Elif Batuman on Fictionalizing Her Life, and Learning to Fact Check
In Conversation with the Author of The Idiot
In 2015, the New Yorker writer Elif Batuman was given a book contract to write an autobiographical novel about a Turkish-American journalist moving to Turkey to write for a New Yorker-like publication. Batuman herself had spent several years there writing about politics and culture.
The contracted novel turned out to be a difficult project “I had a middle, but I couldn’t find the beginning,” said the 39-year-old Batuman, in a telephone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “I found that I kept going further back into the characters’ histories,” she said. “I found myself writing about these characters in college. I kept going back to times when everything was pure.”
Batuman knew that she had written something about similar characters before. When she was 23, on leave from a PhD program, she had worked on a long, unpublished autobiographical novel of her freshman year at Harvard.
“I thought, why am I trying to remember things like a chump when I already had written hundreds of thousands words on this subject?” said Bauman. “The old manuscript was absorbing and fun in a way the new novel was not. I wrote this one instead.”
Batuman has just published The Idiot, which follows Selin, an 18-year-old from suburban New Jersey as she navigates her way through her first year at Harvard. Selin is a true innocent, with a sharp observant eye. The novel is a witty portrait of a writer as an unformed young woman, who finds her calling in the lecture halls and on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., and later in a rural village in Hungary.
In Russian class, she meets Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician. Selin and Ivan start an epistolary courtship through email. Selin has no sexual experience. Ivan is 21 and has a girlfriend who comes and goes. They spend all night in his dorm room just talking. Selin is honest and without guile. When asked if she likes beer, she says, “I don’t know.” When asked if she’ll have a beer, she says, “Okay.”
“At the time I was revisiting the manuscript I wrote in 2001, I was rereading Proust,” said Batuman. “I came across that passage that adolescence is the most awful time, where later we would give anything to erase practically everything we ever did. What we should really regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity.”
“I think in the spontaneity of Selin saying, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Okay,’ there is a way that the character is vulnerable, which is the way that I was vulnerable,” she said. “It is a moment of openness.”
“Later, you look back, and nothing went right with the romantic situation, how absurdly everything ended up,” she said.
“The only way these things happen is when we don’t have structures and conventions, and fear and experience. We don’t compare ourselves to others, a skill that we acquire as adults, that allows us to act more gracefully. These are the things that are missing. It’s how we get hurt, but it’s how we notice and feel things we never have access to again.”
Batuman’s obsession with Russian literature started when she read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in high school in New Jersey, where she was raised by her parents, who were both Turkish-born medical-school professors. “I was really moved by it,” she said. “There is something about the story not being over when you think it’s going to be over, and not necessarily ending on a note you think it’s going to end on.”
After 400 years of murderous czars, the penal colonies of Stalin, the horrors of World War II and now the opposition-crushing autocracy of Vladimir Putin, Russian literature tends to be stripped of the nostalgia and optimism often found in American novels. That darkness would appeal to an adolescent Batuman.
“There is a way of working at narrative in Russian literature that was true to me, that was more painful and pessimistic than American literature,” she said. “In a way, it’s less pessimistic, if you were a person who didn’t see all these happy endings everywhere and felt that there was something wrong with you, that you couldn’t get with the program.”
“There is something very affirming about the idea that the narrative is the big thing,” said Batuman, “and it is not clear if it is good or bad, or if it is moving in a good or bad direction. It’s just moving. You have to draw meaning from the whole.”
Batuman immersed herself in the Russian language at Harvard, and went to Stanford for a PhD in comparative literature. In 2010, she published the delightful The Possessed: Adventures in Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which chronicled the obsessives and eccentrics who study Russian language and culture. At one point Batuman gets involved in a love triangle that begins to mimic a Dostoevsky plot. In another chapter, she goes to Russia and explores the theory that the novelist Leo Tolstoy was murdered.
“I had wanted to write The Possessed as fiction,” said Batuman, “but everyone told me that no one would read a novel about graduate students. It seems almost uncivilized to tell someone writing a novel, ‘No, you have to call this a memoir.’”
Both The Possessed and The Idiot are titles used by Batuman in homage to her favorite tortured Russian writer, Dostoevsky. “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” writes Batuman in her acknowledgements, “what writer could ever touch the hem of your lofty garment?”
Returning to the grad school manuscript that would become The Idiot, Batuman looked back at her 18-year-old self. “I was 38 when I picked up the manuscript again,” she said. “Twenty years had passed. I didn’t feel like that anymore. Going through the drafts, I thought, what had I experienced in life and writing? There were all these awkward, changeable, embarrassing, almost shamefully embarrassing moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity.”
Batuman had to fix her original prose. “In the early drafts, the book was written in that early 1990s way of long lyrical riffs and theoretical Ashbery-Barthelme-inspired language games, written by a 23-year-old graduate student, thinking, ‘oh, I am much smarter than she is.’”
“The original manuscript was much longer than the book,” she said. “So revision consisted of less of rewriting than cutting.”
Editing the book 15 years later, Batuman discarded most of the language games, finding them hard to read. “The only parts of the writing that really moved me were the ‘embarrassing ones,’” she said, “the visceral descriptions of being young and profoundly lost. A lot of the revision was letting those passages stand by themselves. That’s when I decided to call the book The Idiot.
In The Idiot, Batuman excels at setting up the absurd moment. Despairing over her love for Ivan, Selin goes to a student mental health clinic where a young psychologist triumphantly declares Ivan a figment of her imagination. Impulsively, Ivan invites Selin to go to Hungary for the summer to teach English. She agrees. Their platonic courtship continues, but they never consummate their affair.
“One reader was very angry with me,” said Batuman. “‘I spent the whole book waiting for them to have sex,’ she told me. She looked at me like she was asking what do you have to say for yourself?”
To explain her literary strategy, Batuman went back to the Russians. “I do have literary and artistic reasons why they never have sex,” she said. “One of the stories that really impressed me was Anna Karenina. As a novel, that made an impression on me, showing me what the novel can do. The reader is so sure that certain things are going to happen… everyone is sure that Anna is going to die in childbirth. Her husband thinks so, her doctor thinks so, Vronsky thinks so. As a reader, you think, what is going to happen to an adulteress in the 19th century? Then she doesn’t die. Anna is just as appalled and as shocked as anyone else. She has to keep going somehow.”
“There are certain ways that narratives seem to be going,” said Batuman. “The way we feel most strongly is with sex, where everything seems to be leading to consummation. As the reader, that’s what you want to happen, and maybe it doesn’t. You are in this interesting space.”
“I wanted that feeling at the end of the book, where Selin’s gone to Hungary to be with Ivan,” she said, “but she doesn’t end up seeing or calling him. She’s there for another reason.”
“After he leaves Hungary and nothing has happened between them, and that part of the story is over, I didn’t want the book to end there. Some people who read it said, ‘Why does the book go on so long after that?’ I wanted the experience of falling outside the romantic plot.”
“Things don’t always stop where you think they are going to stop,” Batuman said. “You can have this experience of getting up in the morning and living your life like you are in a story. I felt like I was in a movie. Ivan went wherever he went off to and took the movie with him. It’s something I’ve felt in my life and it’s the most painful.”
After 12 years writing for The New Yorker, first as a freelancer, then as a staff writer, Batuman finds writing a novel to be an enlightening change. “The New Yorker does it right,” she said. “I feel lucky to learn how fact checking works and to learn the norms of reporting.”
“The things that interest me and the stories I want to write, their factual accuracy is not something I want to make a claim about,” she said. “I don’t want people to know what details are true and which ones aren’t. I love the novelist’s freedom of going into different people’s subjectivity and being able to work with them as characters.”
For fictional material, Batuman doesn’t stray far from her own history. “This book is based on my experiences,” she said. “I’m Turkish-American, I was a freshman at Harvard in 1995 and 96. I did teach English in Hungary in the summer of 1996. I’m an autobiographical writer in the sense that whether in fiction or nonfiction, the issues and relationships and phenomena and problems I’m most interested in exploring are the ones I’ve experienced personally.”
Selin goes to Hungary on a badly designed teaching program. The rural villagers embrace her. She stays in a house where the husband puts a stuffed weasel in her room. An abrasive German teacher takes Selin home for a jarring dinner with her family, whose members proceed to bicker. “Selin is having dinner with these people,” said Batuman. “She thinks, oh, this is part of becoming a writer. Becoming a writer is being open to everything.”
“Part of this comes from being children of immigrants,” said Batuman, “and being so conscious of not having a script for what is normal and not normal.”
“I did have this feeling in my own life that my parents sacrificed a lot for me and I had opportunities that no one in my family had had,” she said. “I wanted to be a writer and it’s churlish and babyish to say ‘no’ to too many things. You should see them all and do them all.”
Well, maybe not always saying yes. “I am writing a sequel to The Idiot, and it has more about sex,” said Batuman. “It’s where saying ‘yes’ all the time quickly becomes problematic. When does that instinct to say ‘no’ actually kick in?”