Did Anna die for nothing?

51B7vhJixGLThe Idiot, by Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape 2017)

There is an old librarian joke about a little girl who returns a book to the library and complains that it told her more about penguins than she had wanted to know. Readers of Elif Batuman’s 2010 book The Possessed are likely to have put the book down feeling much the same about Uzbek literature.

The Possessed was really a collection of memoir essays documenting the author’s exploration of Russian literature, which also included an extended if not entirely intended encounter with the Uzbek oeuvre. Nevertheless, the book was more rewarding than the sum of its parts, partly just because Batuman is a brilliant writer, and partly because she was clearly on a quest to find some kind of ultimate meaning in literature. A ‘real book’ by Batuman was always going to be worth reading.

The Idiot is a novel about a young Turkish-American woman with a conviction that there is some kind of ultimate meaning to be found in literature. It takes us through Selin’s first year at Harvard University in the mid-1990s, laying bare a touching naivety and innocence that we assume was once the author’s. And yet, even as we laugh and wince at the protagonist’s missteps and multi-faceted cluelessness, there is something in that naivety that seems not to have been lost to her author. Partly, that’s because the book was actually first written not long after the action occurred. But having returned to it later in life, Batuman has refrained from adding too much ironic distance.

The novel’s epigraph is a quotation from Proust, which concludes with the thought that, ‘adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything’. If so, The Idiot shows it doesn’t feel like it at the time. But the older Batuman knows better. Selin’s naivety allows her to ask questions and entertain thoughts a more sophisticated thinker would perhaps disdain.

Many of these thoughts concern Ivan, who gradually emerges as the novel’s love interest, in the sense of the person who forces Selin to think about such things, and to experience the attendant frustrations and disappointments. He’s a little older, a mathematician and Hungarian, but none of those things turns out to explain the problem. He and Selin exchange a lot of emails in which they share the kinds of thoughts that might be dismissed as adolescent, but in person they have a different kind of rapport, almost like different people, and that rapport is never what anyone would call romantic, or even sexual.

Selin is confronted with the thought that Ivan is playing a game with her. Or perhaps that the Ivan she is in love with is her own invention rather than a real person (though she has little time for a child and adolescent psychologist who puts it like that). If The Idiot has an ultimate meaning, I think it has something to do with an anxiety about whether ultimate meaning can be shared.

Selin’s own desire to know what books really mean is inherited from her mother, but it is certainly not encouraged by her teachers, which means it becomes a source of anxiety in its own right. ‘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 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.’

Selin has other interesting thoughts about education. She notices that Svetlana, a Serbian friend from her Russian class, is much better at memorising declensions and so on, and reflects that the American aversion to ‘rote memorization’ and ‘regurgitating facts’ had put her at a disadvantage. Her teachers had said Japanese and Soviet children only did better on tests because they’d been turned into robots and didn’t know how to think; ‘By high school, I sensed that the teachers weren’t levelling with us’. Western educators had romantic but misguided ideas about how children should learn biology. And it turned out they still couldn’t tell you why Anna had to die.

These frustrations are clearly Batuman’s own, or at least they once were. But the sheer time gap between the first draft and its completion for publication gives the novel a fascinating ambiguity, as if there are not one but two authors between the protagonist and the reader. What does this mean for what it really means?

I am particularly intrigued because I did something similar with my own novel, That Existential Leap: a crime story (which also features a young woman from New Jersey with a thing for Russian literature, but maybe that’s all novels this year). While I didn’t complete a manuscript until a few years ago, I wrote parts of what became That Existential Leap in the late 1990s and included many of my own adolescent thoughts (if we can agree that modern adolescence extends into one’s twenties). I’d like to think that in reworking that material more recently, I benefited from a certain maturity while retaining its youthful spirit, but there is certainly a tension there.

The same tension haunts The Idiot. Batuman is older and wiser than she once was, but true wisdom is never triumphant. It aches, yearns. It knows the young idiot was right to think even a book about penguins can’t just be about penguins.