Elif Batuman’s Curious Experiment in Fiction

“One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one goes abroad; one is europamüde, one goes to America, and so on.” In Either/Or (1843), the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard calls this ceaseless quest for novelty the defining characteristic of an “aesthetic life,” one through which which means is derived from pleasure-seeking (reasonably than from, say, the secure tedium of marriage). Those who subscribe to it are in fixed pursuit of latest erotic and creative stimuli, penalties be damned: “One burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration of Troy.” Fortunately, for the Harvard scholar Selin Karadağ—the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (her fiction debut, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2018) and its sequel, Either/Or—embracing this quest by no means involves arson. A sophomore now, in Batuman’s second novel, she will simply declare a brand new main.

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For Selin, a narrator who treats course descriptions as manifestos, this portends a drastic shift in worldview and sensibility. At the tip of The Idiot, she resolved to cease taking courses within the psychology and philosophy of language. She had simply spent the summer time of 1996 instructing English in a village exterior Budapest, a job she took to get nearer—bodily and culturally—to her crush, a Hungarian math scholar named Ivan who has now graduated. When the sexual stress constructed over the summer time crescendoed into nothing greater than a brotherly hug in a car parking zone, Selin was left feeling adrift—and indignant about all of the linguistics courses she had taken the earlier yr. “They had let me down,” she seethed. The blunders and miscues that stalled her relationship with Ivan couldn’t be defined away by the Sapir-Whorf speculation that she had sworn by—the concept “the language you spoke affected how you processed reality.”

In actuality, Either/Or informs us, Ivan was simply the form of one who most well-liked intercourse on a Thai seaside to stilted dialog by the Danube. Like some critics of The Idiot, he seems to have wished rather less discuss and a bit of extra motion. Either/Or shares not one of the chastity of its predecessor. Selin and Ivan’s tentative and nerdy emails (through which they pretended to be characters from their Russian-language textbook) and their harmless swims in Walden Pond have given method to an S&M social gathering, Ok-Y jelly, handcuffs, and discuss of a Swedish-twin fetish. It is as if Batuman set out to reply to her detractors and (within the fashion of her protagonist, who all the time petitions the dean to take a fifth course) couldn’t assist overachieving within the course of. But the intercourse is just not gratuitous. Now a literature main who has simply found Kierkegaard’s Either/Or in a bookstore, Selin—by testing out the aesthetic life—is just doing her homework.

The novel meanders alongside as she experiments with sensualism. As Selin bounces from one expertise (boys, books, nations, and so on.) to the subsequent, Either/Or by no means will get tied right down to anyone story line. Batuman is just not about to concoct some equal to the wedding plot; an aesthetic life necessitates narratological promiscuity.

The sequel is a extra express künstlerroman than its antecedent. The Selin who spent the final elements of The Idiot in a small Hungarian village gathering anecdotes for a novel is now in possession of a full-fledged inventive philosophy. Her new style for whirlwind sexual affairs coincides together with her perception that to be a author, she should acquire experiences that she will churn into artwork. However, Selin, by no means one to depart an concept unchallenged, spends a lot of Either/Or questioning the moral implications of seeing different individuals as materials for fiction, particularly as her setting shifts from Harvard Yard to Turkey. As the novel traverses the globe, we stay mounted inside Selin’s thoughts, an area that vibrates with the depth of somebody younger sufficient to assume that she is going to remedy this dilemma as soon as and for all.

Batuman’s first e book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), was a memoiristic account of her grad-school days at Stanford. It placed on full show Batuman’s now-familiar present for mixing erudition with approachability, subtle literary exegesis with self-deprecating humor. She described her alternative to review Russian literature as “an impulsive decision, not unlike jumping over a wall and ending up in a graveyard.” Fans of Batuman, myself included, could be mendacity if we didn’t admit that, when studying her, we tacitly hope her hyperintelligence may be contagious. Publishers intuited as a lot when she initially pitched The Possessed as fiction. “Nobody wants to read a whole novel about depressed grad students” was the message Batuman acquired, she informed the journal Guernica in 2017, “but with a nonfiction book, some people might read it in the hope of learning about the Russian novels they never had time to read themselves. It was supposed to be sort of a time-saving device.”

Like The Possessed, Either/Or might double as a syllabus. Batuman’s latest narrative is propelled by Selin’s encounters with varied artistic endeavors, which educate her that her dalliance with Ivan, baffling and torturous although it had been, was good materials. She acknowledges variations of her story not simply in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel about unrequited love, however within the lyrics of the Fugees (over e-mail, Ivan had killed her softly along with his phrases), and she or he is reassured—her agonies won’t be for naught. Above all, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or consolidates her allegiance to an aesthetic lifestyle. As in The Idiot, her buddy Svetlana is her foil, a lady who “wanted to be in a ‘stable relationship’ and to someday have children”—exactly the trail that holds no attract for Selin.

Creative writing dovetails nicely with getting over a breakup. As Selin goes out to amass experiences, Ivan recedes into the background; the place we as soon as awaited his emails, we now await Selin’s inevitable UTI. Her sex-shy and teetotaling days behind her, she embarks on a university life extra odd, saying sure the place she would have as soon as stated no. With the uncooked sincerity and droll perception into the rarefied world of academia that readers will keep in mind from Batuman’s earlier books, Selin recounts her preliminary toe-dip into hedonism—which entails, amongst different issues, shedding her virginity to a Harvard man who research the “depolarization-induced slowing of Ca2+ channel deactivation in squid neurons.” She surprises her buddy Lakshmi by dressing “appropriately” for an S&M social gathering. The new thrill-seeking, uninhibited Selin hears the Alanis Morissette tune “Head Over Feet,” notably the road about “wanting something rational,” and feels disdain. She concludes that Alanis should be singing about “some boring guy,” not the form of one who would make for a very good character in a novel.

The simplicity of the experience-for-art’s-sake mantra is itself a clue that the cerebral Selin will quickly develop suspicious of it. For a seminar on likelihood she reads Nadja (1928), by the surrealist André Breton, a novel based mostly on his transient, real-life affair with a younger lady who was later institutionalized. The concept that, because the again cowl places it, “Nadja is not so much a person as a way she makes people behave” freaks Selin out. She’s greater than a bit of repulsed by this instrumental view of a human being. Yet doesn’t she go on to undertake an analogous perspective in her dealings with the boys she encounters in her sensual makeover? As if on cue, Svetlana (who delights in passing judgment) pronounces, “That’s what can happen when you fetishize an aesthetic life. It can make you irresponsible and destructive.” But even Svetlana concedes that “people like that can invent a new style, and I can appreciate that.”

Selin is just not terribly troubled by the prospect of utilizing the younger males in her life, and rightly so: After all, they appear simply as desperate to eliminate her as she of them. The ethics of being an autobiographical-writer-in-the-making who feeds on turmoil grow to be murkiest for Selin when she thinks about her household, who made an look in The Idiot and return in Either/Or. She considers the lingering results of her mother and father’ divorce, now introduced into aid by an sickness that accentuates her mom’s vulnerability. Selin remembers the little jokes her mom would make about which of her dangerous habits would find yourself in Selin’s novel. A fiercely loyal and empathetic daughter, Selin is unsettled by the notion that her mother and father’ lapses have served as a form of inventive useful resource for her as a author. “The disorder you experienced in your childhood was somehow to your credit, or capitalizable upon later in life,” she thinks—“even though, or precisely because, it was a discredit to your mother.”

Batuman has spoken frequently about her indebtedness to the Twentieth-century Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that the novel is outlined by its potential to accommodate completely different registers of language and dialect and to include a number of genres (letters, essays, poems, and so on.). Either/Or takes full benefit of that capaciousness; together with tune lyrics (Tom Waits can also be on the playlist), it consists of letters and poetry from a road journal offered by unhoused individuals in Cambridge, Harvard course-catalog choices, live-chat messages, and a collection that proves surprisingly suited to elevating even wider-ranging questions concerning the aesthetic lifestyle: the Let’s Go journey guides. Selin will get employed by the longtime writer of the Harvard-student-written books despite the fact that she fails the Let’s Go check (sufficient language proficiency to pay a bribe) for her desired vacation spot, Russia: Selin fudges the grammar when she tries to supply a pretend Russian cop $4, so she is assigned to Turkey as an alternative.

One of the criticisms levied at The Idiot was that Selin appeared to lack a political consciousness. However one comes down on the talk over whether or not literary fiction ought to be held to such a regular, Either/Or is enriched by Batuman’s resolution to lift the stakes of the novel’s central theme. Like Batuman’s, Selin’s household is from Turkey, and the guidebook she has been tasked with updating forces her to confront what it means to have your individual lifestyle aestheticized by others. In Ankara, she stays together with her grandmother, who tends to talk in proverbs. “I was used to tuning them out,” Selin says, however now she realizes that that is exactly what Let’s Go readers wish to hear—some native shade to intensify the foreignness. “If it had been Russia—I would have been trying to learn the proverbs,” she admits, and so “I started writing them down.” At a hostel, a German vacationer overhears Selin talking Turkish and asks her to stomach dance.

Selin finds herself caught between the needs of Turkish hospitality staff, who need her to promote their providers in Let’s Go, and the calls for of international vacationers, who’re anticipating her to ship vivid experiences (which all the time appear to contain paying as little as attainable for the wares and providers of locals). The Turkish characters are confused by Selin’s actions—why is she making life so laborious for herself, taking two buses to a small, distant village? “The book I work for is for Americans,” she explains. “If their life is too easy, they worry that they’re missing the authentic essence of Turkish existence.” Her interlocutors stay authentically puzzled. Batuman devotes her ultimate chapters to ferry captains and the individuals who work entrance desks at hostels and bus depots. In different phrases, she shines a light-weight on what you would name the expertise provide chain and the labor that goes into furnishing individuals with a life they may contemplate value writing about.

As for what sort of life is value studying about, some will little question be prompted to surprise simply that after closing Either/Or. To paraphrase the writer who thought-about Batuman’s first pitch for The Possessed, loads of individuals may ask themselves why they need to trouble with an entire novel about an antic undergrad obsessive about the dilemmas of art-making. I confess I felt a tinge of the identical vexation. Unsure how to consider that, I did what Selin does in Either/Or when she finishes Nadja—I learn the back-jacket copy: “How does one live a life as interesting as a novel—a life worthy of becoming a novel—without becoming a crazy, abandoned woman oneself?” I made a decision that Batuman is warning us (and Selin, not that she’s listening) in opposition to simply that kind of fervent have to determine with fictional characters, to see their demons and wishes mirrored in our personal lives. Perhaps it ought to be sufficient to say of studying Either/Or that I loved the expertise.

This article seems within the May 2022 print version with the headline “Sex for Art’s Sake.”

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