote, Don Quixote is this guy who wants to live as if he was in a medieval chivalric romance, when actually he lives in sixteenth-century Spain, which is already going through secularization, industrialization, modernization. He goes out to kill a giant, and instead he collides with this huge windmill and injures himself and also damages the windmill. I think that’s a metaphor for the collisions we all have over time, as our ideas of ourselves get out of synch with the historical moment. And I think those collisions are, in a way, the subject matter of the novel.
Guernica: On reading a Neruda poem, Selin reflects upon Ivan’s observation that “it was exciting not to understand.” Could you talk about why it’s important to live without complete mastery—that we shouldn’t always have the answers at our fingertips?
Elif Batuman: When I was younger, I didn’t really see the point of obscurity, or deconstruction—it was the 1990s—even really of poetry. I thought clarity of communication was the most important thing in writing, and if you really cared about getting your idea across, you would say it in the most straightforward way possible. Later, in college and grad school, I came to realize that language is a technology like any other, and that it’s always evolving—clarity of expression is always evolving. There are ideas it will be easy to say in the future that we just don’t have the language for now. It’s kind of like how the idea of a knight-errant needing clean laundry wasn’t expressible before Don Quixote—Cervantes invented the language for it. At any given time, there are ideas and images that can only be communicated indirectly.
So it’s really a trade-off: you’re always having to decide whether you’re going to say the more ambitious thing, and lose a little clarity—or are you going to say something really clearly, and sacrifice a little nuance? Get too obscure, and you sound like a pretentious asshole; go overboard with the clarity, and you sound like you’re talking down to your audience, or like you yourself are a reductive simpleton. Svetlana and Selin have a conversation about this at some point—Svetlana is writing a poem, and she can’t decide whether to say, “I felt like I had swallowed the universe,” or, “I felt like I had swallowed a hard-boiled egg.” I think, as a writer, one is always having to face that choice! Part of flirting is that you tend to give each other a little extra slack to be obscure—to say things that are suggestive and nuanced, rather than clear and comprehensible, things you wouldn’t put up with in an essay or something written by a stranger—and that can be so exciting. I think that’s what Selin starts to realize in the passage you mention. Because poetry is another space, like love, where we extend that extra credit to the writer.
Guernica: You have written extensive criticism about MFA programs. Could you talk about why your character is drawn to be a writer but has no interest in creative writing courses?
Elif Batuman: Well, Selin is a freshman in 1995, when creative writing wasn’t necessarily as big a part of undergraduate curriculum as it is today. In real life, I also already wanted to be a writer at that age but didn’t take creative writing as a freshman. I think part of the reason was I was so excited to be done with high school—to have graduated and moved to the next step—that I really only wanted to take classes that didn’t even have the same names as classes I took in high school. Like, I didn’t take any classes with any of the phenomenal professors in the English department, because I felt like I had already taken English in high school! I wish I was making this up.
Instead, like Selin, I took linguistics and even psycholinguistics. I was extremely conscious of what an incredible opportunity it was to be at Harvard, and of what sacrifices it had cost my parents, and I was always thinking—in a kind of blockheaded way, but it was the only way I had—about how to not waste it. I think Selin would have thought that creative writing was something she could do by herself, or something she had already taken in high school—it didn’t correspond to what she thought she was supposed to be doing in college.
Guernica: You also have a remarkable sense of humor. How much did you use humor as a means of filtering reality? Is it a coping mechanism or just a natural reaction to everyday life?
Elif Batuman: Thank you! Humor is really important to me. All my favorite writers are writers I consider to be funny, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even though that’s not necessarily their rap. I think humor is a really important way of creating solidarity—like, through humor you can make people realize that certain situations, where they thought they were alone, are actually shared by everyone. I think Seinfeld and Larry David in general did that for a lot of the really banal, embarrassing, or boring aspects of modern life, and that’s why that show meant so much to so many people.
When a novelist manages to describe or evoke something you thought or felt, without realizing that other people also found themselves in the same situation and had the same feelings, it creates that same solidarity. Maybe it’s better to think of humor not as a tool to express the solidarity, but a kind of by-product. Maybe the realization “I’m not on my own on this one” is always, or often, funny.
Guernica: Ivan and Selin’s relationship, while incredibly charged, is almost entirely platonic. While you reference nineteenth-century Russian novels at length, the fact of their friendship reminded me in many ways of Jane Austen’s novels of courtship. Are novels about college life contemporary novels of courtship? Were you influenced at all by Austen? What about Balzac and Tolstoy, in addition to Dostoevsky?”
Elif Batuman: I do love Austen. I’m also very fond of Henry James, who has all these plots where the whole point is that nobody ends up having sex. I do think that’s an interesting dynamic. You have a relationship between two people, and sex is one place it can go, and we all as readers feel that magnetic pull, and on some level are rooting for things to go there… but maybe they don’t go there. Then they have to go somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.
One of the things that really impressed me about Anna Karenina when I first read it was how Tolstoy sets you up to expect certain things to happen—and they don’t. Everything is set up for you to think Anna is going to die in childbirth. She dreams it’s going to happen, the doctor thinks it’s going to happen, Vronsky and Karenin think it’s going to happen, and it’s what should happen to an adulteress by the rules of a nineteenth-century novel. But then it doesn’t happen, and Anna herself is as much at a loss—really, as appalled—as everyone else. It’s so fascinating to be left in that space, in a kind of free fall, where you have no idea what’s going to happen. That was a feeling I wanted to explore.
I do like the idea of the novel of repressed college students being a contemporary novel of courtship! I guess what I would say to that is, we tend to think of historical periods and historical mores as ending a lot more concretely than they do. Like, in an Austen novel, there are lots of reasons—cultural, moral, religious—why the characters don’t have sex during courtship. Maybe, even though those reasons have kind of expired, historically, they’re still around in some sense. Because I mean why don’t Ivan and Selin have sex? Nobody’s going to go to prison or wear a scarlet letter, neither of them believes in hell, there isn’t a social stigma like there used to be… but they just don’t do it. I think one reason may well have to do with the nineteenth-century novel and, more broadly, with the fact that the nineteenth century isn’t 100 percent gone yet; certain things get left behind.
Guernica: A psychologist at the student health center tells Selin, “A friendship is a space where you’re supposed to be free to make mistakes. I think when you reach this understanding a lot of things are going to be better for you.” Do you feel this is a universal truth? How does Selin come to terms with this?
Elif Batuman: I do think it’s true—but it’s an adult truth, something she’s completely unable to hear at that moment. They’re really speaking different languages (heteroglossia, again). The psychologist is thinking, like grown-ups do, about cultivating mutually affirming and nourishing relationships, about how to build a rich life with a feeling of meaning and also one that affords some kind of protection against the uncertainties and pain we all face as individuals. But Selin doesn’t know, understand, or care about protection or nourishment or affirmation. She’s not thinking about making herself less vulnerable. She just really, really wants things to work out with Ivan. And I’m not sure she does come to terms with that truth about friendship, not in the course of this book. I think that at the end she still thinks that maybe she made a mistake.
Guernica: In Selin’s course Constructed Worlds, her professor, Gary, tells his students to demand to see the backrooms of museums. He says, “You think it’s really any different at the Whitney or the Met? Let me tell you kid, it’s all blood and guts in the back room, in one form or another.” To me, this seemed to capture the most frustrating part of college—the way that it teaches you to question conventional wisdom while forcing you to operate within the confines of a classroom. Why is this art class so important for Selin?
Elif Batuman: Constructed Worlds is different in subject matter, and also in the way it’s narrated, from the rest of Selin’s classes. Those scenes are supposed to be kind of frustrating, because the path to becoming an artist is full of frustrations and humiliations, with different kind of Kafkaesque encounters with different institutional “gatekeepers”—professors, curators, judges, publishers, etc. Gary is clearly someone who has been through a lot of this frustration and humiliation, and he can’t help pass that on to the students. He’s not even trying not to pass it on, because he’s sure that it’s for their own good. I think a lot of misfortunes do get passed down that way.
Constructed Worlds introduces Selin to the idea of art as a “constructed world” and also to the idea that it’s possible to live in a constructed world. This idea of an “aesthetic life” becomes important in Selin’s friendship with Svetlana. The Constructed Worlds class is where Selin writes a story about a sick person in a pink hotel and then covers her room with pink paper and rubber cement and becomes a sick person in a pink hotel. It blurs a line. In one way she’s like, “Wait, I don’t like this story, I’m not proud of it, it doesn’t make sense.” But some part of her is like, “Wow, look at what I made happen.” In a way, the friendship with Ivan is a constructed world, which keeps escalating and getting bigger and more outrageous. At some point in class, the professor, Gary, criticizes a student’s woodcut of a Hungarian church, saying: “It’s not enough to just be in Hungary, there has to be a narrative.” Later, Selin finds herself in Hungary, under bizarre circumstances, with only a very tenuous narrative, and she really has to think about how to find the meaning there—how to construct the world.
Guernica: In Hungary, during her summer abroad after freshman year, Selin reflects, “Maybe the point of writing wasn’t just to record something past but also to prolong the present.” Could you talk about the desire to suspend time or reality?
Elif Batuman: Well, the image comes from the Thousand and One Nights: Scheherazade is sentenced to death and tells a story every night, so the king will postpone her execution for one more day. Eventually, because the stories are so compelling, he falls in love with her and spares her life. In the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust compares himself to Scheherazade: he says he has finally understood the nature of the book he has to write, just at the moment when his advancing years and declining health have made him doubt that he’s going to live long enough to write it. So he has to write against death like Scheherazade. In a way all writers are writing against death, because writing is an attempt to defy the passage of time, to refuse to let the past disappear and be forgotten, and to refuse to let the present become the past—to try to keep living another day, to try to talk your way into life, or seduce your way into it.