REviews for The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

The Idiot, Elif Batuman

New York Review of Books :

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.

The Guardian,/a>

Do events matter more when witnessed in real life than in books? Does language necessarily render experience second-hand? In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books. Now she’s continued this project in a long and enjoyably literary novel, The Idiot.

The London Review of Books

Elif Batuman has generously bestowed her wit and intelligence and insight on journalism, and now, even more generously, on fiction. The Possessed, her 2010 collection of essays subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is unforgettable, perhaps because it is so unpredictable. Part memoir, part literary criticism, part travelogue, the essays echo pleasantly in The Idiot, her first novel. Batuman thanks Dostoevsky in her acknowledgments, saying, “When it came to titles, and not just titles, what writer could ever touch the hem of your lofty garment?” I have not read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot since I took it off the school library shelf thinking it was a comic novel. Finally, fifty years later, I am right. Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny. It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder.

Soar, D., 2017. The paper is white. Review of The Idiot by Batuman, E. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 39 no. 24 pp. 9-11. Available from [Accessed 10 May 2018].

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