Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Review: The Idiot

From The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Open quote I didn’t have a religion, and I didn’t do team sports, and for a long time orchestra had been the only place where I felt like part of something bigger than I was, where I was able to strive and at the same time to forget myself. The loss of that feeling was extremely painful. It would have been bad enough to be someplace where there were no orchestras, but it was even worse to know that there was one, and lots of people were in it—just not me. I dreamed about it almost every night." The Idiot

Elif Batuman's debut novel is a first person account of her freshman year in college, followed by a summer teaching English in Hungary. She has a keen eye for detail. She shows wry humor throughout. You learn about love and linguistics along the way.

Grade: B+

This novel reads more like a diary than a novel with a plot. It's set in 1995 at Harvard University. The year plays a more significant role in the plot than the university does. Our hero, Selin, is constantly seeking out computer stations or pay phones to communicate with Ivan, an older student that Selin has struck up an awkward platonic relationship with. Or is it unrequited love? She is never quite sure.

The story of Selin and Ivan's relationship is the thread that ties the novel together. But along the way we see a lot of Selin's life at college — her roommates, her classes, her struggle with relationships in general, not just Ivan in particular.

Batuman excellently captures the college experience in observations like this:

That was the best thing about college: it was so easy to leave. You could be in the place where you lived, having an argument that you had basically started, and then you could just say, 'See you later,' and go somewhere else.

Throughout, Selin exhibits a dry sense of humor. Is it Batuman's sense of humor? Regardless, Selin's judgments like this capture the college experience without her being captured by it.

I was the only freshman in the class, so I went by myself to the freshman cafeteria. Portraits of old men hung on the dark paneled walls. The ceiling was so high you could barely see it, though with effort you could make out some pale specks, apparently pats of butter that had been flicked up there in the 1920s by high-spirited undergraduates. I thought they sounded like assholes.

Selin chooses to study linguistics (among other idiosyncratic choices). Readers learn random things about linguistics that have little to do with any "plot," at least directly, but that I personally found to be engaging, helped by Batuman's wry sense of humor.

The professor often talked about the inadequacy of published translations, reading us passages from novels in French and Russian, to show how bad the translations were. I didn’t understand anything he said in French or Russian, so I preferred the translations.

Don't read this novel if you want a "story". Nothing of consequence happens, except for a young woman accumulating experiences and wisdom as she grows. Read it to tag along with Selin. You'll find yourself, like me, pulling for her each step of the way.

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