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The Idiot is animated by the pleasures and frustrations of different forms of knowledge

Elif Batuman's novel follows an 18-year-old aspiring writer through her first year at Harvard.

In the introduction to The Possessed, Elif Batuman’s 2010 work of memoir-cum-literary criticism, she describes having to decide, on graduation, between a fiction-writing fellowship at an artists’ colony and the PhD programme in comparative literature at Stanford University. Batuman wants to be a writer, not an academic. The decision ought to be straightforward.

But when she visits the artists’ colony, she finds its culture depressingly sterile: “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words’.” Worse still is the tendency she finds in creative writing culture to glory in ignorance of the literary tradition, or of specialised study of any kind. Batuman wants to write – and read – literature that is about literature, as well as about life. She chooses Stanford.

One PhD, one non-fiction book and several articles criticising the state of contemporary fiction later, Batuman – who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker – has published her first novel. Like The Possessed, which recounts the author’s often exuberant, often mystified interactions with Russian literature and its scholars, The Idiot is animated by the pleasures and frustrations of different forms of knowledge. Its heroine is Selin, an 18-year-old aspiring writer who, like her creator, is the 6ft-tall, New Jersey-raised daughter of Turkish immigrants. (The novel is at least partly autobiographical: readers of The Possessed will recognise a number of its episodes repurposed in The Idiot.) Loose, largely plotless and sweetly funny, The Idiot rejects the doctrine of omitting needless words in favour of marvelling, over more than 400 pages, at the complexities of language and communication.

Batuman follows Selin through her first year at Harvard and a summer in Europe. Bookish, awkward and idealistic, Selin arrives at University endearingly receptive to everything she encounters, however baffling. In the first few pages she is introduced to email (the year is 1995), learns what “psychedelic” means (her room-mate instructs her to buy a psychedelic poster for their common room – again, it’s 1995) and meets an array of vitriolic, melancholy and paranoid professors. She befriends Svetlana, a sophisticated Serb who blithely discusses her therapist and her “intellectually erotic” relationships.

The friendship between Selin and Svetlana allows each girl to define herself against the other. “I was the impetuous one,” Selin reflects, “who… evaluated every situation from scratch, as if it had arisen for the first time – while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and systems… and saw herself as the inheritor of centuries of human history and responsibilities.”

The qualities that Selin identifies in herself here produce much of the novel’s charm. Evaluating the world from scratch, she portrays everything she sees with a calm, almost deadpan alertness to its peculiarity, its closeness to complete absurdity. In a club: “Dance songs turned out to consist of one sentence repeated over and over. For example: ‘I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.’” Gnawing on a tuna baguette “seemed to require some kind of ear muscles that I had lost during the two-million-year course of human evolution”.

But Selin is not as different from Svetlana as she thinks. She doesn’t subscribe to rules and systems because she hasn’t yet found any that she likes; she’s still looking for a framework to help her understand the world. Driven by her interest in words, she signs up for a number of linguistics classes. She spends tedious weeks devising a theory of language that would enable a Martian to understand what humans mean by the word “language”.

She learns the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak affects your understanding of reality – and then she learns that linguists now regard this hypothesis as incorrect and borderline racist. “In my heart, I knew that Whorf was right,” Selin reports. “I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English… different languages forced you to think about different things.”

Disenchanted, Selin becomes absorbed instead in learning Russian, which seems to make room for all the arbitrariness and oddity that linguistics wants to eradicate. Through her Russian classes she meets Ivan, an enigmatic Hungarian mathematician with whom she falls in love, and who causes her to spend the summer in Hungary, teaching schoolchildren English.

Ivan and Selin embark upon a tortuous email correspondence that confuses and agonises her as much as their encounters in person. “He felt to me increasingly like the parody of a love interest,” she says – but of course, feeling that way doesn’t diminish her feelings for him.

Neither Harvard nor Hungary, neither Russian nor Ivan, teach Selin exactly what she wants to know. She realises that her experiences will never assume the coherence of a novel. The fact that this lack of coherence is one of the subjects of The Idiot doesn’t always prevent the novel from dragging. Still, there is ample compensation in the pleasure of seeing Selin begin to puzzle out her own conception of the relation between experience, art and education. She may not be a writer yet, but it’s clear by the end of The Idiot that – no creative writing degree necessary! – she’s getting there. 

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and PhD student in English at Harvard University 

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
Jonathan Cape, 423pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue