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?