Baf­fled in­genue finds love, she thinks, at Har­vard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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