MFA fiction programs may have no fiercer critic than Elif Batuman. She has mocked the writing workshop multiple times in print and mourned the kind of prose it produces. In 2006: “Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness.” In 2010: “The first sentences [of short stories] were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn that they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter e.” Again, in 2010: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”1 Instead of walling themselves off in MFA workshops, contemporary writers, Batuman has argued, must seek real-world experience, learn more about literary history, and, with this knowledge, continue to write about their own “comically mundane and eternally surprising” lives.2
With The Idiot, her first novel, Batuman provides her antidote to “program fiction.” It is a sprawling, semiautobiographical novel, set in four different countries but anchored in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book’s setting is Harvard University—which might seem a surprising choice for someone who has demonstrated such antipathy to university writing programs. What becomes clear, however, is that while Batuman remains hostile to MFA programs and the culture that surrounds them, she is fascinated by the role the traditional university, with its seminars and fellowships and scholarly community, might play in a writer’s development. The novel begins in the fall of 1995, when Selin Karadağ, a freshman and aspiring writer, has just arrived at Harvard; it ends in fall of the following year, when Selin returns for her sophomore year. Though Selin claims to have “learned nothing” in the intervening months, readers of this charming novel will likely think otherwise. Half campus novel, half Künstlerroman, The Idiot is, among other things, an investigation of what the university can offer to the writer.
Program fiction is often praised as “tight” and “lean”; its prose is highly crafted and hyper-specific. The Idiot is the opposite in all respects. The prose is evocative, the pacing languid. Rather than “omitting needless words,” in the way an MFA instructor might demand, Batuman adds strange and unexpected adjectives. One girl has “mobile features,” another a “Muppety head.” A student studying for final exams is “staring at a stack of flash cards with incredible ferocity, as if she were going to eat them.” These are well-made sentences, to be sure, but they don’t call attention to themselves as crafted objects, demanding our attention and praise. Instead, these strange descriptions ask us to consider the narrator who would describe the world in this unusual way.
This narrator is our young writer Selin. She is intelligent and aesthetically oriented, yet also hapless and insecure. She exists in a state of near-constant bewilderment. Batuman’s achievement in The Idiot is to meld, almost seamlessly, the observations of an ingenue with the voice of a mature writer, someone looking back on her adolescence with a mix of nostalgia and dismay. This technique leads to some solid satire, a hallmark of the campus novel genre. An interview with a faculty member for a freshman seminar makes the doctrine of “close reading” seem risible; another interview, this one with the campus travel magazine, is equally absurd. Selin tells how the ceiling of the ornate dining hall is speckled with decades-old pats of butter, flung up high by mischievous undergraduates.
At first, Harvard offers little in the way of learning. Selin’s classes are uninspiring, and every professor seems out-of-touch and more than a little angry. We meander through the first hundred or so pages, following Selin around Harvard Yard, where she attends linguistics lectures and takes seminars on “Constructed Worlds.” There are some acute observations and enjoyable episodes in this section—a taxonomy of the types of men who major in government, an inquisition during a blood drive—but the storytelling can feel purposeless at times, and it’s not clear if and when narrative drama will emerge. The plot starts to pick up when Selin begins an email correspondence with Ivan, a senior mathematics major in her Russian-language class. A tortured intellectual, Ivan is fickle and self-involved, the kind of man who feels entirely too comfortable asking a female classmate to get him up-to-speed on class material. At one point, he gets really into existentialism.
In Batuman’s debut novel, a writer goes to a university in order to be directed elsewhere.
Email is new in 1995, and Selin is intrigued by the way an online correspondence can supplant banal social interactions—what Ivan, with characteristic self-importance, calls the “triviality-dungeon of conversations.” Ivan may ignore her when they cross paths in the Yard, but online he is lyrical and intimate, pontificating about faith and free will. She begins to feel that she is “living two lives: one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school.” As the correspondence progresses, Selin finds herself more and more invested in Ivan’s emails, and finally confesses that she is falling in love. The rest of the book consists of the pair’s efforts to bridge the gap between their writing and their lived experience, to merge these two lives.
This proves predictably hard. Ivan has a girlfriend, for one thing. Selin is shy to the point of paralysis. They go on several strange pseudo-dates: a walk through Harvard Square, an evening in a basement bar, a night spent listening to music until the early morning. Selin feels adrift conversationally; everything Ivan says in person seems “to bear some bad omen,” and there is so much he knows that she doesn’t. When he speaks of a friend who is “a typical Jewish intellectual who idiosyncratically also [does] crew,” Selin merely pretends to understand. “I had only a distant idea what crew was, and no concept of what made it an idiosyncratic pursuit for a Jewish intellectual,” she admits. “Ivan was also friends with Rupert Murdoch’s son, who dressed like a slob. Who was Rupert Murdoch? I knew I knew, but I couldn’t remember. A famous foxhunter?”
Despite the warnings of her mother and a school counselor, Selin continues to accept Ivan’s invitations, including one that leads her to his home country of Hungary, where she meets his friends and family and, subsequently, spends five weeks teaching English in a small village. This portion of the novel, which resembles the book’s loose beginning, also recalls Batuman’s first book, The Possessed, a bibliomemoir-cum-travelogue. In that book, Batuman argued, both directly and indirectly, that loving something—a book, a person—means studying it as closely as possible. The same argument reappears in The Idiot, though in slightly altered form. Where Ivan wants to maintain distance and mystery, to hide behind a screen, Selin yearns for more intimate knowledge. Like a Proustian narrator, she studies her love object obsessively, reading and rereading his emails, observing his every gesture and shift of mood. She doesn’t always draw the right conclusions—blind to all signs of Ivan’s interest, she is taken aback when he invites her to meet his Hungarian friends—and she is sometimes mortified to receive Ivan’s attention, but she can’t stop studying him closely, the way one pores over a beloved book.
The Novel’s Forking Path
In The Idiot, learning happens beyond classroom walls. A writer goes to a university in order to be directed elsewhere. It is at Harvard that Selin encounters people like Ivan—and like her Serbian friend Svetlana, her Russian instructor from East Germany, and her glamorous friend Lakshmi, an editor at the literary magazine. It’s where she learns about the “German sense of order” and the history of Turkish imperialism. She begins to understand how big the world is, and how much she doesn’t know.
For Batuman, the university offers the writer not a retreat, a way of withdrawing from the “real world” and its distractions, but rather encounter, exposure, and the opportunity to travel the globe. (After all, it is the Harvard travel magazine, Let’s Go, that sends Selin to Turkey, where she passes the last few weeks of summer). Boundaries between the academic and the experiential collapse. The novel is, in some sense, a call for an outward-facing university, an institution that facilitates a writer’s immersion in the world rather than asking her to retire from it.
Reading The Idiot, and recalling Batuman’s own literary career (she attended Harvard as an undergraduate, and she received her PhD in comparative literature from Stanford in 2007), we see how a writer might use the university and its resources to pursue her intellectual interests far beyond what a syllabus, or an academic community, might require. Her curiosity piqued by a lecture, or a by a classmate’s idle remark, she might travel to Moscow or to Hungary, learn Russian or linguistics, read Tolstoy or Proust. For the (not so small) price of tuition, the writer receives the freedom to study, intimately and obsessively, whatever she chooses.
The Idiot, then, answers a question Batuman posed in her first book. “Was love really such a tenuous thing?” she wondered, in the introduction to The Possessed. “Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?”3 Selin’s story shows how painful such possession can be, but it also shows how one can learn through loving, and love through learning. By the end of the novel, Ivan has disappeared, gone to graduate school in California, and Selin is back at Harvard, skeptical of language and its ability to reflect life. She’ll become a writer, we know this by now, but first, she has some more places to go, and some more learning to do.
- See Elif Batuman, “Short Story & Novel,” n+1 (Spring 2006); The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), p. 20; and “Get a Real Degree,” London Review of Books, September 23, 2010. ↩
- Batuman, “Get a Real Degree.” ↩
- Batuman, The Possessed, p. 22. ↩