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Thursday, June 08, 2023

Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot’ updates Dostoevsky for the millennial era

Conor Oberst, the mascaraed Bright Eyes frontman, has a verse on his new album, Ruminations, about life under Ronald Reagan. True, Reagan doesn’t seem so bad now, but at the time he seemed like a bad joke. “Reagan flexes his worn, snipped, tucked, mottled face,” wrote Martin Amis in 1979. “He would make a good head waiter, a good Butlins redcoat, a good host for ‘New Faces.’ But would he make a good leader of the free world?”

Apparently not, according to Oberst. Singing in his simpering nasal wobble, Oberst tells how he dealt with Reagan. “It’s a little uncanny / What he managed to do / Got me to read those Russian authors through and through.”

There’s something about baggy Russian novels that beg to be read in times of confusion. It could be the heady, difficult names of the authors themselves: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Gogol. It could be the old cliché about the “Russian Soul.” Or it could be, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, that Russian literature somehow evokes a “peculiar landscape, a special atmosphere, a symbol, a long, long road.”

For whatever reason, the honesty and depth resonates. Unfortunately, it’s not really being written anymore. Some say Stalin’s gulags killed it while others simply concede that the era is gone. If Elif Batuman has her way, it’s not dead yet. She is the author of the new novel, “The Idiot,” and a New Yorker staff writer. It is her first novel, having published a compilation of autobiographical essays on Russian literature, “The Possessed,” in 2010.

If you’re versed in Russian lit, you’ll be able to tell that the two titles are borrowed from Dostoevsky. “The Possessed” is an alternate translation for “Demons,” a novel on political nihilism, and “The Idiot” is, well, borrowed from a book of the same title.

Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” follows Prince Myshkin as he returns to Russia from a stay at a Swiss sanatorium to collect an inheritance. As the title infers, Myshkin is an idiot, but not for lack of intellect. Instead, the prince is extremely naïve and almost childlike, so you don’t know whether to love him or pity him.

In Petersburg, where most of the novel takes place, Myshkin socializes with a wealthy set that he meets on characteristically innocent terms. He arrives in the city, unfashionable coat slouching off his gaunt frame, and knocks on the door of distant relatives he’s never met. Before being thrown out, he enchants the family with his excellent penmanship and an impetuous observation about a woman he’s only just met. “About your face I not only think but I’m certain that you are a perfect child, in everything, in everything, in everything good and in everything bad, despite your age,” the prince says. Yes, Myshkin is quite naïve and he pays for it in the tangle of envy and deception he’s unwittingly talked himself into.

Batuman’s new idiot is similarly wide-eyed, and in a way that we all know well: She’s a college freshman. Selin is the 18-year-old daughter of secular Turkish immigrants attending Harvard University in 1995–credentials Batuman shares. Writing for n+1 Magazine in 2006, Batuman made it clear that unlike some writers, she’s not afraid to plum the grottos of her past for fiction.

“American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting; all the rooms in the house have become haunted, the available subjects have been blocked off. What remains to be written about? (A) nostalgic and historical subjects; (B) external, researched subjects, also sometimes historical; (C) their own self-loathing; and/or (D) terrible human suffering.”

Well, I suppose we shouldn’t expect the next great Holocaust novel from Batuman. Dostoevsky flashed autobiographical at times too in his “The Idiot.” Soon after arriving in Petersburg, Myshkin chats with an uncomfortable doorman about an execution he recently witnessed in Paris. “The whole torment lies in the certainty that there’s no escape,” he says. But then he muses, what if “He’s been allowed to suffer, and has been told, ‘Go you’re forgiven.’ That man might be able to tell us something.” As a young man, Dostoevsky received a similar last-second reprieve from execution along with his radical “co-conspirators.” He served a stint in Siberia instead.

Batuman’s past isn’t as gothic as Dostoevsky’s, but that doesn’t make her “The Idiot” any less piercing. Selin too is able to elicit blanched turns of pity, love and grimace. As she checks in for freshman orientation she’s handed an Ethernet cable for her dorm room. She turns to a girl beside her and says, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” Yes, her joke is very lame, and there’s more that follows.

And that’s before she falls in love with Ivan, a seven-foot tall Hungarian grad student. Being 1995, they come together over the hot, new medium: email. Complete sentences, prefaced with “Dear Ivan’s” and “Dear Selin’s.” She writes stuff to him like, “Your message wasn’t easy for me to understand. I guess I’m too used to thinking of words as a means to an end … I send you an email: how do you know who wrote it? It could be anyone.”

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No, that’s not the way most of us do it. But Selin is odd. She’s just more comfortable explicating the relationship from behind a computer screen. She later follows Ivan to Hungary for the summer, in a trip that mirrors Prince Myshkin’s Petersburg adventure in its candid tumult.

Sure, most of Selin’s mishaps seem laughably ephemeral when set next to Dostoevsky’s version of “The Idiot”—passive-aggressive fights over dorm room posters, heartbreak, trouble in lit class—but Batuman occasionally overwhelms with heavy Russian strokes of honesty, with spine-tingling shivers that betray her intellectual lineage. She turns a mirror on our own college idiocy, and for that, it’s worth picking up.

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