“I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
Those are the last sentences in Elif Batuman’s masterpiece, The Idiot, a 400-something page novel that wrestles with the abstract concepts of language, learning, multiculturalism, and existentialism within the almost embarrassingly-naive and specific setting of the first year at college. Selin, the novel’s first-person narrator and protagonist, illustrates her freshman year at Harvard, where she encounters intellectual debate and confusion, social immersion she doesn’t quite believe in, and the wonders and limits of human relationships.
This book is the first in about a year to receive a 5-star review from me on my Goodreads account. As I age, I find that I give those 5-stars more sparingly than before- literature has to really hit me in a special way now to get such adoration and appreciation from me. That being said, The Idiot went beyond my expectations. The description of the novel insinuates that the plot centers around Selin and her email correspondences with Ivan, an older Mathematics student at Harvard. The description also tells us that Selin ends up in Hungary, partially due to Ivan, and that she will inevitably learn a lesson about the “mysteries of first love.” It’s a specific description, focusing on the year (1995), and the new phenomenon that was email communication. Perhaps I expected a trite love story about media- a thesis about the ways in which media consumption and technological advances and enhance and harm our relationships. Instead, I felt discovered. I felt that somehow the challenges of my soul had been put on display and had been reciprocated in another.
I was about ten pages into the novel when I discovered that Elif would be doing a reading at Chevalier’s Books, an independent bookstore near my new home in Los Angeles. I went, because already I loved Selin, and I recognized myself in Selin. I so understood her so early in the novel: “She believed, and I did too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” If we compare this line, which comes early in the novel, to the last two sentences of the book, we see the drastic change that takes place within Selin. She declares that she’s learned nothing, but the nothingness is precisely what Selin needed to know.
Elif’s reading and Q&A was one of the best I’ve ever been to. I learned at this event that Batuman was incredibly well-educated and academic, that she’d regularly written journalism for The New Yorker while somewhat dabbling in fiction. Elif told us the birth story of The Idiot; how the first, ugly draft came at age 23, its goals massive, its themes attempting to define the human condition as its Russian writer inspirator’s had beforehand. Elif abandoned the novel because she didn’t know what to do with it. She’d wanted it to span her entire college career and onward, the novel being highly auto-fictional; however, after Elif left the content alone for ten years, she went back to it, realizing that the true story was smaller, within the first year of college. She described how embarrassed she’d felt about writing about her own life under fiction, and then urged us as writers to be brave enough to blur the genre lines. Ultimately, Elif grew exceptionally as a writer in order to realize that this story was better as a contained story. It told something significant, something large, within a year. The hugeness of the story was in the smallness of the scope.
“This is a book about how we want our lives to conform to a narrative or to a structure and how heartbreaking it is to realize that that isn’t how it works.” This is how Elif herself describes The Idiot, adding further that oftentimes, during adolescence and those penultimate years of mysterious and painful and awkward mental and emotional and intellectual growth, we learn things that quickly become arbitrary to us- things like heartache, social ostracism, etc. She explained that we often forget that we ever did not know these lessons, that at some point we’d had to experience them for the first time. She references her epigraph as a follow-up, a passage from Proust: “But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through- awkward indeed but by no means infertile- is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.” At once Elif captures both the heart-wrenching pain of firsts and the pitiful, nostalgic look back at them.
Selin creates (and is partially thrown into) a life at Harvard- classes about art and language and writing, friends that are roommates or Russian language partners. She encounters different clubs and organizations, plagued consistently by the never-ending energy of the university life (what nostalgia I suddenly felt for dormitory life!). She’s challeneged consistently in social arenas and intellectual ones, meeting professors she has trouble learning from and attempting to decipher people’s actions that do not mirror her own. This book is such a contemplative story, and Selin is such an introspective character- she thinks and overthinks, worries and is mystified by her own worrying. Elif described Selin (and, thereby, herself) at this age- how she hooked the meaning of life on to one person, one class, one book- how she expected the definition of the human condition to be found in something tangible and how crushing it was when that did not (could not) happen. “I thought that was the point of writing stories: to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood- for how it came about and for what it led to.”
Abstract concepts such as time and aging come to Selin often; she thinks of them not as abstract but as attainable: “At two in the morning the library closed and I walked home through the fresh snow. The clouds had cleared, revealing the stars. Light from even a nearby star was four years old by the time it reached your eyes. Where would I be in four years? Simple: where you are. In four years I’ll have reached you.”
After Batuman establishes Selin’s introspective and introverted nature, she introduces her relationship with Ivan, a classmate in Selin’s Russian Language course. The two work together in Russian, acting out the parts of Nina and Ivan, two characters in a ‘learning Russian’ story. Selin feels an untoward attraction towards Ivan and enjoys his general disposition and humor more so than she does most people. She takes advantage of Harvard’s email system and begins corresponding with Ivan, a man with a girlfriend he does not hide, via this medium, at first exchanging light-hearted self-deprecating emails about Russian class and the banes of freshman college existence. Soon, though, the emails become more intimate; the two take advantage of the anonymity of the medium and write their airy, existential thoughts, their fears, their desires. Selin becomes devoted to this connection, which becomes entirely dependent on email as Ivan stops attending Russian class and does not talk to her when he does see her on campus. It’s as if Selin lives two lives, one via email with Ivan (the arguably more intellectual and courageous and wanted life) and one in her dorm room eating cafeteria food with boring students worried about lesser. Elif echoed this dual life complex during her reading, explaining that the concept of duality had always interested her. The dual life, readers begin to see, becomes painful to Selin- it’s something that is not outright harmful but which alters and controls her life, something she gives herself entirely to, something she ‘hooks’ the meaning of life on to without realizing it. Life becomes uninteresting. Ivan and his emails become sustenance.
Throughout their on and off communication, Selin teaches ESL for the local community and also tutors mathematics. She becomes best friends with Svetlana and decent friends with her roommates Hannah and Angela and her friend Ralph. She wins a fiction writing contest. But these elements seem peripheral to her- “I think I’m falling in love with you. Every day it’s harder for me to see the common denominator, to understand what counts as a thing. All the categories that make up a dog- they go blurry and dissolve, I can’t tell what anything is anymore.” Ivan goes missing after Selin writes this email, and she is shipwrecked and distraught, attempting to discover what she’d done wrong. In one instance, she goes to a campus psychologist, desperate for some clarification on her situation: “It seems to me that your sense of other people’s awfulness might be compensating for our own sense of inferiority and fear of rejection. You rationalize the rejection of your peers by telling yourself it comes from other people’s deficiencies rather than your own. They can’t understand your philosophy or ideas. All of this leaves you terribly lonely and isolated, which I think explains your susceptibility to this computer fellow. He seems to be offering you just what you want: a noninterpersonal interpersonal relationship. With him, you don’t have to worry about whose side of the room the extension cord is on. But that’s because it isn’t a real intimate relationship. Real life is about discussing these things and coming to terms with them. This explains your anxiety, your sense that you’re going to make some kind of mistake. What I want to help you understand is that real intimacy is a place where there are no mistakes, at least not in the sense you feel. You don’t just blow everything with one wrong move. A friendship is a space where you’re supported and free to make mistakes.”
I paused after this interaction. I thought about how I would have reacted if someone had attempted to spell things out so clearly for me at age nineteen- I’m guessing it’d be almost exactly the same as Selin, who disregards the advice and does not return to the psychologist. I know the sort of love Selin believes to be in, and the feeling that no answer except the one you want will suffice. I know how significant it can seem to have something real with someone- to enjoy their conversation, their insights, to feel equally interesting in their presence. I know what it’s like to pin everything on this simple yet seemingly hyper-strong cord of connection. It’s almost revolting in how heart-breaking it is. How heart-sick I’ve made myself with more than one person because I distrusted human relationships and trusted an intimacy that felt real.
Eventually, Ivan comes back, and the two share in-person time together, awkward and with Selin drunk. The two spend early-morning hours awake together on the floor of Ivan’s dorm room listening to records, not touching. “‘How long do you think we’ve been sitting here?’ ‘A long time,’ I said, ‘We could have been sitting here long enough for the fish to evolve.’ ‘It’s possible. By that point we would probably evolve, too. What would we evolve into?’ I felt my body tense up. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. It was three now, and too cold to stay on the bench. At the same time, it was also too cold to move. It felt almost as if, if we sat there longer, it might get warmer again- it might actually become earlier rather than later, and things might still turn out differently than they had.”
Ivan tells Selin that she should volunteer to teach English in Hungary, Ivan’s home country, over the summer; he insists that she’d be a perfect fit for the program, and that they could spend weekends together in Budapest during. Selin, embarrassingly and obsessively (not because she’s a lovesick idiot but because this is real and for some reason she must work to prove its realness) agrees to the idea and applies. Her love for Ivan stretches, pulls taut: “The phone rang. I would die if it wasn’t him. That thought, I knew, was itself lethal.”
Selin and Ivan spend another day together swimming at Walden Pond and talking, spending another night awake together until 9AM. Here, Selin knows, is perhaps their last meeting: “I felt certain that something was finally over.” And indeed, Ivan goes quiet for weeks, writing her finally to say he “won’t try to talk to her anymore,” somehow indirectly claiming that Selin’s own unrooted love for him was to blame rather than his intentional heart-fishing. “I started to walk around the room, dazed with pain. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life. I didn’t understand how he was okay with never seeing me again, or why he was acting as if it were my idea, or whether I was supposed to not go to Hungary, or what I was supposed to do without him. More painful and incomprehensible still, he had, with no warning and for no reason I could see, taken back what he had said about the atom- that it was allowed to come out and play, be a crazy spark, and lie on his fingernail. He had called me, and now he was sending me into a rock. Then I reread what he had written now- that I had to get over the wild and crazy dreams, and abandon destruction, and build life for the future. He meant I had to go away, so he could build life for the future. He meant: disappear and become nothing. I couldn’t wrap my head around such perfidy.”
I felt so proud of Selin in this moment. Ivan had turned their mysterious, abstract relationship into something of Selin’s doing, as if he hadn’t asked her questions like “and what would we evolve into” or “what should I do if I’m not tired?” I felt Selin’s rage- he had made her fall in love with him, with this experience that he brought to her and then took away as if it had never existed. She could no longer even cling to the significance of the scenario because he had denied that, too. How dare he. How dare they.
In part two of the novel, Selin departs for Europe. She travels to Paris with Svetlana and a few other friends for a few weeks before her two month stay teaching in Hungary, which she decides to still do. Amazingly, on board her flight, is Ivan, whom she hasn’t spoken to since that final email altercation. En route to Paris, the two discuss the emails, Selin’s rage simmering, Ivan’s mystery-bubble starting to pop. “Ivan, Ivan. He got up in the morning, put on some clothes he got from somewhere, drank his orange juice, and went out into the world of chalkboards and motorcycles. He could be really arrogant sometimes. His jeans were always too short, and he thought clowns had something complicated to teach us about human fallibility. And still no waking moment went by that I didn’t think of him- he was in the background of everything I thought. My own perceptions were no longer enough to constitute the physical world for me. Every sound, every syllable that reached me, I wanted to filter through his consciousness.” In Paris, Selin faces misery- Ivan is in the same city as her but the two are still within their own finality, and she is forced instead to be a tourist, to interact with things she feels not even half way interested in. Svetlana provides Selin a bit of truth about the situation: “Ivan wanted to try an experiment, a game. It would never have worked with someone different, someone like me. But you, you’re so disconnected from truth, you were so ready to jump into a reality the two of you made up, just through language. Naturally, it made him want to see how far he could go. You went further and further- and then something went wrong. It couldn’t continue in the same way. It had to develop into something else- into sex, or something else. But for some reason, it didn’t. The experiment didn’t work. But by now you’re so, so far from all the landmarks. You’re just drifting in space.”
“Was it only to me that he seemed so much more present than other people, or was it an objective fact?”
Once Selin arrives in Hungary, Ivan meets her at the airport. Selin is surprised at his follow-through and his hospitality, inviting Selin to stay with his parents for a night before she begins her teacher training. And again, Ivan does Ivan, providing Selin small morsels of could-be-love, just enough to keep her fed but keep her hungry. Selin moves into a small Hungarian village, living with three different families throughout her time, learning the language and teaching English. It’s a beautiful experience, but not her primary one. Still, Ivan. “I imagined the stairs to the lobby, the pay phones in the dark, the coins against my thumb, his voice. The scramble to think of things to say, with only little reprieves, during which I would have to listen to whatever things he had thought up to say. Then the dial tone again, higher-pitched than in America- it was always there, like the sea inside a shell- and the empty full feeling in my chest, like now, only worse. At the same time, it seemed certain to me that someday I would really want to hear his voice and wouldn’t be able to, and I would think back to the time that he had invited me to call him, and it would seem as incomprehensible as an invitation to speak to the dead.” How sad it is, and yet how promising, to assign such a huge hope to one individual.
“I thought about all the ungrounded longing I had felt around Ivan, and it seemed to me that I couldn’t live another moment without feeling him inside me, filling that terrible emptiness. And yet apparently I could live, and had to live, and did live. I thought for the thousandth time of calling Ivan, and for the thousandth time was unable to think my way around the problems of how to get to a phone and of what to say. Nonetheless, the fact that I could theoretically call him continued to torment me until I fell asleep, and dreamed that I went to a little house where I was supposed to live, and Ivan was inside and shouted at me to go away; then he changed his mind and showed me how to turn the faucets on and off.”
Eventually, Selin does call Ivan, and he reveals to her that he will be leaving to Thailand soon, and then to California to finish his graduate degree. The reality of their true ending becomes real to her. “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time- the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness that been an aberration and might never come back. I wanted to write about it while I could still feel it and see it around me. Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the point of writing wasn’t just to record something past but also to prolong the present.”
Finally, the two of them have a face-to-face, intimate conversation- an honest one, free of the romantic mystery bubble they have each romanticized and chosen to live inside. They ask one another the reasoning for their actions, talk about their futures independent of one another. And then Ivan takes her back to her camp, leaving her for good. “‘My email account will be active a little while longer,’ he said. ‘And yours will be active for a long time. So we could be in touch.’ Everything hurt, especially ‘could,’ and ‘a little while longer.’ I stepped forward and he drew me toward him, holding me so close that I had difficulty breathing. I said bye first, to be brave. I still thought bravery would be somehow rewarded.”
“I thought about the winter- how I used to run into Ivan sometimes walking through the snow-covered quad, a satchel strap crossing the front of his black puffy jacket. I remembered how we’d had so much time ahead of us.”
I can still feel the tremors of those physically painful heartbreaks, those goodbyes I muttered first because a part of me wanted to give the man a chance to say wait. I can feel the remnants of the lumps in my throat left still, years later, as an unwanted end irrevocably changes your life. What is one supposed to do with an experience that has utterly changed and fascinated you, one that you can’t continue? Where does that experience go? How should it be remembered?
At the end of the novel, Selin joins her family in Turkey. She attempts to take her mother’s advice to seek out beauty to fix the pain. And she begins to feel excited for the possibilities that a second year at Harvard offers, despite Ivan’s undeniable absence. Selin ends the novel by saying that her psychology of language courses have let her down, that she hadn’t learned anything at all. Which is, after all, what women like us need to learn. Nothingness. Emptiness. Meaninglessness. And meaning within the meaninglessness.
Thank you, Elif, for my one of my new favorite novels.