Elif Batuman’s wry, erudite, witty essays in n+1, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine earned wide acclaim, as did her first collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.’’ Published in 2010, the same year Batuman became a New Yorker staff writer, “The Possessed’’ drew on her work as a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford, but her quirky takes on classic works and the irreverent connections she drew between fiction and life made the book accessible and engaging.
Now Batuman is back with a debut novel, “The Idiot,’’ a revision of one she drafted almost 15 years ago. Its heroine, Selin, a college freshman, narrates the story with droll charm. Very tall, with an unusual face, a Turkish-American girl who grew up in New Jersey, attends Harvard, and aspires to be a writer, Selin is clearly a stand-in for Batuman. Moreover, parts of “The Idiot’’ replicate almost verbatim sections from essays in “The Possessed.’’
In her naïvete and innocence, Selin is a most endearing “idiot.” Skeptical of the drinking culture, wary of pretentious or showily sophisticated classmates, she is frank about what she doesn’t know and readily admits her inexperience. When a “visiting artist from New York” evaluating her paintings for admission to his seminar tells her they’re “sort of little-girlish,” she responds with disarming sincerity: “it wasn’t so long ago that I was a little girl.”
An earnest, passionate reader, Selin is confused and put off by her professors’s attitudes toward the books they read:
“Everything the professors said in a literature class 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. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting or to think that you would ever know anything important . . . I wanted to know what books really meant.’’
Selin studies linguistics, works as an ESL tutor, and ponders big questions: “how did you separate where someone was from, from who they were?” She reads big books — “Madame Bovary,’’ “Dracula,’’ “The Magic Mountain’’ — on her own and tries to connect them to her life. Selin’s desire “to be unconventional and say meaningful things” is not a pose, but something deeply felt. When she tells us that she’s “trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity,” we believe her.
Batuman nails the details of mid-1990s college life. Albert Einstein, REM, and Ansel Adams posters, Edward Gorey and Klimt prints abound. We have snoring roommates, fajita night in the cafeteria, meet-ups for frozen yogurt, CARE packages from parents, halogen lamps, black Jersey clothes from the Gap, fake IDs. Selin makes two best friends: Ralph, a strikingly good looking Jersey boy who’s obsessed with the Kennedys, and knowing, arch Svetlana, a Serbian from Connecticut. E-mail is new, but Selin takes to it immediately.
The most notable recipient of her e-mails is Ivan, an intriguing (and older) Hungarian undergraduate who reads “The Unbearable Lightness of Being’’ and studies mathematics. After meeting in beginning Russian class, they strike up an intense correspondence; “[i]n his physical presence it was impossible to believe that he had written me those emails.” Ivan, alas, turns out to have a girlfriend. He blows hot and cold with Selin. Nonetheless, they talk about existentialism and Dostoyevsky, visit Walden Pond, and eventually spend time together in Hungary, where Selin goes to teach English in a local school as part of a program run by Ivan’s friend.
Batuman has won a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for humor, and her book is consistently hilarious. If this is a sentimental education, it’s one leavened by a great deal of mordant and delightful humor. Even the agony of first love is tempered by whimsy, irony, and self-deprecating wit.
“The Idiot’’ is told in short, largely self-contained segments, a tactic that makes for sharp, well-defined scenes but sometimes undermines the novel’s flow, coherence, and elegance. It also peters out rather unsatisfactorily. But Selin is such good company that we easily forgive any formal lapses. At once a cutting satire of academia, a fresh take on the epistolary novel, a poignant bildungsroman, and compelling travel literature, “The Idiot’’ is also a touching and spirited portrait of the artist as a hugely appealing young woman.
By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, 423 pp., $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’