By Eliza Browning
Elif Batuman. Jonathon Cape, 2022
‘Write long novels, pointless novels,’ Elif Batuman once urged. Her debut novel, The Idiot, and its sequel, Either/Or, are just such books. While the former recounts the freshman year of Selin Karadağ, a Turkish-American student at Harvard, the latter begins with Selin’s sophomore year. Adrift on the Ivy League campus, Selin turns to linguistics and Russian literature as tools to navigate life, looking to literary protagonists for advice on how to approach her bewildering variety of opportunities. Dry-witted and meandering, both books embody the qualities Selin uses to describe Bleak House, a novel ‘as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else’s incredibly long dream’. Yet these very meandering qualities prove to be the most engrossing; they enable the reader to ramble through Selin’s consciousness and become privy to the inconsequential yet all-absorbing triumphs and tragedies of early adulthood. In this way, the structure of Either/Or resembles the reality of university life – a seemingly ‘pointless’ existence which compels Selin to forge her own path outside of the defined narrative plotlines of the romances or tragedies she reads. If The Idiot is about recognising these structures, Either/Or is a novel about a young woman figuring out how to live outside of them.
‘What do we do with this, hang ourselves?’ Selin asks upon being presented with an Ethernet cable at the beginning of The Idiot, after arriving at Harvard. It is the late 1990s, and the internet is new. The instantaneous possibilities of email open new forms of communication. Like its predecessor, Either/Or is primarily a book about living through books – attempting to embody an existence that has already been mapped out. Batuman reveals this obsession through her literary-inspired titles; her first book, The Possessed, which takes its name from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s eponymous title, is a memoir about graduate students studying Russian literature. The Idiot pays homage to Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, which follows Prince Myshkin, who stands at the centre of society’s conflicts, opinions and desires, yet whose innocence, like that of 18-year-old Selin, leaves him vulnerable to corruption.
Unlike Prince Myshkin, Selin does not go mad, but her lack of social experience leads her to be manipulated. Her role as ‘the idiot’ exposes the double meaning of the title – she articulates complex thoughts about morality but is also unable to recognise how basic rules of social behaviour apply to her own life. While The Idiot focuses on Selin’s attempts to decipher the unspoken codes and rules of human behaviour, Either/Or chronicles her decision to choose a more subversive lifestyle. Selin is influenced by the book by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which, in the spirit of the title it shares with Batuman’s sequel, presents two opposing worldviews: the ‘aesthetic life’ devoted to art, seduction and beauty, and the ‘ethical life’ characterised by moral responsibility, self-reflection and marriage. Set in 1990s Boston, Batuman’s novels translate Dostoevsky’s and Kierkegaard’s respective works into the realm of contemporary experience.
Selin is drawn to the concept of an aesthetic life, which she admires for its subversion of pre-existing social structures: ‘It was the first time I had heard of an organising principle or goal you could have for your life, other than making money and having kids.’ Whereas Selin’s friend Svetlana wants to be married and have children – the ‘ethical life’ – Selin herself wants to ‘have interesting love experiences that [she] could write about’. Nevertheless, Selin’s desire to chronicle her life is paradoxical: she wants to be able to write about herself, but is only capable of interpreting her own actions through fictional plots. In both novels, she variously casts herself as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer and the titular protagonist of André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja. Selin keeps ‘a running record in my notebook of everything in Nadja that seemed related to any of my problems’. Decoding the characters’ actions, Selin believes, will unlock a script that will dictate how she should live her life.
If Either/Or is a novel about living through books, it is also a novel about writing one’s own life. To that extent, it can be read as an autobiography. Although Batuman admits her books are largely about herself, she also has said that fictionality has freed her from strictly representing events from her life. The first draft of The Idiot, which Batuman began while still an undergraduate, liberated her from the accuracy of autobiography whilst allowing her to situate her own experiences within the literature that she studied.
Batuman’s self-representation mirrors Selin’s own dilemma in her high school creative writing class: ‘To be obsessed by your own life experience was childish, egotistical, unartistic and worthy of contempt. I tried to get around the problem by ascribing my own thoughts and observations to a fictional character.’ By searching for guidance in classic literature, Selin reproduces her thoughts through fiction to legitimise her experience, just like Batuman herself. Batuman’s novels subvert the misogyny that often characterises literary representations of teenage girls, affording Selin an interior life that is just as significant as those of the writers she encounters. When her art professor calls her paintings ‘little-girlish,’ Selin replies, ‘[t]he thing is, it wasn’t so long ago that I was a little girl.’ Refusing to apologise for her limited life experience, she recognises that she has the freedom to write the rest of her life.
Selin interprets the world as a novel with defined roles and unfolding plots: ‘I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,’ she tells us in The Idiot. ‘I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.’ In her first-year Russian language class, Selin meets Ivan, an international student from Hungary. They connect through the shared territory of Russian, which shares similarities with both Selin’s literature and the undecipherable maths problems he studies. Reading an introductory language text, Selin begins to project her (unrequited) affection onto the protagonist, who is desperately searching for her mysterious boyfriend Ivan. Real-life Ivan is not Selin’s boyfriend, but the veneer of fiction seems to legitimise her fantasy. She identifies him as the ‘love interest’ in her own life, even as she recognizes her perception of him is an object of her own creation.
Language is central to Selin’s endeavour, yet Batuman is also careful to expose its capacity to fail. Then a cutting-edge form of communication, emails thread throughout both novels, unveiling the complexity of human relationships and altering their psychic landscape. To Selin, an email is another world: ‘Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from the people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like in the universal handwriting of thought or of the world.’ Each message contains:
the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your lives with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.
Ivan and Selin communicate mostly through email, which allows Selin to connect with him instantaneously in his physical absence. Email is Selin’s secret life, giving her an expansive platform to articulate her genuine feelings towards Ivan, as opposed to the awkward and stymied interactions they have in real life. For Selin, the permanence of email represents the possibility to write not only her own life, but also the lives of others. When a psychologist suggests that Ivan might be a product of her imagination, Selin wonders whether their email exchanges – the only tangible evidence of their relationship – are not in fact about him, but about herself. Their emails are a record of how their friendship evolves: upon arriving back at Harvard at the beginning of Either/Or, Selin discovers Ivan’s backdated responses to emotional emails she had sent months ago, from a self whom she no longer recognizes. Emails go astray, they remain unseen until inconvenient times, or they are simply ignored.
The beginners’ Russian language class, like the detached format of digital communication, allows Ivan and Selin to connect over the disorienting intricacies of language, and enables Selin to ‘translate’ his behaviour. The most significant people in Selin’s life – her Serbian best friend Svetlana, Hungarian Ivan and her Polish first lover, Władysław – are all from Eastern Europe. Selin becomes increasingly intrigued by Ivan as she learns about the intertwined linguistic identities of their cultures. Both Hungarian and Turkish are Ural-Altaic languages that share a grammatical structure; the pair identify a linguistic closeness in the words ‘goat’, ‘apple’ and ‘boot’, producing a unique intimacy. Selin validates this with the Whorf hypothesis, which holds that one’s worldview is determined by linguistic structures; people from cultures with languages that share similar grammatical structures share some innate understanding, as Selin believes she does with Ivan.
To further understand Ivan, Selin travels to Hungary at the end of The Idiot. In Either/Or, she tries to make sense of herself by spending her summer in Turkey. ‘What was the relationship between leaving the country, ruining people, falling in love, and having sex?’ she asks. ‘There clearly was one.’ Travelling to Turkey forces Selin to confront her own identity as she reports for the Harvard travel guide Let’s Go on the tourist attractions of her parents’ native country.
She realises she knows almost nothing about Eastern European politics beyond the biassed perspectives of her Turkish relatives. She is shocked to hear that Ivan’s Hungarian mother used to dance on the graves of her Turkish enemies and learns only from a 1950s American guidebook that Turkey and Russia have been long-standing enemies. The opposing perspectives emphasise the implicit divisiveness of national identity, as she comes face to face with nationalist myth-making. Does choosing one worldview over the other betray the principles of an aesthetic life? Or, she wonders, would she be better off remaining wilfully ignorant of this history forever?
At the end of The Idiot, Selin, having failed to connect with Ivan, lies on a dock overlooking a lake in Turkey and ruminates on their former friendship. When I first read this, as an 18-year-old college student in Massachusetts, I found The Idiot refreshing precisely because it reflected my own life, apparently formless and without definable resolutions or endings. By exploring the unspoken aspects of student existence, Batuman’s novels function as blueprints for contemporary students. Ultimately, Batuman subverts traditional romantic narratives that Selin reads; instead, lost without explanation, she can finally exist on her own terms.
In Either/Or, Selin not only recognises the invisible scripts dictating society, but she also moves forward by questioning them. ‘I knew that the first time you had sex was supposed to be with someone special who cared about you,’ she reflects, before realising ‘I already knew I was special. So what did I need the doofus for?’ Yet, still succumbing to societal conventions in other ways, she submits to the self-centred demands of her male partners in familiar scenes that blur the boundaries of consent. It is a culture whose misogyny Selin recognises in her own encounters, but whose scripts she nonetheless finds herself rehearsing at length. She encounters a traditional alternative to literary aestheticism in The Rules, a controversial self-help guide that establishes strict dating rules for women. Though it is with irony that Selin reflects that her relationships must have failed because she ‘didn’t do the Rules’, she still comes dangerously close to slipping into a much more restrictive mindset, tempted by the promise of a guidebook for her life.
Reading Either/Or, I found myself wishing that Selin would step outside of the conventional scripts she identifies and forges her own path, but there are limits to undermining ingrained misogyny. Though she subverts traditional expectations of sexuality, her naïveté leaves her subject to the male gaze. ‘Do you ever think it would be easier if we could go out with girls?’ Selin asks Svetlana. In the endnotes, Batuman cites Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence’, which, she writes, ‘enabled me to reconstruct some of the heteronormative forces that operated on me in the 1990s’. One goal of Either/Or was to ‘dramatise those forces’. It is an intriguing perspective, one that I wish Batuman had explored more explicitly. Only by rejecting this conventional framework will Selin be able to live an authentic and interesting life.
Either/Or both responds to classical literature and interrogates the novel form itself. Not only does the reader see themselves in Selin, Batuman’s alter-ego; Selin herself also grapples with the same questions as protagonists from the most beloved novels of the past centuries. Constructing her life as a work of literature, Selin sometimes loses sight of herself and her priorities. But Either/Or is not simply autofiction, a bildungsroman, a self-help guide or a work of philosophy. Above all, it is a book about figuring out how to live.
ELIZA BROWNING is a visiting student reading English at Lady Margaret Hall. She shares the name but not the fame with the better-known writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Art by Ellie Moriuchi