The Last of the Summer Reads: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot
Lucy Facer discusses the uncertainty of young adulthood as navigated by the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is a semi-autobiographical account of 18-year-old Selin, a freshman at Harvard University in the 1990s. A part coming-of-age story, part epistolary romance, the book follows Selin as she grows increasingly disillusioned by higher education and is embroiled in an email romance with fellow student Ivan. It combines the character-focused style of Normal People with a first-person voice reminiscent of The Catcher In The Rye. The setting spans from the USA to Europe, encapsulating the transitionary feelings that occur as the academic year turns into summertime.
It combines the character-focused style of Normal People with a first-person voice reminiscent of The Catcher In The Rye.
It becomes clear that Selin and Ivan have very different perspectives on the world. The narrative develops partly through the pair’s email exchanges that muse on linguistics, philosophy, and love. This tension is underpinned by cultural differences as Selin has Turkish-American heritage whilst Ivan is Hungarian. Their dynamic is also complicated by an age gap and Ivan’s evasive behaviour. Though Selin is a precocious aspiring writer, she seems emotionally unprepared to navigate this intense relationship. She longs for closeness and to be understood, yet the virtual nature of their conversations preserves her illusion of control over the situation.
When academia fails to provide the stability and meaning that she seeks, Selin joins a summer program for teaching English in rural Hungarian villages. Throughout the time she spends travelling, she grapples with her identity and ability as a writer. This juxtaposition between the cultural richness of her surroundings and her inner tumult taps into a bittersweet feeling that summer can bring. Though her opportunities to visit Paris and Budapest should be awe-inspiring, Selin is consumed by restless introspection and thoughts of Ivan. Self-reflection is central to Batuman’s novel, but her protagonist’s efforts to learn about the world and herself only uncover more uncertainty.