In the summer of 2015, Elif Batuman was at the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany, trying to write a book. The foundation is a rural estate turned refuge for writers, a species forever in need of more time. In addition to time and the company of Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori, who runs the place, writers at Santa Maddalena can avail themselves of chestnut groves, rosebushes, meals, several dogs, and Wi-Fi.
This last amenity turned out to be crucial for Batuman. The book she had come to Italy to write was supposed to be her first novel, prospectively called The Two Lives. Batuman was planning to set the action of this book in 2010, but as she wrote, she kept remembering a manuscript she had worked on in California, in 2000 and 2001, which was set during her time in college in the 1990s. And when she got online in her room at Santa Maddalena, she found that the manuscript had been waiting for her in the cloud—a swarm of files, migrating from server to server, that finally became her first novel: The Idiot (due from Penguin Press in March).
The Idiot is Batuman’s first novel, but it’s her second book; her essay collection The Possessed (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was published in 2010, the year she became a staff writer at the New Yorker. Batuman is drawn to Dostoyevsky and his titles: Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot was serialized in 1868 and ’69. The title of his subsequent book, Demons, has also been rendered in English as The Possessed. But Batuman is not drawn by stylistic or subject matter kinship; she has written that “Dostoyevsky’s work... consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence,” which is a perfectly inaccurate summary of her own writing. Rather, the connection was forged in the intense years she spent in the comparative literature department at Stanford, reading the Russians—Babel, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy—and writing about their work, and about her own alternately baffling and illuminating experiences in academia.
The essays in The Possessed are droll, perceptive reflections on graduate school; Batuman had originally wanted to write the book as a fictional counterpart to the critical work of her dissertation, which is about the way that writers transmute experience into art, but was advised against it. It is The Idiot, then, that can be read as that fictional companion.
In Batuman’s dissertation, she wrote about double-entry bookkeeping as a way of understanding “the complicated relationship between the lived material of everyday life and the novel.” In double-entry bookkeeping, every debit taken from one column becomes a credit in another. In The Possessed, Batuman writes that Isaac Babel, her first model for the writer as bookkeeper, was “incapable of living [life] otherwise than as the material for literature.” Life is made manuscript, possibly because familiar narratives “are the only means that you have for assigning meaning to what would otherwise be a barrage of impressions that don’t connect to anything,” Batuman says. “On the other hand, these narratives don’t fit.”
In constructing the narrative of The Idiot, Batuman says she found herself “simplifying and defictionalizing” her earlier work. “So much time had passed that I didn’t totally remember what was real and what I had made up. The writer of those original files was a 23-year-old talking about how dumb she was when she was 18, so it sounded really bizarre. It felt like fiction, because I didn’t remember feeling the way Selin, the protagonist, feels. I got really absorbed. I could see it as a book in a way that I couldn’t at the time of writing it.” (On the other hand, Batuman recalls, “a lot of the things I remember making up looked really fake when I read them”—such as a jettisoned section set in a Hungarian reproduction of a Native American village.)
The novel takes place in 1995. Selin Karadag˘—Turkish-American, raised in New Jersey—arrives for her first year at Harvard wanting to be a writer, “though this conviction was completely independent of having ever written anything,” and already manifesting the writerly habit of insomnia. She stays awake at night feeling “agitated by Milan Kundera, and also by Noam Chomsky.” Batuman says, “There were these polemics against Chomsky and Kundera I had to take out, with great regret... I guess I was really upset about that in the ’90s.” Selin takes a Russian class, tries beer, and in the summer travels to Hungary to teach English, as Batuman did.
The similarities between Selin and Batuman can be fun to tally, but reading a novel as capacious and ambitious as The Idiot as though it were only a collection of biographical facts, like a dossier, would be limiting and unsatisfying. There would be little room for humor or composition, dreams or ekphrasis, or any of the other strategies and modes of which The Idiot makes use. And anyway, in novels, the distinction between the autobiographical and the imagined is not totally clear, Batuman says. “You can’t invent something you have no epistemological access to. In a way, it’s all recombination. Imagination is really dependent on memory and observation, these things that we think of as part of nonfiction writing, actually.”
A 400-plus-page campus novel, The Idiot is indeed full of observations, but Batuman’s prose is effervescent and conversational. Selin notices concisely and counterpoints ingeniously; like many 18-year-olds, she thinks everything is very serious, but that doesn’t stop her from seeing the joke. “There are very few things that I have any patience for that are not at least a little bit humorous,” Batuman says.
Humor in The Idiot can shade dark: Selin, having vaguely heard of email, is handed an Ethernet cable at registration. “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” she asks. Harvard and its tribes are seen satirically: a professor seems to imply “that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting or to think that you would ever know anything important,” and everyone on the board of the campus literary magazine shares “the same collectively self-deprecating sense of humor.”
Selin, too, can be self-deprecating in her narration: she describes the soignée mother of a new friend eyeing Selin’s enormous Filene’s Basement coat with genuine concern and suggesting that it’s “elegant... Maybe too elegant—maybe just a tiny bit ridiculous.”
Batuman, who thought a lot about empathy as she wrote and revised, doles out gentle ridicule to both the observer and the observed. Much of the book is taken up with the “relationship, nonrelationship,” as Batuman calls it, between Selin and Ivan, a Hungarian senior with whom Selin exchanges long, complicated emails and little else. As they are finally leaving Cambridge together to go swimming at Walden Pond, Ivan points out his girlfriend, “almost conversationally.” The “almost” heightens the drama of the sentence. Selin, we gather, is devastated, and what exactly does Ivan think he’s doing? But it’s also funny enough an encounter to wind up, years later, in a novel.
“It’s kind of an embarrassing story—that’s why it’s called The Idiot,” Batuman says. “But looking back at your past self, you see that this person had reasons for everything she did. There’s a whole lot of awkwardness, but really, what should one be embarrassed about?” As she puts it, “The model of the novel—why there is the novel—seems like it’s based on an idea of solidarity, and that, to me, is also the basis of humor.”
In her writing for the New Yorker, Batuman has also recently dealt with personal history. She has covered soccer fans in Istanbul, neuroscientists in Albuquerque, and deadly disease in the Balkans, but in “Cover Story: The Head Scarf, Modern Turkey, and Me,” an essay published last February, she wrote about herself. Batuman lived in Turkey between 2010 and 2013, as writer in residence at Koç University. As a woman who “spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often traveled alone,” she found herself having to account for her life to strangers, and eventually, to herself. “Traveling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful,” she writes. “It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”
How to answer that question—except by writing? “Now I want to write a book about Turkey, which I initially thought would be a nonfiction book, incorporating a lot of articles I wrote,” Batuman says. “But it feels like this has to be a novel, too, and the nonfiction has to be in it. That’s what I want to be writing, and in a way, what I want to be reading. It feels really artificial to separate everything. And so much of who I am, so much of who everyone is, is where they’re from, and I’ve been going back and looking at that moment in Turkey that my parents came from.”
It’s an interesting assertion, and one might wonder how far back it is necessary to look—did it all start at a foundation in Italy? An apartment in a coastal city? In college? Or before that? Or before you were born? Inasmuch as it is responsible for The Idiot, the retracing of her steps has been a winning method for Batuman. A deeply present and observant writer, she is once again preparing to travel into the past.
Elina Alter is a writer living in New York.