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The Idiot by Elif Batuman
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The Idiot (2017)

by Elif Batuman

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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
I was starting to feel like an Idiot myself for continuing to read this thing for as long as I did. I was starting to think it would literally never end - I was reading it on an e-reader, and I was afraid that at some point we had finished with the character's past, and we were now picking up with the author's life in real time. That's how it felt after a while - someone just narrating each and every thing that happened to her and the related (or not) thought that went through her head. Spoiler ahead. It might have been worth it the two main characters had even made it first base eventually. What was that all ABOUT? ( )
  Tytania | Jul 28, 2018 |
This book really hit all the right spots for me. I felt like it could have gone on forever, just like a person's life. I loved all of the musings about language, and how perfectly the author captured that feeling of a young mind that is full of doubt but still trying to convince itself that it has original, meaningful things to say. I hope to reread this one again someday. ( )
  thishannah | Jul 17, 2018 |
I don't think there's any way for me to write a lengthy review of this book without digressing rapidly into navel-gazing introspection, so I'll keep it short.

The Idiot was wholly refreshing, not just for its rebellion against plot twists and romantic excitement, but for its honest-to-goodness, real-life, whole human female protagonist. Selin is not defined by the sum of her parts, her physical appearance, her life experiences, or anything else. Instead, she is defining the world and seeking understanding through passive and totally unconscious resistance. (I read one review in which the reader described the main character as devoid of personality and I felt personally attacked.) I LOVED this book unequivocally. I mean, I already want to read it again and I'm not the rereading type. ( )
  saresmoore | Jun 19, 2018 |
THE IDIOT is, I think, Elif Batuman's first novel, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. And I can see why. It is a book wise beyond its author's years, a coming-of-age story that kept me chuckling, if not laughing out loud, on so many occasions that I lost count. But sometimes it's a rueful sort of laugh, over situations that tug at your heartstrings and make you want to reassure Selin, the 18-19 year-old protagonist, maybe even give her a hug and tell her not to worry, that things will get better.

Like the author, Selin Karadag is the daughter of Turkish emigrants, and we follow her through her first year at Harvard, and then an eventful summer spent in France, Hungary and Turkey. Selin is infinitely inquisitive, intelligent, timid, and perhaps a bit strait-laced - a "good girl" in every sense of that phrase, and a total innocent. A linguistics major, Selin thinks she wants to be a writer. It is the mid-90s, before cell phones, texting and personal hand-held "devices." But the age of email has begun, and every Harvard freshman is given an account, which they can access on their own desktop computers or strategically placed PCs around the campus. We meet her quirky roommates and her best friend, Svetlana, a Serb. But, most importantly, there is Ivan, a tall Hungarian mathematics student, a senior, and Selin falls hard for him. But her feelings and emotions are all over the place during this year-long narrative. After reading Neruda's "Ode to the Atom," Selin is enchanted by "the seduction of the atom." As Ivan explains it -

"Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore."

Selin's own passage from innocence is a long, slow one. A minor character even notes that Selin has "a bright, striking look, like a child's." In fact her innocence remains stubbornly intact throughout this lengthy novel. But I'll leave that journey for other readers to enjoy. As I so thoroughly enjoyed it, charmed by the innocence and the humor. Here's Selin's take on observing students cramming and struggling through exams that made me laugh -

"The dining halls were open late for exam period. At a table near the door, two students were slumped over their books, either asleep or murdered. In a corner, a girl was staring at a stack of flash cards with incredible ferocity, as if she were going to eat them."

Made me laugh again, just typing it. In another passage, Selin is describing her guest room in a home in the Hungarian village where she is teaching English to children. The room has a bed, a desk, a vase of goldenrods, and "a little snarling stuffed weasel." Her hostess offered to move the weasel, afraid that Selina might be frightened by it. But Selin demurs, thinking, "It seemed clear to me that if you really wanted to be a writer, you didn't send away the weasel."
Her hostess, doubtful, says -

"'Are you sure you won't be frightened when you wake up?,' Margit asked. 'Oh, no,' I said. I was frightened when I woke up."

Yes, funny. And there's our heroine watching a gay pride parade in Paris and wondering where the tall drag queens get such stunning shoes (Selin wears a hard-to-find women's size 11). Also funny, and maybe a bit wistful. But at the heart of the story is the oh-so-slowly evolving love story of Selin and Ivan, who finally tells her, "I always knew this thing between us was really delicate." And it is that - so very delicate. Seen from Selin's own perspective, bewildered by her new-found feelings, she self-evaluates -

"... I really didn't know how to do anything real. I didn't know how to move to a new city, or have sex, or have a real job, or make someone fall in love with me, or do any kind of study that wasn't just a self-improvement project."

But the truth is, Selin knows how to do more than she thinks. And one thing she can and will do is to make many readers fall in love with her. And, by the way, since Batuman's only other book is THE POSSESSED: ADVENTURES WITH RUSSIAN BOOKS AND THE PEOPLE WHO READ THEM, I'm sure there must be some parallels here to the Dostoevsky classic, but I'm not even going to try to tackle that. It was enough for me to read THE IDIOT as a delightful, often hilarious, sometimes heart wrenching look at young love in the 1990s. I loved it. My highest recommendation. Oh, and P.S. I hope so much that Ms. Batuman will revisit Selin and Ivan in a sequel one day. Please?

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Jun 8, 2018 |
How you feel about this book depends on your tolerance for privileged college freshmen wandering around Europe and thinking about life. Well-written with moments of insight, but 400 pages is a little too much time inside Selin's self-absorbed head for me. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone’s power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise.

I don’t think Selin sees a way out of this predicament.
added by elenchus | editThe Millions, Kris Bartkus (Apr 20, 2017)
 
In one respect, The Idiot, a debut novel by Elif Batuman, staff writer at the New Yorker, is an expansion of the Hungary-based segment of her nonfiction The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Ironically, however, it strikes you as throwaway material that didn’t merit inclusion in that well-received work. It’s mostly bland and boring. At over 400 pages, it also feels interminable...Ultimately, you cannot but wonder why Batuman wrote such a meandering and listless novel. Because it reflects her real-life experiences? If so, the author would do well to emulate a minor character in The Idiot, who, unlike Selin and a friend of hers, “doesn’t compulsively rehash everything that happens to her in the form of a story.
 
Elif Batuman’s first novel, “The Idiot,” is in part about the unlikely and consuming crush that Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, develops on an older mathematics student from Hungary during her freshman year at Harvard.

It is unclear, for hundreds of pages, whether this crush is requited. Meanwhile the reader, palm crushed into forehead, thinks, “Poor Selin, what are you doing to yourself?”..Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel. “The Idiot” builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast... After 100 pages, I was done with Ivan and wanted Selin to be done, too....There are two things I admire about this novel. One is the touching sense, here as in everything Batuman writes, that books are life. Selin is, convincingly and only slightly pretentiously, the sort of person who buys an overcoat because it reminds her of Gogol’s...this wry but distant novel, never becomes an enveloping one. Fiction, like love, is strange.
 
Now she’s continued this project in a long and enjoyably literary novel, The Idiot...A summary of this kind makes the novel sound like a treatise, which is exactly what it is not. The voice throughout is colloquial and humorous. And as a reading experience, it is enjoyable: a generously capacious book that creates an alternative world for the reader to inhabit in a manner comparable to the Russian novels that Batuman loves. Part of the pleasure is that many of the characters are unusually likable. Selin’s friends are consistently warm, curious and interesting, despite waking her up with their snoring or dismissing her love for Ivan. Even her interfering mother is generally sensible in her advice.
Elif Batuman interview: ‘I thought racism and sexism were over. I was in for a rude awakening’
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The likability tends to be confined to the female characters, however...A young woman discovers the difference between life and literature in a warm, funny portrayal of university life in the 90s
 
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But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through---awkward indeed but by no means infertile---is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality.  In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.  There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul.  Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them.  In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grave
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I didn't know what email was until I got to college.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself. The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings. At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan's friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin's summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer. With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself.The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail"--… (more)

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