Idiot (Batuman)

The Idiot 
Elif Batuman, 2017
Penguin Publishing
432 pp.

A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.

The year is 1995, and email is new.

Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, and befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana.

Almost by accident, Selin begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan's friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana.

Selin's summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.

With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself.

The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty — and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 7, 1977
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Harvard University; Ph.D., Stanford University
Awards—Whiting Award
Currently—lives in New York City, New York

Elif Batuman was born in New York City to Turkish parents and grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from Harvard and received her doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford University. While in graduate school, Batuman studied the Uzbek language in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

In February 2010, Batuman published her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The essays detail her experiences as a graduate student and are based on material previously published in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and n+1.

Batuman's debut novel, The Idiot, a semi-autobiographical bildingsroman, came out in 2017 to high critical praise.

From 2010 to 2013, Batuman was writer-in-residence at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey. She now lives in New York City. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 12/12/2017.)

Book Reviews
Small pleasures will have to sustain you oer the long haul of this novel. The Idiot builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

[A] hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book.… Batuman is an energetic and charming writer…there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers. And in the way of the best characters, Batuman's creations are not bound by the book that created them. They seem released into the world. Long after I finished The Idiot, I looked at every lanky girl with her nose in a book on the subway and thought: Selin.
Parul Sehgal - New York Times Book Review

Batuman has won a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for humor, and her book is consistently hilarious. If this is a sentimental education, it’s one leavened by a great deal of mordant and delightful humor.… At once a cutting satire of academia, a fresh take on the epistolary novel, a poignant bildungsroman, and compelling travel literature, The Idiot is also a touching and spirited portrait of the artist as a hugely appealing young woman.
Boston Globe

Beautifully written first novel…Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has an extraordinarily deft touch when it comes to sketching character…The novel fairly brims with provocative ideas about language, literature and culture.
Associated Press

Charming, hilarious and wise debut novel.… Batuman titled the book The Idiot (after Dostoevsky’s famous novel) but it isn't an excoriation of its heroine. Instead, it's a fond reflection. Oh, you poor, silly idiot, she seems to be saying. The Idiot, a novel of innocence and experience, is infused with the generous attitude that Dag Hammarskjöld expressed in his memoir Markings, "For all that has been, Thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!"
Dallas News

With her smart and deliciously comic 2010 debut, the essay collection “The Possessed,” Elif Batuman wrote one of the 21st century’s great love letters to reading.… It was a tour de force intellectual comedy encasing an apologia for literary obsession.… A different — though no less tenuous — variety of possession is explored in “The Idiot,” Batuman’s first nove.… The book’s pleasures come not from the 400-page, low-and-slow smolder of its central relationship, which can at times feel like nothing more than two repressions circling one another; rather, it is Selin herself. Acutely self-conscious but fiercely intelligent, she consistently renders a strange, mordantly funny and precisely observed world.… Selin’s is a consciousness one does not want to part with; by the end of the book, I felt as if I were in the presence of a strange, slightly detached, utterly brilliant friend. “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time,” she writes, “the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed.” Batuman articulates those little moments — of revelation and of emptiness — as well as anyone writing today. The book’s legacy seems destined to be one of observation, not character — though when the observer is this gifted, is that really any wonder?
Los Angeles Times

A vibrant novel of ideas.… Like her essays, Batuman’s bildungsroman is a succession of droll misadventures built around chance encounters, peculiar conversations and sharp-eyed observations. Both on campus and abroad, she brings the ever-fresh perspective of a perpetual stranger in a strange land. Her deceptively simple declarative sentences are underpinned by a poker-faced sense of absurdity and humor so dry it calls for olives.
San Francisco Chronicle

Easily the funniest book I’ve read this year.

Masterly funny debut novel . . Erudite but never pretentious, The Idiot will make you crave more books by Batuman.
Sloane Crosley - Vanity Fair

Batuman wittily and wisely captures the tribulations of a shy, cerebral teenager struggling with love, friendship, and whether to take psycholinguistics or philosophy of language . . .  Batuman’s writing is funny and deadpan, and Selin’s observations tease out many relatable human quandaries surrounding friendship, social niceties and first love. The result: a novel that may not keep readers up late turning pages feverishly, but that will quietly amuse and provoke thought.
Huffington Post

Batuman’s brainy novel is leavened with humor and a heroine incapable of artifice.

The Idiot is wonderful. Batuman, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the sparkling autobiographical essay collection The Possessed (2010), has brave and original ideas about what a “novel” might mean and no qualms about flouting literary convention. She is endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language.… It is a pleasure to watch Batuman render this process with the wit, sensitivity, and relish of someone who’s successfully emerged on the other side of it. For all of her fascination with linguistic puzzle boxes, the author tempers her protagonist’s intellectual vertigo with maturity and common sense.

The Idiot is half The Education of Henry Adams and half Innocents Abroad. Twain would have savored Selin's first international trip to Paris, Hungary and Turkey.… Our first footsteps into adulthood are often memorable. Taking them in Selin's shoes is an entertaining, intellectual journey not to be missed.
Shelf Awareness 

(Starred review.) [W]onderful.… Selin narrates with fluent wit and inexorable intelligence … in prose as deceptively light as it is ambitious. One character wonders whether it’s possible "to be sincere without sounding pretentious," and this long-awaited and engrossing novel delivers a resounding yes.
Publishers Weekly

In this semiautobiographical debut novel, New Yorker writer and National Book Critics Circle finalist Batuman delightfully captures the hyperstimulation and absurdity of the first-year university experience.… [L]ighthearted and wry, with occasional laugh-out-loud zingers. —Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Selin is entrancing—so smart, so clueless, so funny—and Batuman’s exceptional discernment, comedic brilliance, and soulful inquisitiveness generate a charmingly incisive and resonant tale of themessy forging of a self.

(Starred review.) Selin is delightful company.… [H]er off-kilter relationship to the world around her is revelatory and, often, mordantly hilarious. Readers who are willing to travel with Selin at her own contemplative pace will be grateful that they did. Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.”
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for The Idiot … and then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Selin as she enters Harvard in the fall of 1995? Innocent? Passive? Smart, of course … but in what ways? And how is she not so smart in other ways?

2. What about Svetlana? Describe her? How is she different from Selin? What is it about Svetlana, as well as other classmates, that Selin envies?

3. Comparing herself to those classmates, Selin says, "I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages … and nothing happened." What does she mean that nothing has happened? What does she want to happen?

4. Talk about the crush Selina develops on Ivan. What do you think of him? What is it that attracts Selin to him and makes her fall for him? How does email, which is new in 1995, affect the tenor of their correspondence? What was your feeling toward Selin as she became increasingly infatuated?

5. Selin's wishes "to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity." Does she live up to her ideal? If you were to elucidate — in three words — your own values for living, what words would those be?

6. Talk about Selin's attachment to reading and to literature. Consider, for example, that she buys an overcoat because it reminded her of Gogol. Why is literature such a potent force in her life?

7. Selin believes that you can know what books really mean: "You could get the meaning, or you could miss it completely." Is her assessment of literature correct? Do you think that literature should "mean" something, that books have some overarching, or underlying, significance? Or are books, some books, say, primarily a compendium of observations and insights as to the nature of life? Does Elif Batuman's novel have meaning … or a meaning?

8. What is the point of the story about the host leaving a stuffed weasel in a guest room? — "if you really wanted to be a writer, you didn't send away the weasel."

9. Talk about the significance of the book's title? Consider that the word originally (in Greek) referred to the self, to someone who is private and keeps to herself. But it might also refer to its more common usage: a lack of intelligence or stupidity. How do you see its use as the title?

10. Selin wants to learn from books how to live life, to use novels like self-help books. Is she mistakenly naive? Can one do that? If we don't learn about diverse ways of living from literature, why do we read — purely for entertainment and escape?

11. Did you find this book "mordantly funny," even hilarious as many critics did? Smart and intellectually bracing? Too smart and intellectual? Lacking emotional urgency? Long winded? In other words, how did you experience The Idiot?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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