The paper is white

Daniel Soar

  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman
    Cape, 425 pp, £16.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 910702 69 7

If you’re 18, without any experience of your chosen branch of higher education, your best hope of advancement – of learning to think like your elders – is to listen to your teachers, taking diligent notes. But that’s no good if what they’re saying makes no sense. Selin, the narrator of Elif Batuman’s novel, who is settling in to her first year at Harvard, understands everything she is told but still can’t help finding it all totally perplexing: ‘Everything the professors said seemed somehow beside the point.’ She applies to join a freshman literature seminar, and gets called to an interview, but can’t quite focus on the conversation, partly because she has a terrible cold, and while sneezing and nodding politely finds herself desperately scanning the room for anything resembling a box of tissues:

The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.

She doesn’t get accepted onto the seminar. Selin notices things, but although they may be notable in themselves, they aren’t always the sort of thing other people think matters. In another interview, for an art class, the instructor looks over her portfolio while she stares out of the window ‘at two squirrels running up a tree. One squirrel lost its grip and fell, crashing through the layers of foliage. This was something I had never seen before.’ It’s interesting to know that a squirrel, however practised at climbing trees, can lose its grip – but it isn’t information you can exactly use.

She takes comfort from some lines in Chekhov’s ‘The Darling’, in which Olenka ‘saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about’. Olenka’s problem is that she feels she had no solid existence independent of the men around her – that in the absence of a husband, or a son, she has no ideas, no reason to live. This isn’t Selin’s problem – or Batuman’s – at all. But she does find it weird that everyone she meets seems so sure already of what they think. Her roommate, Hannah, suggests she buy a poster for their common area. ‘I asked what kind of poster she had in mind,’ Selin says. To Hannah the choice is obvious: either something psychedelic, or – if the campus bookstore doesn’t have anything along those lines – a photograph of Einstein. Without totally understanding why Einstein in particular, Selin gets the poster. ‘From that day on, everyone who happened by our room … went out of their way to disabuse me of my great admiration for Albert Einstein. Einstein had invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children.’ A Bulgarian freshman complains: ‘This is the man who beats his wife, forces her to solve his mathematical problems, to do the dirty work, and he denies her credit. And you put his picture on your wall.’

‘Listen, leave me out of this,’ I said. ‘It’s not really my poster. It’s a complicated situation.’

He wasn’t listening. ‘Einstein in this country is synonymous with genius, while many greater geniuses aren’t famous at all. Why is this? I am asking you.’

I sighed. ‘Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality.’ I said. ‘Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.’

That shut him up. After he left, I thought about taking down the poster. I wanted to be a courageous person, uncowed by other people’s dumb opinions. But what was the dumb opinion: thinking Einstein was so great, or thinking he was the worst? In the end, I left the poster up.

For the people around Selin, the point of an opinion isn’t that it’s derived from something you’ve noticed – like the fact that a squirrel can lose its grip on a tree – but that it enables you to be part of one gang or another. Selin can’t grasp this at all.

She discovers, however, that she is perfectly capable of speaking up. One professor, introducing them to Buñuel’s films, shows them a shot of ‘a cloud bisecting the moon, followed, a moment later, by a razor blade bisecting a woman’s eyeball’: Un Chien Andalou’s most famous moment, though Batuman doesn’t name the film, or many of the other books and artworks and movies she makes use of (including ‘a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust’), because these are things Selin is encountering for the first time, and they are seen for what they are, on their own terms, not lumbered with all the baggage of their reputation. (‘I didn’t know anything about Fellini; my mental image was of a human-sized cat.’) The professor tells the class that it is useless to try to interpret Surrealism, since no one interpretation is more valid than any other, and none of them can be proved. The very point of the juxtaposition, he says, is that the images are unrelated. I’d say that the point of the juxtaposition is that a bisected moon and a bisected eyeball have structural equivalence, like a box of tissues and a book, but nobody in the class seems interested in contradicting the professor, apart from Selin: ‘The other students were either nodding or taking notes. Nobody else seemed to find it appalling or shameful that a literature professor should stand up in front of a classroom and say that interpretation was infinitely useless.’ He goes on to talk about film as a revolutionary and violent medium that ‘fragments and dismembers the human body. We see the actor’s head but we don’t see his body. It’s as if he has been decapitated … In Buñuel’s time, viewers would stand up and look under the screen, trying to find the rest of the body. Never before had people seen a human body fragmented in this way.’ Selin, outraged, says: ‘What about portraits?’ Portraits, too, may show just part of a body, and nobody thinks the person has been decapitated. Or, she continues, coins: ‘Didn’t coins just show a ruler’s head, without his body?’ But the professor is only interested in scoring points, so she stops taking the class and starts going to a Spanish film seminar instead, taught by an adjunct instructor: ‘The adjunct instructor also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.’

The aspects of this novel that are most novel-like – the comedy of Selin and her friends’ behaviour, her tragic pursuit of a Hungarian math major called Ivan – aren’t necessarily the things in it that are best or most interesting. The first quarter – it’s called ‘Fall’, and describes Selin’s first semester at Harvard – is really a collection of disconnected fragments: odd encounters, things observed, things thought. Some of the fragments are tiny: the shortest such disconnected paragraph is the apothegmatically Walter Benjaminish ‘Only one typographer in all of Paris could decipher Balzac’s revised galley proofs.’ There are funny episodes and excursions – a showdown over her roommate’s snoring, a trip to Filene’s Basement to buy a ‘Gogolian’ overcoat, an argument about whether Euclid would or would not have been annoyed to find a place called Euclid Circle in 20th-century Boston that was neither a circle nor had anything to do with Euclid – but there are also discussions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the inferential tense in Turkish and the importance of the donkey in Spanish literature. These are the rather brilliant notes of someone who thinks for herself, unconstrained by other people’s dumb opinions. At some level, you wonder why they need to be in a novel at all – why they need to be cast as the speculations of a fictional character when they’re totally interesting in themselves – or indeed why Elif Batuman is spending her time writing novels when she’s so good at writing critically about difficult and theoretical things.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis isn’t the half of it. In the early years of the magazine n+1, in 2005 and 2006, Batuman, then at work on a doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford, wrote a series of lucid and very entertaining essays: about a madcap academic conference on Babel; about the shortcomings of contemporary American fiction as determined through a formalist study of the Best American Short Stories anthologies for 2004 and 2005; about the writings of the literary historian and theoretician Franco Moretti and the quantitative research activities of his hive of graduate student assistants. The essay on Moretti – a review of his Graphs, Maps, Trees, an expanded version of three essays for New Left Review, which followed his ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ – is a masterpiece of uninhibited criticism, taking its subject seriously while identifying considerable holes in the arguments: Moretti is wrong about the ways clues are used in detective fiction, particularly in Conan Doyle, who had an interest in preserving mystery at a time when science was regnant; he is wrong – off the planet – to apply the Darwinian idea of ‘allopatric speciation’ to the uses of free indirect discourse in world literature if it means that Joyce and Dostoevsky independently evolved entirely different ways of applying it. Batuman thinks like a poststructuralist – identifying, for instance, the rhetorical habits that determined the writings of a Formalist like Propp – and at the same time has a great way with jokes. She is perfectly at home with the ideas, and perfectly happy to mix them in with some excellent anecdotes to illustrate the aura around the ‘mythopoeic’ object of her essay. She recalls overhearing some other students at Stanford wondering whether Moretti would be available during his office hours that week:

‘I happen to know,’ said the second student, a bit importantly, ‘that he’s going to be on campus at midnight on Wednesday, to be teleported to Sweden.’

Teleported to Sweden, she said, and nobody raised an eyebrow. Indeed the image glides easily before the mind’s eye: in the moonlit Stanford Quad, before the fake Spanish church, under the gigantic reproduction of Roselli’s Last Supper, Franco Moretti shimmers briefly in the ether and rematerialises, that very instant, in Uppsala.

I don’t know of anyone else who could so teasingly and confidently and amusingly dissect a man and his work, when that work involves developing typologies to account for all thirty thousand novels published in 19th-century Britain through research-led quantitative analysis. The mode may not be serious but the criticism is, and it is magnificent in its irreverence.

Between 2008 and 2010 she also wrote some great things for the LRB: about Elisabeth Roudinesco on Sartre, Deleuze, Foucault et al; about the development of superhero comics; and about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a ‘study of Planet MFA conducted from Planet PhD’. In that piece – it was called ‘Get a Real Degree’ – she came down firmly on the side of Planet PhD, persuasively demonstrating the stultifying effects of the creative writing teaching industry and its wilful ignorance of both literary theory and literary history. She also had something important to say about those banal and dangerous MFA injunctions, ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’. But – very sadly, and not only for n+1 and the LRB – she has pretty much given up on this kind of theoretically minded, eviscerating essay-writing. As a staff writer for the New Yorker, living for a time in Turkey, she has in recent years reported on football fandom in Istanbul, archaeology in south-eastern Anatolia, transcranial direct-current stimulation in Albuquerque and an unusual kidney disease found only in the Balkans. These pieces are witty, personal, comprehensively reported (‘But when I tried to get in touch with him I was told that he was unavailable, having recently been shot’), but they are also dutiful and information-heavy, with the occasional Wikipedia-like bit of background that anyone could have filled in (‘In 1908, the sultan’s absolute rule was curbed by the Young Turks, who went on to encourage soccer as a means of Westernising and nationalising Turkish youth’). She has traded thoughts for facts. She doesn’t always have the room to reflect on how selective and partial those facts can be – or on whether, for example, working-class Beşiktaş fans may have a politics beyond the facts of their violence.

The Idiot – the first of her novels, but more are said to be imminent – is, in part, a historical document. Batuman has explained in interviews that she wrote the first draft shortly after college. When she picked it up years later she saw that, if given a nip and a tuck, it could resemble a proper piece of fiction. But it’s still the story – diary-like, episodic, modestly Bildung-y – of the 18 to 19-year-old girl she then was: Selin Karadağ, like Elif Batuman, is a tall Turkish-American from New Jersey, who in 1995 was just starting out at Harvard. I know the kind of history she is describing: like Batuman and Selin, I too went to university in 1995, where I too studied Russian and English lit, and where I too encountered email for the first time – glowing green signals via Pine, accessible from the void at computer terminals in basement rooms. But I was in Oxford, not the US, and there wasn’t much room for theory, and even though what many of my teachers told me seemed totally beside the point, as it does for Selin, and even though, like her, I didn’t really know what I thought about anything, I wasn’t about to call aspects of the whole enterprise into question. She’s a better marveller than I ever was: on that first encounter with email, in 1995, she is wowed by the way that some of the messages were ‘telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains … It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your lives with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.’

But – more important – she is also radically unsettled by the ways in which communication can fail. ‘No matter how dumb and obvious the questions were,’ one professor

never seemed to understand them. ‘I’m not quite sure I see what you’re asking,’ he would say. ‘If, however, what you mean to say is this other thing …’ Then he would talk about the other thing, which usually wasn’t interesting either. Often one or more students would insist on trying to convey the original question, waving their arms and making other gestures, until the professor’s face became a mask of annoyance and he suggested that, out of consideration for the rest of the class, the discussion could be continued during his office hours. This breakdown of communication was very depressing to me.

I like this as observation. The person who had already made up her mind would accuse the professor of time-serving, saving his energy by not listening and just repeating what he’d already decided to say. But Selin sits there like Desmond Morris, noting the full choreography of arm-waving and face-making the human animal engages in in the vain hope of being understood.

Her depression about the whole charade of communication grows when, needing money and not wanting to ask her parents for more, she takes a job teaching high-school maths to underprivileged adults in need of basic qualifications. The miserable scene of her lessons is in a housing project. ‘On the table were a sign-in sheet, a dead spider plant, and a dead spider’: all she can do is record the lexically amusing but effectively meaningless facts of her encounters, because, understandably, none of the adults has any interest in knowing what things like fractions are for: what they need is to pass their tests. Later, she gets to teach English as a second language to a Dominican plumber with diabetes-related eyesight problems. When she shows him a blank sheet of paper and asks him to repeat the sentence, ‘The paper is white,’ he makes several gameful attempts but the closest he can come, after twenty minutes trying, is winningly to say: ‘Papel iss blonk.’ It’s a near repetition of her experience of being told in a philosophy class, apparently in a way that is helpful for communicating with Martians, that ‘“Snow is white” is true iff snow is white’ – iff being the logician’s notation for something’s being true if and only if something else knowably is. But Selin doesn’t want to talk to Martians, she just wants to see a significant relationship between the language she uses and the world it describes.

She has an epiphany, though. Her Russian class is given a serial story called ‘Nina in Siberia’, a novel within the novel which Batuman reproduces, episodically, in full: it’s the story of a woman who is desperately seeking her possible boyfriend Ivan, who has apparently left his family home to pursue his scientific researches on the collective farm ‘Siberian Spark’. Nina pursues him to Novosibirsk and complications ensue. But it isn’t the love story that interests Selin, or Batuman, so much as the manner of its telling. The story is a re-creation of one that Batuman herself was given, as a beginning Russian student: what’s ingenious about it is that each episode only employs the grammar that learners of Russian have learned up until the point. So, in the first part, since they don’t yet know the verbs of motion, nobody directly says ‘Ivan went to Siberia.’ Instead the news is conveyed in a letter Ivan has left: ‘When you receive this letter, I will be in Siberia.’ In The Possessed, a book of essays she published in 2010 (why not name all your books after novels by Dostoevsky?), Batuman remembers the same original story, as she encountered it at Harvard: ‘In subsequent episodes, not only were details of the plot filled in, but so were missing inflections and verb tenses. In this way, the form was a perfect reflection of the content, such that beginning Russian appeared to me as a perfect language, one in which the words themselves have some meaningful connection to the things they represent.’ An ideal narrative is one that doesn’t need to describe a world: it’s a self-contained system. But the version of the story that is told in The Idiot ends in disaster! All the characters are happily married off, and gaze into one another’s eyes as a solar eclipse becomes visible in the Siberian east. Selin is appalled. That sort of thing is all right for Bleak House, she thinks, or even Crime and Punishment, but not for her perfect story: ‘For the mystery to be tied up so glibly, for everyone to be paired off and extinguished that way, felt like a terrible betrayal.’

The trouble is that on these terms The Idiot is a betrayal too. I’ve described only a small part of it, or rather I’ve described the book I want it to be: fragmented and fractured and interested in the ways words relate to things, or fail to. In the second half, Selin sets off around the world in pursuit of her own Ivan, the Hungarian math major, after it gradually becomes clear that all her uncertainties about communication can also be applied to her uncertainty about what exactly is being communicated, personally, to her by him. In the end, it’s all about the boy. Selin’s adventures in Hungary, which of course are another version of Batuman’s own, are as hilarious as can be – she guards a canoe on the bank of the Danube while Ivan is chased through the dark by a wild dog, she gets roped in by the organisers of a children’s camp to judge a boys’ leg competition – but they are really nothing more than the anecdotes from a summer holiday, even if they are being told by someone who is ridiculously good at writing things up. But I don’t get to choose. Elif Batuman is a real writer, and should be allowed to write whatever the hell she likes, even if she’s unlikely ever again to make Franco Moretti shimmer briefly in the ether and rematerialise, that very instant, in Uppsala.