Monday, February 12, 2018

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

I had chosen a ten-point font, both to conserve paper and to discourage people from reading the story, which I didn't think they would enjoy. Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything that I thought anyone would like to read. 
Before I get too far into this review, I have an important confession: I am a massive Elif Batuman fangirl. Anyone will the nerve to use Dostoevsky titles for all of her books (and to shout out Fyodor Mikhailovich by his patronymic in her acknowledgments) is already pretty impressive in my book; add to that the fact that her twitter handle is @bananakarenina and I was ready to swoon before even opening her first novel (also The Possessed was incredible, so the bar was set high). Luckily, she lives up to the hype.

The Idiot documents Selin's first year at Harvard. It's 1995, and on top of the endless awkwardness of any freshman year, Selin has to learn how to navigate the new world of email. She begins an online correspondence with Ivan, a graduate student in her Russian class, and the novel unfolds around her largely inept attempts to parse her feelings for him while adjusting to life in college.

Batuman does self-deprecation impeccably. She is funny and sharp in her descriptions of the agony of inadequacy that is any freshman year. Selin spends the summer in Hungary (in another clumsy attempt to win over Ivan), and Batuman's observational skill is put to even better use there. All of the madness and hilarity of post-Soviet states is captured here, along with the difficulty of being a Western interloper. I laughed out loud several times and was especially won over by this description of life in Hungary:
I suppressed a sigh. Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.  

I loved this book. Selin is eminently frustrating and loveable: as a budding writer, a lovesick young adult, a student of Russian. Each aspect of her (totally wonky) personality is laid out with care and humor, and Batuman is able to capture all the inelegance of being nineteen and in way over your head perfectly. Every once in a while you find a book that you really, really wish you'd written, and this felt like that for me. Her time in Hungary perfectly mapped onto my time in Russia, and her fumbling attempts to establish herself as an intellectual and as an adult rang so true that I found myself constantly wanting to underline and copy down passages. I felt similarly about The Possessed, so I can't wait to see what Batuman produces next!

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