Elif Batuman / photo by Carolyn Drake
Author Elif Batuman, whose latest work is ‘The Idiot,’ a novel / photo by Carolyn Drake

‘The Closest Thing I Have to Religion’

An Interview with Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman borrowed from Dostoevsky for the title of her first book, a collection of memoiristic essays about reading Russian literature and traveling in Uzbekistan called The Possessed. It offered an absurd, moving look at the absurd, moving nature of grad-student life: the blend of self-satisfaction and self-laceration that attends academic conferences; the ever-shifting relationship—now hate, now love; now obsession, now indifference—one has to one’s research. With a doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford, Batuman conveyed just what it’s like to be young and possessed absolutely by literary studies—a possession that while ennobling can just as often be cringe-inducing (I still wince when thinking of my grad-student-self holding forth on “critical interventions” and “problematizing”).

Now, with The Idiot, Batuman has shifted genre (to the novel) and subject matter (to the undergraduate experience), though she still borrows from Dostoevsky. The Idiot’s narrator, Selin, is the daughter of Turkish immigrants and a freshman at Harvard. She is inquisitive, callow, besotted with linguistics and reading and with an older Hungarian mathematics student named Ivan. The novel is roughly organized into two parts. First, Selin struggles to adjust to life as a college student in Cambridge. Then, during the summer after her first year, she travels to Hungary and teaches English. Throughout, Batuman’s style is whip smart and bracingly deadpan, a controlled anarchy that is lean and loose, learned and screwball.

Batuman is a staff writer for the New Yorker. We recently talked by email.

Anthony Domestico: In the introduction to The Possessed, you dispense with the notion that to study literature critically and to read literature lovingly are antithetical enterprises: “Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” What role has love played in your own reading life? How has that love shifted over the years—from childhood to college to grad school and beyond?

Elif Batuman: I’ve been thinking about the role of love a lot lately, especially when I go to readings and listen to other writers read from their work. It somehow only recently occurred to me that every single novelist (or literary critic), no matter how middle-aged and downtrodden, is someone who passionately loved reading as a child. And if you look for it, you can see that child still in there somewhere, closer to the surface in some people than in others. Basically, every adult novelist is doing a job that a little kid told them to do. There’s something really moving about this.

As a grad student and later as a writer, I have found it hard to sustain the pure, almost erotic love of reading I had as a kid—you know, where you climb in bed and read for hours and hours, and the book itself is this charged magical object. Later, when writing becomes your job, it’s tied up with ego and all kinds of worry, and it’s not always easy to get to that state of pure escape. But it does still happen for me sometimes, and then it’s more precious to me than ever. I try really hard to cultivate it, to make time for it, because it would be really sad to still be a writer without remembering why, on some visceral, emotional level. In a lot of ways, being a writer is a lousy job—grueling, emotionally taxing, terrible hours, no health care—so if it wasn’t about love, what would be the point?

Being a writer is a lousy job...so if it wasn’t about love, what would be the point?

AD: In The Possessed you describe the relationship between “the two halves of [Augustine’s] Confessions”—the first half filled with sinful pears and sensual pursuits, the second with “philosophical musings on the nature of memory and time” and a disavowal of “narrative itself”—as “a balance—a kind of credit and debit.” How would you describe the relationship between your first book, a work of memoir/criticism, and your second, a work of fiction? The two books share themes, characters, settings, even plot points. What did writing about these things in fictional form enable you to do that you couldn’t do in the earlier book?

EB: Ha, that’s a good one! You know, I actually wanted to write The Possessed as a novel—I first pitched it around 2007 as a fictional retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons set in a Stanford-like Russian lit program. Nobody thought that was a good idea. It was suggested to me finally that I do it as nonfiction. The logic was that nobody would want to read a whole novel about depressed Russian literature grad students—whereas, with a nonfiction book, people might read it to learn about Russian novels. Personally I didn’t really see why people couldn’t learn just as much from a novel about Russian literature as from a nonfiction book about Russian literature.

With The Idiot, I had a little more freedom, and I felt really strongly that I wanted to do it as a novel, not a memoir, even though the basic experiences are similar to my own. So to keep the double-entry metaphor, The Possessed earned me the credit to finally write about my experiences in the form of a novel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why it was so important to me to do The Idiot as a novel, and not a memoir. One reason is the great love of novels that I keep droning on about. I’ve always loved reading novels. I’ve wanted to write novels since I was little. (I started my first novel when I was seven.) I don’t have the same connection to memoir or nonfiction or essays. Writing nonfiction makes me feel a little bit as if I’m producing a product I don’t consume—it’s a really alienating feeling. The novel tradition is the closest thing I have to a religion, and being a part of that tradition means a lot to me. I don’t really see—I never have seen—why I should have to forfeit that feeling, or hope, of belonging, just because the stories I want to tell are close to my own experience.

On a more practical level, writing fiction lets you be a little more emotional and unguarded, a little freer. Selin is way more emotional and unguarded than the narrator of The Possessed. She’s similar to how I was at age eighteen, but she isn’t totally the same, and I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to make her a “fair representation” of myself.

Writing fictional characters is also really different from writing about real people. In nonfiction, you can only say so much about the people you interact with. After all, they’re actual people, their version of their story trumps yours. In a novel, you can build a character, using certain parts or impressions of someone you know, and guessing or inventing others, without having to worry that your guesses or memories or inventions are wrong. You can let yourself inhabit other people’s subjectivities a little more. To me that makes a richer, more whole story, a story you can get lost in, in a way that I find it harder to get lost and immersed in nonfiction, which is always just a part of a whole (the whole of reality).

AD: You end your acknowledgements in The Idiot with these beautiful words: “Fyodor Mikhailovich: when it comes to titles, and not just titles, what writer could ever touch the hem of your lofty garments?” Why has Dostoevsky been so important to you, both as a novelist and a critic?

EB: Another interviewer recently asked whether my intention was to retell Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in some way. My first response was “No”—but when I thought about it, I realized that that, too, was a book about a young and clueless person who thinks a lot about the right way to live, falls terribly in love, and does a lot of running around in an inefficient way.

In short, Dostoevsky has been a strong, sometimes imperfectly recognized inspiration to me, even though (because?) there is a lot that I find alienating in his worldview. I think there’s something about Dostoevsky that can pull you towards him and push him away at the same time. (Nabokov, who always disparaged Dostoevsky in his criticism, was so clearly influenced by Dostoevsky in his work.) That’s just the kind of “perverse” feeling that Dostoevsky himself describes all the time.

AD: I suspect that critics will focus on The Idiot’s comedy, or on its clear delight in literature and linguistics, or on Selin’s intelligent, naïve, and compelling sensibility. These are all great, but I was most impressed by the sentence-by-sentence writing—the control of tone, syntax, and rhythm. Who are some of the stylists you most admire?  

EB: Thank you! From the Russians, I would say Tolstoy (especially his use of repetition); Dostoevsky and Gogol (“somehow,” “some kind of,” “even”); and Isaac Babel (the killer last sentences, and also the way he kind of zooms between very concrete and cosmic language in a short space). For comic pacing I admire Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and P.G. Wodehouse. Of contemporary writers, I admire Haruki Murakami for his tone—at once hardboiled, bemused, and good-natured, with surprising metaphors. (I also really admire Raymond Chandler, who is important for Murakami.) And, not that it’s a contest, but I can’t think of a living stylist I admire more than Renata Adler—so fluid, witty, precise, and conversational at the same time, with something of the bemusedness and detachment that I like in Murakami.

AD: Are there other campus novels that you had in mind while writing this—other books that got across something crucial about being young, interested, and ignorant that you wanted to get across yourself?

EB: I thought about Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and also Dryland, a wonderful novel about high school by Sara Jaffe. (Prep is also about high school, but it’s boarding school so it feels like a campus novel.) Probably Catcher in the Rye and This Side of Paradise were hovering around there, too. Other campus novels I have enjoyed include My Education by Susan Choi, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The thought of wasting opportunities seemed like the worst shame, the worst indignity.

AD: How much does Selin’s feeling of alienation stem from her status as a child of immigrants? What angle of vision on the world does this particular position provide her? What angle of vision on the world does it provide you?

EB: I think it’s true that, as is often observed, the writer is always an outsider. A writer is someone who is telling stories about what’s going on, which is something you can’t do if you’re totally caught up in the moment. Obviously there are many, many ways of being an outsider, but having immigrant parents is one of them. For one thing, it makes you a translator: there are all kinds of things that American parents know about life in America (and about being a kid in America), that non-American parents don’t know, and in many cases it falls on the kid to tell them, and also to field questions from Americans about their parents’ native country. Like many immigrant children, I had the experience of visiting my grandparents every summer, going to a different country, speaking a different language, seeing different stuff in the supermarket, experiencing a whole different way of doing things. I think that, in this way, I realized the provisionality and contingency of human systems earlier than I might have otherwise. That, too, was something I had to narrate to myself, to make sense of it—to have one story where everything made sense. If a story like that was going to exist for me, I was going to have to tell it myself; it wasn’t going to come ready-made.

AD: At one point, Selin says, “My policy at the time was that, when confronted by two courses of action, one should always choose the less conservative and more generous. I thought this was tantamount to a moral obligation for anyone who had advantages at all, and especially for anyone who wanted to be a writer.” Not to conflate creator with creation, but to what extent do you buy this logic—that to be a writer obligates you to generously open yourself up to the less conservative course of action, the seemingly unreasonable or dangerous situation or decision?

EB: I definitely wouldn’t recommend this “policy” to a young person now, no. But it’s what I believed when I was Selin’s age. I associate it a little bit with being the child of immigrants. I was so conscious of all the opportunities I had that my cousins didn’t, of all the sacrifices my parents made. The thought of wasting those opportunities seemed like the worst shame, the worst indignity. I also had a hatred of caution and what I thought of as “bourgeois values” or “bourgeois morality,” plus a terror of hypocrisy and of not living according to my beliefs.

Now that I’m almost forty, I look back at some of the decisions I made when I was younger—decisions that I thought of as courageous, or generous, or otherwise befitting a writer; befitting someone who had taken it as their life’s goal to understand the human condition—and I wish I could go back in time and be like, “Hey, you don’t actually have to do that—you’re allowed to look out for yourself a little bit.”

AD: Late in the novel, Selin, heartbroken, is told by her mother to “go see some beautiful things.” After all, her mother continues, “Beauty encouraged the production of endorphins, which helped make you feel better and prevented inflammation.” This brought to mind the famous claim made by Myshkin in The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” What’s your stance on the saving power of beauty? More generally, how would you define beauty? Where do you find it in art? In the world? (Small questions, I know!)

EB: Lately I’ve gotten a lot of comfort from the philosophy of the Roman Stoics. For me, one of the most powerful ideas of Stoicism is that you can’t pick or choose in the world what you want to happen and what you don’t want to happen, and that actually if you did get to choose, the version you would come up with would be unsociable, lame, and basically less beautiful than the truth.

There’s an amazing line in Marcus Aurelius: “The healthy eye ought to see all visible things and not to say, I wish for green things; for this is the condition of a diseased eye.” Maybe green is your favorite color—but if you saw everything as green, that wouldn’t be a blessing, it would be an eye disease. By the same token, if there was no heartbreak, and everything happened exactly as you want—it would be a less beautiful and meaningful story than the actual story, where you’re a part of a huge complicated mysterious whole.

In this sense, there is salvation—happiness and virtue—in beauty. I would define beauty in this context as a kind of richness, complexity, mystery, diversity, otherness, and unexpectedness—something that comes from the outside. It’s out there in the world, yeah, but you have to see it, and that’s what art is: it’s the record of people who see beauty in the world, and want to isolate it, and preserve it, and share it. 

Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: 
Tags

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Religion
Books