Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Idiot

I've been following Elif Batuman on twitter lately - she's very funny (I mean,@BananaKarenina, come on...) and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker and she's beautiful and obvi I am burning with jealousy. Many a day do I regret my lack of PhD in literature, or even a BA, for that matter (Elif's is from Stanford), but never have I felt it's sting so strongly as while reading The Idiot, which appears to be strongly influenced by various Russian influences but most importantly Dostoyevsky -  who I have never read, to my great shame. He also wrote a book called The Idiot in the 19th century which I can't help but suspect was an influence (even the wikipedia page is TLDR for me).

In this rather remarkable novel, the main character is Selin, who seems to be unabashedly based on the author, at least in that she is from New Jersey with Turkish parents and went to Harvard in the mid-nineties.  There are those that will turn up their nose at fiction or art with obvious links to their own biographies but I am not one of those people, I love it - for me, the personal connection makes it more... personal - there's so much heart in stories like this.

Batuman's writing style is almost shockingly simple, she follows a Subject_Verb_Predicate structure that I really do suspect is meant to read like a translation of a Russian novel (here again I regret my lack of formal study in literature or I'd state that a little more firmly) as well as a book written for a beginning reader of a second language.  For example, "Ivan carried my suitcase back up the stairs to Peter's grandmother's apartment. Cheryl was sitting under the piano. Andrea was teaching everyone how to say please and you're welcome in Hungarian."  When she occasionally breaks the mold, it's unexpected and often sublimely beautiful:  A plastic-lined canal was full of fat sleek orange carp, with gauzy fins and plaintive round mouths opening and closing. They wanted, and wanted.

It is infinitely quotable (my copy is full of highlights) and full of themes like how language and thought are connected, the many types of languages we engage with (spoken, mathematical, computer, sign, etc), nationality and identity, and it's also a bit of a historical novel about college-life in the 90s.  As that is also when I went to college, Batuman's spot-on descriptions of the posters we all had hanging on our walls, early and awkward interactions on email, the Cranberries, frickin' NETSCAPE... I just howled a million times to remember it all.  ("Dance songs turned out to consist of one sentence repeated over and over. For example, 'I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.'")

At almost 500 pages, something worth noting is that... not much happens.  Selin has a crush on a boy with a girlfriend who gives her just enough attention to keep her hanging on, she has interactions with  weird roommates, she goes to class and thinks about language, and she goes to Europe for the summer to teach English in Hungarian villages but really to be close to the guy.  Also, there are two parts, no chapters, and barely a double space to break up the flow of words (at least in my proof provided by the publisher).  It's a modern story in a rather old-fashioned package (see also: that wikipedia page I couldn't get through), at least the kind we don't see very often in contemporary fiction.  However, in one rather stunning paragraph, we see Batuman spell it all out for us:
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. And yet in the next moment it seemed to me that these superabundant personages weren't irrelevant at all, but 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 the way to live, about how the fateful character in your life wasn't the one who buried you, but the one who led you out to more people.
You might call this a Bildungsroman (I've even seen this particular book called an anti-Bildungsroman, but I disagree with that) and it seems to fit the bill nicely enough.  There's an interesting interview in Vulture where Batuman discusses this unplotted aspect of the book.  To me it's quite interesting because in terms of our modern expectations re: storytelling, yes, it is sort of

"boring" but if you're able to adjust and appreciate the literary qualities, it's a true gift of a novel.

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