Language Is All Convention: Talking with Elif Batuman

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The Idiot is Elif Batuman’s second book, but the novel could also be considered the New Yorker writer’s true debut. Though Batuman became well-known with her 2010 essay collection The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, she wrote this novel first, as a twenty-three-year-old fresh out of college and living in San Francisco. And while she’s primarily known for journalism—writing on everything from religion in Turkey to the popularity of the bison—Batuman says that her original intent was always to be part of the world of fiction.

Batuman was working on a different book when she came back to the manuscript from fifteen years before, and was instantly absorbed. The Idiot—its title, like The Possessed, also a nod to the Dostoevsky novels—is an autobiographical campus novel set in 1995. Its protagonist, Selin Karadag, is a tall, Turkish American freshman at Harvard who wants to be a writer, learns Russian, discovers email, and becomes involved with a Hungarian mathematician named Ivan.

I met Elif at a coffee shop in New York’s Financial District. We sat in a small alcove that had two chairs, a small table, and a couch. I sat on one chair, she on the other, and we talked about narrative, what it means to be a writer, and the artifice of language. On the couch right next to us, an Asian man neither of us knew was fast asleep, hood over his face, for almost the entire duration of our conversation.

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The Rumpus: I was just on Goodreads, which lets users ask questions about books. There were two for The Idiot. One was, verbatim, “I am interested in romance does it have romance.” And the other was, “Can someone else who’s finished this book tell me why there’s a rock on the cover? Am I forgetting a pivotal rock scene?” I didn’t think so, but this of course made me wonder if I had missed a pivotal rock scene. And so, I wanted to start by passing these questions along, as a sort of public service for the good people of Goodreads. Is there a pivotal rock scene?

Elif Batuman: Originally for the cover, I pictured a person with a concrete block for a head, and then when they sent the picture I saw that they cut out the head and it’s just a rock. I like it though; I like that feeling of rawness and also just this lumpishness, which is also kind of there in The Idiot. There’s this rock and it looks dumb and yet has all this potential at the same time.

I had really mixed feelings about the pink [cover]. When I first saw it, I was like, “I made certain sacrifices in my life and I didn’t do those things in order to have a novel come out with a pink cover. Can I see it in some other colors?” They sent it in blue and yellow and none of them looked as striking as the pink. When I looked back, it seemed like the rock was in some kind of dialectic with the pink, since so much of the book is about the main character being uncomfortable with many parts of feminine identity.

As for romance, I think there’s definitely romance. Selin is someone who cares about romance a lot. She loves it, she’s a reader of novels, and novels are romances.

Rumpus: Like The Possessed, The Idiot takes place on a campus, though this time it’s the beginning of freshman year and not graduate school. In a previous interview, you talked about how, when you were working on the original novel, you kept writing flashbacks and thinking that to understand this person, you had to understand her college self. Why was that? What is it about the college time that’s so formative?

Batuman: In a novel, one of the things that you’re trying to do is defamiliarize and contextualize some of the things that we take for granted. There’s a bunch of different things you can do. You can have your narrator be an animal—which is popular in 19th century fiction—but another way is to have a person who’s just acquiring the social conventions and the knowledge of how to operate in the world, which lets you explain a lot of things that otherwise would be taken for granted and would go unspoken.

The book that I was trying to write, that I didn’t, is about an older person in her thirties, so her ideals have taken various hits in the course of her professional and personal life. And something about going back to The Idiot, which I hadn’t looked at in all that time, and seeing the moment before she had taken those hits and seeing that this was the same person that she would become—I saw how this would be a person who would end up making a lot of compromises despite being idealistic and kind of uncompromising in a way that doesn’t really jibe with the world.

The world isn’t set up to be interpreted by someone so idealistic. I assumed that since I wrote it like that, I must have had those feelings at some point, but I didn’t remember them. But going back helped me to understand the protagonist of this other novel that was closer in time. This other novel [I was trying to write] is autobiographical and set in 2010, so it’s basically adult me, but reading The Idiot, the internal monologue of what I guess was the younger me, was helpful and illuminating.

Rumpus: Right, there is something about that age where you’re a lot more idealistic and uncompromising. It’s hinted at in the epigraph of The Idiot, too, which is a Proust quote that ends by saying “adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”

Batuman: I don’t know if this is true of all young people, but there was a willingness to be surprised and to think that this thing that’s happening now might be something completely different that’s never happened in the history of the world. When you get a little older, you think, what’s the statistical likelihood that this is probably one of those guys, that this is probably a situation like that one? And in a way that protects you from a lot of things and you have a safer, more peaceful life.

Proust is like, we look back at that time and we’d give anything to erase every single thing that we said or did then, but what we should feel upset about is that we’re not capable of that kind of spontaneity anymore.

Rumpus: It’s a form of spontaneity, I suppose, that Selin gets involved in this intense correspondence with the mathematician, Ivan. But it’s so dramatic and intense in this way that doesn’t seem sustainable, though clearly Selin doesn’t see it that way. There’s a scene where she’s talking to a therapist, who is giving her what sounds like good advice, but she sees it as so absurd, as bad advice.

Batuman: It’s funny because when I wrote that scene at age twenty-three or something, I had a very negative view of the psychologist, and there were a lot more snide remarks and editorializing about him. And then when I reread it as an adult, at probably the age of the therapist, I realized everything he was saying was right.

When I read that scene, I felt sorry for the younger version of me who didn’t understand the words of sanity and health and normalcy that this guy was saying. But another part of me just felt like, I wish I could feel that ready to jump out of reality; I wish I could feel that trusting again.

Rumpus: A lot of the book is poking fun at academia and all the self-involved or pretentious things academics say. There’s one scene where the professor talks about how the documentary maker had to teach people how to harpoon whales since they had actually stopped doing that in real life, and so this was the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Selin’s just so angry at this! She feels like he’s wasting her time. It’s very funny, but you’ve mentioned that you’re more sympathetic to the other side now, to the professors. How so?

Batuman: I was talking to a friend of mine who read the book and she says, “I don’t get it; isn’t it interesting to know that the people on that island didn’t harpoon whales and that the guy made this decision to teach them how to harpoon; isn’t that interesting?” And I couldn’t really say that it wasn’t interesting—it is! I guess the thing that Selin resents is she’s like, you have the gall to come up before me and tell me that’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

But in reality, it’s hard to get up in front of people and talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Having taught undergraduates now, I know that not everything that you say when standing in front of a classroom is or can be a 100 percent pure manifesto of some idea or belief. You have to say thing to tie things together, you have to try to provoke a discussion. Language is all convention, and that’s something that Selin doesn’t understand; she wants it to be direct.

I was thinking this also with the job interview scene, where they’re like, “What do we miss out on if we don’t hire you?” and she’s offended, thinks it’s such a perverse question. She’s trying to interpret at its face value, but actually, they’re just trying to throw something out there for the people to be able to discuss and talk about. That said, Selin and I have the same educational background and she makes it look absurd, but I feel like I was lucky and had a good education.

Rumpus: For all the making fun of professors, Selin is a teacher, too, in a way. She volunteers to help with ESL and math. She’s not very successful with her efforts either. Was there meant to be a parallel here?

Batuman: The facile answer is that I did have an experience like that and when I reread it, those scenes were kind of funny and sad and upsetting to me. You can just see this conversation not working and I was thinking to myself, Oh, how sad to have young people in these teaching situations that they’re too ill-equipped for. But then I thought, I’m so smart and old and well-equipped; how would I deal with it now? And I couldn’t really answer that.

But also, it shows it’s just a doomed situation. How can anyone really help someone else with fractions? It’s the heart of the idea of calling the book The Idiot. It’s the two sides. She’s sitting there as someone who’s always seen the absurdity of everything but often feels a little bit put-upon. And now she’s the absurd thing. Her students are going, Oh, this person again? Seriously? And realizing that she is actually that person for someone, it’s another imposition like, Now I have to be the absurd thing. This is the part where I have to go and be totally ridiculous.

Rumpus: What does Selin want, really? It’s obviously not to be a teacher. She talks a lot about wanting to be a writer, like there’s some “one way” to be a writer or an objective “writerly” choice in every situation. For instance, she ends up in this room with a stuffed weasel, and she says to herself that a true writer wouldn’t have it taken away so she can sleep better.

Batuman: Yes, the main thing she wants is to be a writer. She gets this idea of the aesthetic life and wants to live that, and that’s going to be the thing to write about. That’s why she takes all those language classes to understand what language really is, so she could use it, and she gets this idea of the correct way for someone who wants to be a writer to behave.

Another thing that she wants is just to succeed, for her parents to some extent, because they have made various sacrifices to get her this good education. She’s just so conscious of having all these opportunities that her cousins don’t have, that people who don’t have those opportunities would really envy her for.

My parents are both super secular, and my dad is actually an atheist like me. I grew up with no religion, not thinking it was something that people actually need. But I do have these kind of ideas about things, about how to live. If life is so generous and open-handed to give you something so batshit as a weasel sitting in your bedroom, you don’t turn it away. You have to be grateful.

Rumpus: There’s the weasel, there’s this beauty contest she ends up judging, there are so many strange things. At one point, Selin talks about how she feels like nobody else would have ended up in her position. It’s obviously true that our choices make things happen to us, but is there more than that? Something about her that just draws absurdity? She clearly wants to see her life like a story and make it interesting.

Batuman: There are definitely people who want very passionately for their life to resemble a story and that’s where meaning comes from for them. I’ve thought a lot about to what extent different people are like that. Sometimes I think, Of course everyone is like that, every preliterate fisherman in a boat made out of grass is telling the story of how he gets up and he catches the fish and he caught a really big fish.

But others times I think it must vary a lot from person to person, because otherwise how do you explain that some people, like Selin and me, are so vulnerable to these things that other people seem not to be vulnerable to? I do remember from similar experiences to what I wrote about in the book, that feeling of like, I can’t wait to see how this story turns out, and that’s what I was trying to create with the Selin. She always wanted to see herself as a person in a story and then suddenly the story starts happening.

When Selin find out that Ivan has a girlfriend, she’s upset but she still goes forward with the relationship and she has this thought that her friend Svetlana would not do that. Svetlana would say, Why are you doing anything with this guy who has a girlfriend? So that separates Selin from Svetlana, and I was thinking about that kind of mindset.

Svetlana is like, “I live an ethical life and you live an aesthetic life,” and that sounds kind of right to Selin. But if you think about the ethical life that books are talking about and Svetlana got from her father and she gets from her therapist—she’s super into therapy—it’s all kind of geared toward a happy ending with a guy or a “mutually affirming intimacy with a respectful partner” or whatever language you use, but that’s where the meaning comes from.

And I feel like some part of Selin knows that this whole thing is nuts, it’s not going to end well, everything people say is right. He’s going to California, he’s not boyfriend material, that’s not where this is going to end up. But to her it just seems kind of like, why would you construct your life in such a way to end up with a boyfriend, instead of having broadening experiences that you could write a novel about?

Rumpus: You’ve talked about how, once the correspondence with Selin and Ivan starts in earnest and she starts to really have feelings for him, she feels like she’s “fallen out of narrative.” What do you mean by “falling out of narrative”? A loss of control? Like the life you had planned isn’t there?

Batuman: There’s a part set in Turkey where it feels like nothing’s happening and nothing’s going to happen again. She’s returning to her family and feels like, This is who I really am, this confined person who can’t go anywhere and never does anything and never has any experiences.

It’s like, you have a story about your life, but somehow the story stops. It’s the reason breakups are so painful, the feeling the other person is taking the story and had gone off and left you just falling through space, and I think there’s some cognitive thing about the need to make a story.

The feeling of falling out of narrative can be painful and, I’ve realized, lonely, in more recent years. Since college, I’ve been treated on and off for depression, and I think that that feeling that I have of being depressed is extremely connected to the feeling of falling out of narrative. I’m sure those things must be related to whatever makes people depressed—there must be some kind of sensitivity that makes people need the narrative.

We need narrative so much and you need to see yourself as sympathetic: Who is this person who I am stuck with; what is even going on there; where did you do the thing that nobody else would you have done?

It’s really odd when you think about it. Novels are famously not reality and not true and yet the idea that everyone has their own kind of fate and that the particular kinds of things tend to happen to particular people is something that maybe we have because of the narrativizing instinct. It feels empirically very true; it’s some interaction of chance plus choices that you make or disposition.

Rumpus: What does this narrativizing instinct mean for Selin?

Batuman: For Selin, ending up in Hungary is a big moment of realizing the gap between the narrative and the reality. Before she goes to Hungary, “Hungarian” is just an adjective that describes this guy: Oh he’s Hungarian, so of course if I go to Hungary, I’ll learn more about him. So she goes to Hungary and meets hundreds of people, none of whom are this guy, all of whom have their own lives and experiences that have nothing to do with him or her. So that’s kind of like an awakening in how the world is.

So there’s some feeling of not being able to keep up, with all those Hungarians, that gap between narrative and reality. Selin keeps having to go on excursions. She wants to sit and think about the boy she likes, but in reality she’s constantly interrupted by someone who has some agenda or wants something or wants to give her something.

Rumpus: Let’s go back a bit to when we were talking about language. You mentioned that language is all convention, and you’re right, that maybe isn’t something Selin realizes. She really wants to understand it so she takes all these courses. What is her approach toward language? 

Batuman: There’s an exchange where Ivan is like, Language is supposed to be mysterious, and she’s like, No, it’s not.

Some people just have less artifice than other people. She really does want things at face value. There’s a way of looking at artifice as being kind of delightful and fun and of course you don’t just blurt out the first thing you think. You don’t walk up to someone and go, “Hey, you wanna fuck?,” you have a whole flirtatious conversation and that’s civilized and it’s wonderful and you control how much you reveal and it’s this constructed artistic things and that’s actually very nice.

But if you’re not used to viewing it as nice, then all artifice seem quite sinister. Why is this person pretending; why are they torturing me; why is this person hiding the truth from me and making me miserable? And it’s really just a different way of thinking about it, if you can just turn the switch, which she hasn’t done yet.

Rumpus: The book ends after the summer that Selin spends learning Hungarian. You’re working on a sequel. What’s next for Selin?

Batuman: Insofar as this book is a prequel to the book I was trying to write before, there are a couple of missing steps. Thinking of that book I was trying to write and this book, I see a map of some territory that I want to cover. But I started with what happens to her after she goes back to school that fall. And then I’m working on another book which was going to be a nonfiction book about Turkey that was going to be based on the reporting that I did from there for the New Yorker, but I think it might actually be a novel. I’m not sure.

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Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.


Angela Chen (@chengela) is a journalist in New York and an editor at The Morning News. Her work has appeared in outlets including the Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Guernica Daily. Angela Chen (@chengela) is a science reporter at The Verge. Her reporting and essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Aeon Magazine, Catapult, Smithsonian, Paris Review, Hazlitt, and more. More from this author →