The Young Girl Writes Back: Elif Batuman’s Either/Or

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At the beginning of Elif Batuman’s new novel, Either/Or, the narrator reads Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary.” “I can imagine [the seducer] able to bring a girl to the point where he was sure she would sacrifice all,” Kierkegaard writes. “But when matters had come that far he left off without the slightest advance having been made on his part.” Our narrator pauses here, recognizing her crush, Ivan, in the description of the seducer and herself in the girl’s. Either/Or derives its name from Kierkegaard’s work in which The Seducer’s Diary originally appeared and begins where Batuman’s first autobiographical novel, The Idiot, left off: Ivan has gone to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford, and Batuman’s stand-in, Selin, is left behind to begin her sophomore year at Harvard. The two had exchanged emails all year and even saw each other in Hungary over the summer. Yet Selin has no proof their relationship had been anything but her imagination. What’s worse—after reading “The Seducer’s Diary,” she recognizes that Ivan could have done this intentionally. “The reason he had such good techniques, the seducer explained, was because he had learned them from the best teachers: young girls themselves.” She is haunted by the thought that however she feels now, Ivan intended for her to feel that way, and had done it to others before her. He had manipulated her as a young girl.

Almost all the books Selin reads, actually, take up the young girl as the subject. The young girl drives not only “The Seducer’s Diary” but also Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and André Breton’s Nadja. Sometimes, Selin identifies with the young girl, as with “The Seducer’s Diary.” Other times, she rejects the author’s description of her. In the preface to Portrait of a Lady, Henry James marvels at how his young narrator insisted on mattering despite being only the “mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl.” Selin wonders why, if the young girl is such a wonderful and paradoxical subject for James’ book, she’s also worthy of his disdain. For her entire life, Selin has dreamed of being a writer, and she reads in order to learn how to write her own novel. Recognizing James’ contempt for his female protagonist, she wonders: But if the young girl is a ripe subject in literature, isn’t it good that she, Selin, is one too? If she just wrote about her own life, perhaps she could produce something that rivals Portrait of a Lady. Yet none of the books she reads are actually written by women.

Beyond scouring these pages for lessons on how to become a great writer, Selin relates her reading to her personal life, as perhaps a young girl is designed to do. “I started keeping a running record in my notebook of everything in Nadja that seemed related to any of my problems,” Selin says. “I wished I could write a book like that about Nadja, where I could explain each line, and how it applied in such a specific way to things that happened in my life.” Though she reads these books for class and learns to dissect them as a student of literature, Selin recognizes that they offer much more private lessons: a key, in some ways, to understanding why and how Ivan manipulated her into loving him.

As someone who studied French literature for my undergrad—where the greats include the likes of Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and Hugo—I sympathize with Selin. I spent years reading these men, and years wondering why the young girl came up again and again without getting to write her own novel until, for the most part, the twentieth century. Then, as a senior in college, I picked up Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, a 1999 text written by an anonymous collective of French-Italian anarchists known as Tiqqun. Young-Girl juxtaposes excerpts from other texts, an effect designed to mirror the misogyny of a culture that idolizes beauty and youth while simultaneously deriding those who embody these characteristics—ahem, young women.

The young girl’s recurrence in Selin’s reading follows Tiqqun’s theoretical outline: The young girl is the most ubiquitous phenomenon, so ever-present as to have become transparent. A given as a product in art and society, the young girl may be anyone (from Anna Karenina to Nadja to Dora to Selin), but she has no intimacy with herself except as value. “The Young-Girl exists only in proportion to the desire that THEY have for her, and knows herself only by what THEY say she is.” By reading Tiqqun, I understood what was at stake when the books I had to read in order to complete my degree located their fears and neuroses on the young girl. Returning to the text now, I recognize Selin: the young girl who seeks Ivan’s assurance that she was an object of desire. But because Selin gets to write her own story—unlike James’ protagonist, whom he claims has “no talent for artistic expression”—she can challenge the novelists’ assumption of her experience, even if she can’t escape it. In Batuman’s Either/Or, the young girl writes back.

And as she writes, Selin questions the fundamentals of the way the world works: why we continue to organize academic disciplines by historical categories, or why there are no women in Anna Karenina “with whom nobody thought about having sex.” When she has her first kiss, she doesn’t know why blurting, “I’m not very experienced,” has a recognized meaning her partner immediately responds to. Throughout Either/Or, Selin asks questions with straightforward confusion, revealing her naivety as she navigates her young life. She says everything with blunt candor, even up to the point of writing an email to the guy she’d kissed asking him if he would have sex with her. (She simply decides it was past time she lost her virginity.) She later emails Ivan about this, and he responds with his own question: “How could you be so graceful in writing and so clumsy in life?” Then he tells her what to do if she “wanted to get laid.” “Man, you really screwed it up with me big time,” he writes. “Never tell a guy you love him until he tells you seven times first.” 

Despite all her hiccups, Selin begins to recognize and play by certain rules, like how to seduce boys at parties. After another boy asks her to go back to his room, she wonders, “Had it always been this easy, and I just hadn’t noticed?” Meanwhile, Selin reads avidly to piece together everything she’s supposed to know, including the artists she’s supposed to like:

If you were in favor of individualism, self-expression, and human achievement; if you believed it was admirable to stay alive and awake, to not be deadened and blinded by conventions; if you were generous, subtle, capable of complexity and nuance—capable, to put it differently, of forgiveness, and of surmounting your own grievances in the interest of “the human”—then you had to like Picasso.

Throughout the novel, Selin looks at the history of art and literature and learns to make conclusive, if brusque, statements about its greatest contributors. Either/Or is a charmingly candid depiction of a young reader who wants to understand her place in the history of ideas, because she knows that what she consumes and studies will come to define her. At the same time, she recognizes that she doesn’t exactly have a choice in her opinion about certain artists. To say she doesn’t like Picasso is to declare herself incapable of complexity and nuance.

Selin worries her writing will never be good enough to engage readers (as with her notes on Nadja), and she learns in a creative writing class that to write her own life would be navel-gazing. Yet this is Selin’s instinct: to document her experience. She finds solace in Breton’s rejection of the need to disguise life in order to create true art. “I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys,” Breton writes. With his blessing, Selin thinks she could become a novelist after all, because she could write a novel “without having had to invent a bunch of fake characters and pretend to care about them.” Of course, we’re meant to understand Either/Or as the novel in question that Selin goes on to write. While she articulates her decision to write autobiographically as no more than a rejection of the style’s supposed egotism, the book reaches the level of feminist commentary on the fate of the young girl.

Where Tiqqun declares the young girl to be invisible, Batuman renders her a subject self-consciously aware of her centrality. Selin recognizes the categories imposed upon the young girl in the history of literature and decides that her objective as a writer is to not ignore her lived experience. Toward the end of Either/Or, Selin wonders why, if James had such disdain for his young protagonist, he didn’t just write about himself. And after asking this, she decides that no one would treat her the way James or Flaubert treated the young girls in their stories. “And even if they did, I would write the goddamn book myself.” Either/Or ends with Selin in a Russian taxi because she makes a deliberate choice: to study Russian literature. For the first time, Selin is doing something for herself, simply because she wants to, and not out of a need to impress Ivan or her classmates or even the male novelists that have been speaking to her through the pages all year. By concluding here, Batuman tells us that the great novelists miscalculated—the young girl can write her own story.

Brianna Di Monda is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Taco Bell Quarterly, Worms Magazine, and Full Stop, among others. More from this author →