Selin arrives at Harvard to begin her university education as the internet is becoming more widely used. One of the first things she’s given is an email address:
And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.
With this Batuman introduces the key themes of the novel: language, communication and unrequited love. It is via email that Selin will later attempt to progress a friendship with a fellow student.
Initially, Selin tries to navigate her way through which courses to take, who to hang out with and how her relationship with her roommates will work. Eventually she gets into a routine, particularly with her Russian class which meets every day. There she reconnects with Ralph, who she’s met previously at a summer program, and Ivan who becomes her unrequited crush. She is also befriended by Svetlana who’s seen Selin in Linguistics 101.
Some of the reading for the Russian class is a text called Nina in Siberia. It’s been written especially for beginner students using only the grammar they’ve learned so far. In the first section, a man named Ivan has left the protagonist Nina a letter saying he’s left for Siberia.
I found myself reading and rereading Ivan’s letter as if he’d written it to me, trying to figure out where he was and whether he cared about me or not.
When Selin begins to email the real Ivan, she uses the letter as a template to start their correspondence. It’s also via Ivan that she spends the summer in Europe, mostly in Hungary, teaching English in a village. His friend runs the scheme and Ivan tells Selin that he’ll be in Budapest so they can see each other on the weekends.
The Idiot explores some interesting ideas around language and communication. Batuman considers what it means to think and speak in different languages, how communicating electronically or by phone is different to communicating in person, and what you can teach someone about a language that isn’t their first one.
Selin’s trying to work out how to be in the world and the narrative meanders along with her as she tries different friendships and experiences. The Idiot is clever – the exploration of language and the intertextual play is well done and interesting – however, there is a little too much meandering as Selin negotiates a year at university. Worth reading if you want to take an intellectual wander.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.