Baffled ingenue finds love, she thinks, at Harvard
In the comments below one online review of Elif Batuman’s first book, The Possessed, a couple of readers take issue with the reviewer’s claim that Russian literature isn’t funny. In the right translation, they agree, it is a “riot of laughs” — except for Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn.
One suspects this thread would delight the Turkish-American author, whose funny, cleverly absurd collection of essays about the world of Russian literary studies and its obsessive scholars was a surprise hit of 2010.
Borrowing her title from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel about tortured intellectuals, Batuman took readers into the weird intensity of seven years of doctoral study in Russian and comparative literature at Stanford University. In a feat of extreme recollection — surely based on superb journal-keeping — she celebrated a hot-housed social order based on urgent, small discriminations.
Filled with minute observation, yet cheerfully digressive, The Possessed celebrated the pleasures of Russian literature but also ranged across Batuman’s eccentric family, conferences, the weird quirks of the Turkish and Uzbek languages, and her travels to Russia, Hungary, Italy and, in the throes of a failing relationship, Uzbekistan.
Batuman established a winning persona as a high-achieving slacker and weirdo magnet who brought an addiction to human eccentricity and over-revved intellect to all that she encountered. Before The Possessed was even published, early essays had earned the then 32-year-old a gig as a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has since been bringing her hyper-acute but oblique eye to subjects as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies, Russian meteors and Turkish politics.
And so her first novel, which also borrows its title from Dostoevsky, arrives with a serious buzz of expectation.
The Idiot is a kind of fictional prequel to The Possessed. In this comic novel, Turkish-American Selin tells the story of her confusing freshman year at Harvard. This is also a love story, though this is the least worldly romance you are likely to read this year.
Raised in New Jersey, as Batuman was, 18year-old Selin comes to Harvard (as Batuman did) to undertake a liberal arts degree: this often-satirised American degree (think DeLillo’s Department of Hitler Studies in White Noise) offers students a smorgasbord of subjects more specialised and esoteric than any you would find in an Australian arts degree, with the aim that they will experiment intellectually before locking on to a career path.
Moving into her dorm with two equally lifechallenged roommates, who seem just as asexual and panicked, she makes her slightly baffled way through subjects such as “Constructed Worlds”, and in Russian class befriends the more confident Svetlana, a wealthy Bosnian refugee who receives gifts from her analyst.
The book opens with a marvellous epigraph from Marcel Proust, who writes in In Search of Lost Time that adolescence is a “ridiculous age” but “the only period in which we learn anything”. Batuman’s chief novelistic interest seems to be in how very green these students are, perhaps even more than the average teenager because of the life of hyper-achievement that has brought them to Harvard.
In Russian class, Selin finds herself attracted to Ivan, a slightly older maths major from Hungary; while noticing from the beginning that their relationship has weird echoes of “Nina in Siberia”, a love-story-as-textbook written by Harvard professors, whose plot is hobbled by its rationing of complicated Russian declensions. Armoured by their intellects, the two begin a tortured correspondence via the new technology of email, hilariously real in its awkward striving and intensity of cross purpose.