Book review

Nothing actually happens in Elif Batuman’s campus novel ‘The Idiot’, which is why you love it

This could be the definitive Harvard University novel of the near past.

“I thought that was the point of writing stories: to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood – for how it came about and for what it led to.”

— "The Idiot", Elif Batuman

Later, I was to read – and savour – various literary novels set on American campuses, both real and thinly fictionalised, ranging from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (Wellington University based on Harvard) to Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Girl, White Girl (Shuyler College, which could well be Swarthmore), and the incandescent The Marriage Plot by Jefferey Eugenides (set in Brown), as well as more mainstream coming-of-age stuff like Commencement by J Courtney Sullivan set in Smith College. But the original set of campus novels I glugged as a teenager were all by Erich Segal. And they were all set in Harvard.

One could read Love Story in an hour; that slender lachrymal volume documenting the story of Oliver Barrett IV, a rich Harvard jock born in the WASPy suburbs of Boston, and Jennifer Cavilleri, a working-class music student at Radcliffe from Rhode Island. (It was such an acute influence upon my teenage soul that when my first novel was published, years later, I once described it as “think of Love Story where Jenny doesn’t die – and doesn’t know how a credit card works.”) Doctors and Class, the other two poster children of Harvard, however, sat at the other extreme of the spectrum. Massive tomes that were essentially campus narratives at heart but went on for decades after college, and, thus, happily for me, provided fodder for long complicated summer vacations.

The Harvard novel

As I read Elif Batuman’s near-perfect bildungsroman The Idiot – self-consciously named after Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic – I was transported to those endless afternoons on the divan, lying right under the fan as Calcutta’s syrupy heat seeped in through the thick walls, when, really, I was on a faraway – cold – campus, enmeshed in the lives of its citizens, inside Erich Segal’s massive tomes. But while Harvard was invariably almost the main point of Segal’s novels, the most elite institution of an elite nation (in the post-Cold War years when American soft power was almost unassailable in global perception), in Batuman’s clever and remarkably fresh debut novel, Harvard, while ever-present, is almost entirely incidental to the narrative.

If the very celebration of Harvard’s elitism was the sub-text in Segal, the crux of the aspirational element that made the books global best-sellers, the restraint in Batuman – and the self-reflexivity she employs in talking about the whole Harvard experience – provides an interesting entry into the unravelling of the entire genre of the elite campus novel.

“For a while now I’ve been conscious of a tension in my relationship with you...[a]nd I think that’s the reason. It’s because we both make up narratives about our own lives,” theorises Svetlana, the best friend-ish, to Selin, the narrator-protagonist. The conversation that follows is, in retrospect, almost a conversation about (a takedown of?) the entire genre:

“‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I still think everyone experiences their own life as a narrative. If you didn’t have some kind of ongoing story in mind, how would you know who you were when you woke up in the morning?’

‘That’s a weak definition of narrative. That’s just saying that narrative is just memory plus causality. But, for us, the narrative has aesthetics, too.’

‘But I don’t think that’s because of our personalities,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it much more about how much money our parents have? You and I can afford to pursue some narrative just because it’s interesting. You could go to Belgrade to come to terms with your life before the war, and I could go to Hungary to learn about Ivan. But Fern has to work over the summer.... I guess it feels elitist to look at it that way.’

‘Don’t you think you pretending not to be elitist is disingenuous?’ Svetlana said. ‘If you really think about who you are, and what you value?’”

One might, of course, ask, legitimately, if said unravelling – takedown? – shall be deemed acceptable only when it is attempted from within Harvard – but that is a whole other discussion.

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A word or three about Batuman

If you have read Elif Batuman’s delightful and impossible-to-categorise first book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, then you’ll be familiar with three critical elements of The Idiot.

The Turkish-American protagonist who interrogates language (much like Batuman herself); the Hungarian hero, Ivan, in pursuit of whom the protagonist will spend six weeks teaching English and “American culture” – it’s a thing apparently – in a Hungarian village; and the complex affairs of Nina and Ivan (yes, he’s also Ivan!), who are the chief characters in a “Learn Russian” textbook, whose life, at points, bizarrely overshadows the protagonist’s own.

It is the year 1995. Selin (again, much like Batuman herself) has just joined the undergrad programme at Harvard and got herself that brand new thing which is to be simultaneously coveted and be wary of: an email ID.

“‘You’ll be so fancy,’ said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, ‘sending your e, mails.’ She emphasised the ‘e’ and paused before ‘mail’.”

With that quirky start, Batuman firmly sets out the exact time-frame in which the novel is set; and it is a rather charming throwback to return to a narrative where the device employed – in not quite a You’ve Got Mail fashion but even so – is the love-letter in the garb of email. And yet, when I talk of device in a novel like this, I am half afraid of attracting censure from the likes of Svetlana!

As it happens, Batuman had written the first draft of this novel almost immediately after finishing college. At the time, she said in an interview, it was written in the “lyrical” style peculiar to the 1990s; wisely, she put away the draft for the future. And five years ago, while writing a wholly different novel, she found herself returning to this draft, which, she joked, had by then become a “historical novel”.

Despite historicity, on campus, there are the usual rites of passage: odd roommates; vague professors (“Everything the professors said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe.”); incomprehensible theories; a short story that wins a prize; a multiracial multiethnic cast of characters including an opinionated new best friend (Svetlana from Belgrade, who would possibly cast the “new best friend” concept in terms of Jungian psychoanalysis); and, naturally, there is a boy.

He is an absurdly tall mathematician from Hungary and three years her senior. They meet in a Russian language class, and start writing emails to each other. Ivan has a girlfriend (for an interlude she might have become an ex-girlfriend but we never really know) and at the end of summer he is moving to California. The emails are long, tortured and as philosophical as the principals are young. And the trip to Hungary is almost surreal, with new characters entering her life every five minutes “like characters in War and Peace”.

The humour and the sense that young Selin wants to have these bizarre experiences in order for her to have material as a writer, as opposed to writing about bizarre experiences she had anywa,y reminded me of many odd things I felt I needed to do in college, just to meet my ego that convinced me I had stuff to write about.

The thing about the times

“‘Ollie, you’re a preppy millionaire, and I’m a social zero.’ ...

‘What the hell does that have to do with separate ways...?’

‘Ollie, don’t be stupid,’ she repeated. ‘Harvard is like Santa’s Christmas bag. You can stuff any crazy kind of toy into it. But when the holiday’s over, they shake you out...’”

— "Love Story", Erich Segal

I say it is a novel for our times, perhaps because it spoke so directly to me and because in some ways it belongs quite naturally to my generation who still remember a time before email, let alone mobile phones, but, in truth, it is the specificity of The Idiot, set as it is over 1995–96, which is one of its chief joys. The other is the language – short sentences, dry humour, and effortless articulation of what most writers would find nearly impossible to convey: the constant, corroding tension between over-analysing and simply being in words that a young student of linguistics and/or literature must suffer after a point.

A quarter of a century after Love Story, where the characters are both white Americans and the barriers of class provide the chief obstacles to the protagonists, the sophisticated post-millennial plotlessness of The Idiot, that must needs go beyond the formula of boy-girl drama leading to something happening, displays quite brilliantly the arc traversed by the campus novel as it were. Very few narratives can successfully pull off nothing happening – and that is the proof (if not the pudding) of Batuman’s talents.

In the final analysis...

Early on in the novel, Selin confesses to a situation which was uncannily like one from my childhood (and the author’s, as we found out in The Possessed):

“I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant. That was how my mother and I had always talked about literature. ‘I need you to read this, too,’ she would say, handing me a New Yorker story in which an unhappily married man had to get a rabies shot, ‘so you can tell me what it really means.’ She believed, and I did, too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.”

It is thus almost apposite that you realise at the end that Batuman’s entire novel is an exercise in Selin unlearning the principle of “a central meaning in a text” only to realise that a successful narrative breaks down and reconfigures a certain mood in the reader, even at the cost of itself. And in The Idiot, that mood is the rawness of youth, love, and everything that is a combination of both – and the randomness of experiences that one has in the pursuit of love, except, when you are eighteen, it is neither quite pursuit nor quite love. Confused? Well, doesn’t matter. Read the book!

NB: And if like me, you’re in love with Selin, a sequel is in the offing.

The Idiot, Elif Batuman, Penguin Press

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