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.

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