When literary blogs and the book section of newspapers published their list of novels to look forward to in 2017, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot was listed frequently. Her previous book, The Possessed, a collection of Batuman’s pieces on the topic of Russian literature garnered a great deal of praise and while that was six years ago clearly Batuman left an indelible impression on literary critics. Hearing Batuman discuss The Idiot on the New York Times Book Review podcast – and read a small excerpt – had me all hyped up for the novel. And for a moment that hype was justified because The Idiot is a book with a super-strong first half, full of wit and sparkle. Sadly it also has a bloated, ponderous, yawn-inducing second half that makes you wonder where all the joy went.
The Idiot is set in 1995, which as Batuman notes in her afterword – and on the podcast – makes it a historical novel, especially when you consider the state of email and the internet in the mid 90s. Our protagonist, Selin, who has just set-up her first email account with AOL has arrived at Harvard for her freshman year. She signs up for a range of classes ranging from the conventional – learning Russian – to the niche – a class called Constructed World embodying a post modern mix of art and pop culture and meets a licorice all sorts of students, such as the intense Svetlana and the aloof, enigmatic and sexy (probably) Ivan. Selin’s adventure at Harvard makes up the first half of the book. Batuman, with a great deal of humour and charm, captures the chaos of University, the off-beat teachers, the strong friendships, the gradual formation of a personality – replete with opinions and attitude – independent of your parents. And if the novel had stopped at the end of Selin’s school year, I’d be singing its praises.
But following the end of that school year Selin heads off to the Hungarian countryside via Paris. She makes the journey, ostensibly, to spend more time with Ivan who is living with his family in Budapest. It’s at this point where the The Idiot takes a nosedive into the mundane and dull with the focus centering squarely on Selin’s relationship with Ivan. Throughout the novel there’s this feeling of unrequited (almost) love on Selin’s part as she tussles with Ivan’s frankly prickish attitude toward her – his fervent, lengthy emails (almost but not quite love letters) while he continues to date other women. It’s much the same in Hungary, except there’s more face to face and less emailing. Neither Ivan or Selin adequately communicate their intentions, which is fine, I appreciate that not all relationships work to a specific schedule, but when the novel is over 400 pages long and it’s hard to understand what Selin sees in Ivan in the first place – given he’s a moody pretentious bastard – by the time they make it to Hungary I was over it.
But it’s more than just Selin and Ivan. What was potentially interesting about this novel was providing a 21st perspective on the late 20th Century – a time that truly was more innocent (at least in retrospect). The joke is that when she started the novel in the early oughts it was a contemporary piece of fiction. Batuman, though, doesn’t take advantage of that slippage in time. I’m not sure if she reworked the first half – but that sense of history, of early conversations via email and a world that still feels large and disconnected, doesn’t come across in the novel. In fact the strength of the book, the fun Batuman pokes at the courses offered at Harvard and their eccentric professors, is universal. What’s also missing is a sense of identity. At times Selin’s background is highlighted – the daughter of Turkish immigrants – and there are parallels made between Hungarian and Turkish, but Selin’s cultural baggage, which drops in and out of the novel, is for the most part muted by her relationship with Ivan.
It’s all so disappointing because a book that promised so much before it was published, that seemed to be delivering at least for the first half, becomes flat and tired and a chore to finish by the end. I can speculate on whether Batuman should have published just the first half the book, or whether a novel that percolates in author’s head for over 15 years might become a case of diminishing returns. In the end though it all adds up the same – The Idiot didn’t work for me at all.