One of the books I’m toting around right now is the recently published collected short stories of Susan Sontag, Debriefing. In the collection’s first story, “Pilgrimage,” the 14-year-old narrator (also Susan Sontag) has this to say about reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:
“For a month the book was where I lived. I read it through almost at a run, my excitement winning out over my wish to go slowly and savor…After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud…”<
Sontag’s recollections of reading Mann are the near-perfect summation of my experience with The Idiot. I did not tear through Elif Batuman’s spectacular novel so much as I devoured it. And like Sontag, as I neared the end, I felt a low pang of sadness at the pages diminishing quickly beneath my fingers. I wasn’t ready to abandon Selin, the book’s 19 year old narrator, nor the sprawling, perfectly imagined cast of characters that populate the year of her life she recounts for us. I was entirely consumed by this book, completely beguiled by the unique pitch of Selin’s narrative voice, and by the exasperating clarity of Batuman’s authorial vision.
A blurb on the book’s back cover describes The Idiot as “mundane,” and I truly cannot think of a more accurate statement. To say that nothing much “happens” in the book would be true but misleading. It’s more like what does happen is so heartbreakingly normal, so small, that it barely registers as a happening. Selin, a Harvard freshman, in 1995, of Turkish-American descent, dispatches the tale of her first year in college in a voice so droll and un-impassioned it’s positively flat. An aspiring writer, Selin is observational nearly at the expense of interiority, a pair of eyes and poised pen recording her experiences with an almost journalistic adherence to objectivity. Yet nothing is sacrificed to the stark, spare, even flat quality of the prose: the characters (and there are many, encountered by Selin in Boston, in New York, in Paris, in Turkey and Eastern Europe) are all drawn with precision; the every detail zings. Freighted conversations amount to nothing, such as when Selin discovers she and her doomed love interest, Ivan (who is basically a composite of every withholding, manipulative jerk any of us has ever dated), has booked the same trans-Atlantic flight as she:
I stood beside Ivan. “Hi,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“I didn’t recognize you because of your haircut,” I said.
His gloom seemed to intensify. “That why I got the haircut.”
I thought that was funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know you were going to Paris,” I said.
“I didn’t know YOU were going to Paris,” he said.
Then we stood there not saying anything.
“Well, see you later,” I said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asked Svetlana afterward…
The book is replete with these sort of exchanges, anti-climactic to the point of banality, and they thrilled me.
Yet the book’s simplicity is a front: this is not some frothy tale of collegiate love gone wrong; rather, this is a rigorously intellectual, deeply theoretical book about the possibilities and limits of language. Again and again Selin, whose major is linguistics, brushes against those possibilities and limitations, discovering in most instances the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of true understanding. The many languages that flit through the book–English, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, to name a few–some of which Selin is conversant in, others in which she is not, are the stage upon which the author’s theories are presented. The big takeaway seems to be that misunderstanding is so easy–even likely–whether or not two people speak the same language, for language is basically a trick: words taken on their own mean nothing–or, more precisely, they have multiple meanings, and in this way the meanings can be impossible to decipher. This at least seems to be Selin’s lesson, as the novel’s BEAUTIFUL and PERFECT final passage makes clear:
“When I got back to school that fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in philosophy or the psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”