The protagonist of Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, is an idiot. Despite being wildly intelligent – she is drifting through her first year at Harvard University – twenty-something Selin has a limp grasp on the world around her. It’s 1995, before the swell of feminism’s fourth wave, and misogyny is an ambient part of the everyday. Social media doesn’t exist, college boys are awful, and political detachment is the norm. For Selin, time is easily wasted on an email correspondence with an older, emotionally unavailable maths student called Ivan.
Batuman’s new novel Either/Or continues Selin’s story, following her into her sophomore year. Like The Idiot, the story is mostly concerned with subjugation through romance: the feminine urge to while away the days yearning for a lover who shows them little interest; who never calls, never writes, and eludes any in-person meeting. Ivan continues to be pined after for most of the book, despite barely appearing in it. Instead, we watch Selin wander aimlessly in the realm of possibility, zoning out of her studies to draft him increasingly unhinged emails, check his online status, and even take intimate calls with his ex-girlfriend. Ivan continues his studies, oblivious and uninterested, a soulless hunk of Hungarian clay. It’s the idea of him – the imagined futures, the unmet potential – that holds the most fascination.
For Batuman, this is a gendered issue. Men pine, of course, but they are more prone to compartmentalising, repressing, and keeping their focus on other things (an essentialist theory, but one that can feel uncomfortably true). Women, through years of conditioning that love is the most important thing of all, can merrily let the longing rip apart their life. Romance is pain, if the plight of all great literary heroines is anything to go by: ask Madame Bovary, Ophelia, Jane Eyre, Nadja or Anna Karenina. Perhaps that’s why literature student Selin – a young, unsure woman trying to cultivate an “aesthetic” life – spends so much of the book confused by the messaging of her college syllabus. “Great literature is about a young woman who ruins her life over a guy who isn’t that smart,” said Batuman recently. “Where had such messages led me?”
It says a lot that, before I set off to meet Batuman at a co-working space in east London, I get into a conversation with two colleagues (both beautiful and sparklingly intelligent women) about the book’s themes. When I mention romantic longing, their eyes glaze over, like they’ve both been shot with a heavy dose of tranquilizer. “The longing,” one of them responds, staring wistfully into the distance, “really feels better than anything else.”
Batuman is horrified by this. “Oh no,” she says, when I begin to recount the story. “I know where this is going …” Selin may be an idiot, but she is all of us – before heartbreak, political consciousness, and maybe a few years of intense psychotherapy, drag us down from the clouds.
Dominique Sisley: The Idiot and Either/Or are not overtly political books, but you’ve described them both in that way. Can you explain why?
Elif Batuman: The Idiot came out at a very political time – around the end of 2016, when Trump’s “grabbing women by the pussy” tape leaked. Then #MeToo happened in 2017, and then the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination in 2018. It was a time when a lot of women were revisiting their own early sexual history using language that they weren’t using before. I was also reading second-wave feminism for the first time, and realising that I hadn’t completely understood how the personal is political. I started to understand that The Idiot was actually a book about depoliticisation. How much of [these problems were caused] because so many smart women were persuaded that politics was not for us, and that our interests were not political?
DS: You talk about your twenties as a period when romantic relationships basically ruined your life, despite graduating from Harvard and getting a PhD from Stanford. Do you not view your time studying as worthwhile?
EB: No, I do. Whatever route you take, it might not be the most direct one, but it’s the one that gets you there. The person I am now is informed by those romantic relationships and that very long study of literature that took up my whole entire twenties. But although I’m grateful for that time, I do feel like I want other people to live a little bit more efficiently than I did. I used to have this idea that advice didn’t work because you had to make your own mistakes and that’s the only way anyone learns anything, and the literary canon fosters that idea, because [novels are generally] just stories of people making mistakes and having realisations. But now I wonder if it’s some kind of hazing technique and that actually, it’s very hard for older people to genuinely want younger people to have a better experience than they did. Part of that is spite, but a big part of it is not wanting to admit that you suffered something pointlessly. I guess I’m trying to get around that by using my own experience to help other people bypass some of the time-wasting things that I did, so that everyone doesn’t have to go through the same learning process over and over again.
DS: Do you think that’s the writer’s plight? Doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, and tell the same stories?
EB: I don’t know. There’s this essay by René Girard about novelistic conclusions, and he talks about how almost every novel is the same: someone has a romantic delusion and sees the world through some prism of vanity and ambition. Then they realise that everything they thought was important is stupid, then they feel this great relief, and then they die. He said that the novel is always staging this great Christian transcendence of suffering and mistakes, and that great writers see the vanity and represent that for us. But if it worked, you wouldn’t have to keep reading novels.
When The Idiot was released and I was having this political awakening, I was rereading a lot of the Russian novels that I felt really formed me when I was younger. This included Eugene Onegin, which is about a young girl, Tatyana, who’s never met anyone outside the provinces and who reads all the time. She falls in love with the first educated, hipster, cool guy who comes along from St Petersburg – Onegin – and ruins her life. She gets really depressed, loses all this weight, her mother forces her to marry this much older, maimed war veteran, and she becomes this completely joyless society hostess. Only bad things happen. But I didn’t read books like that and [feel deterred]. I read that and thought, ‘Oh, wow, look at this beautiful, insightful work of literary genius that makes all of this pain somehow seem beautiful and palatable.’
“There’s this force that’s constantly working to wrench young women’s energies away from themselves and each other, and towards men. Part of it is through this ideology of romance, and the way it feels good to be desired, to be hot and to smooth brain your way through life” – Elif Batuman
DS: You talk a lot about longing as a gendered experience, and the way women have more of a tendency to romanticise pain. One example that really made me laugh is one of the characters, Jeremy, who’s seeing two girls named Diane: “even though he talked about the Dianes constantly, he didn’t seem incapacitated; he always had the strength to pivot to his other favourite topic, which was the works of Thomas Pynchon.”
EB: Yeah – again, I was reading all these completely toxic texts like The Game and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. They’re mostly just about how men and women are locked into these two different drives where the man just wants to feel completely free, competent, and in control, and the woman really wants to feel committed to and cared for, so it’s like a complete deadlock. Those are two wretched attitudes for basic people – but even if you’re not a wretched basic person, you’re still influenced by that.
Another thing that I read that helped me understand that [dynamic] was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. She says it’s because we tend to think of the human as being a man, while women are sort of formless and other. That means that romance becomes the most important thing for a woman to be self-defined; she can’t do it without allying herself to a member of the superior race. So for women, you have to find yourself through the love of a man, and through being seen by him. Whereas men don’t have that at all; they don’t need women to understand themselves.
DS: You’ve mentioned your having a lot of troubling romances. What snapped you out of that stupor? I know you’ve spoken about psychotherapy being helpful.
EB: I don’t know, because I remember thinking at the time that I knew I should end it, but it just seemed impossible. I just remember feeling that he was this island of humanity, and that the whole rest of the world was dead and uninteresting – like I was only really alive when I was with him. It’s just such a sinister way of thinking and it blocks you off from the rest of the world. All I can do is spout more theory, but in Eros and Civilization, Marcuse talks about how Eros [sensual and passionate love] could be distributed over your whole body. It could be in your conversations, and in different relationships with different people. But because of capitalism, it’s been concentrated to the genitalia, so everyone’s just obsessed with who they’re having genital contact with. We have the work time and leisure time, and the work time is so depleting that in the leisure time you just have to drug yourself into this brainless state to rest up for your work. I did feel like the rest of my life was dead and this was the only channel on which I was alive. I felt like if I gave it up, I would just be surrounded by zombie people all the time.
DS: When actually maybe you were the zombie person.
EB: Yeah, I was the zombie person. It does take rewiring, though.
“The whole idea that you can live an aesthetic life without having ethical concerns is deeply insane ... Being a terrible person shows up in the art, and it makes the art worse”
DS: There’s a lot of talk about bimbos making a comeback recently: the return of the tradwife, the end of feminism, the allure of the smooth brain. BimboTok is a thing. What do you think of that?
EB: I hope not. I wrote this book in a really happy lesbian relationship, after having a lot of difficult straight relationships and only dating men my whole adult life. It made me wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner. What was it that made me think that those things weren’t for me? There’s this force that’s constantly working to wrench young women’s energies away from themselves and each other, and towards men. Part of it is through this ideology of romance, and the way it feels good to be desired, to be hot and to smooth brain your way through life. It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s like coasting. And I did want to show Selin having that kind of fun in the book: it’s fun to wear the velvety dress that shows off your figure, and it’s fun to have guys paying attention to you. But at what cost? You’re not really seeing the men as people either in that situation – nobody in that relationship is seeing the other person as a person.
DS: The book is built on the idea of false binaries, one of which is the split between the aesthetic and the ethical life. What do you think of that idea now?
EB: I did believe in it when I was Selin’s age, but I think it’s nonsense. I think the whole idea that you can live an aesthetic life without having ethical concerns is deeply insane. It’s this false bargain that #MeToo started to expose, where it’s like, ‘he’s a great artist, and maybe he has to be a terrible person.’ No! Being a terrible person shows up in the art, and it makes the art worse. I just had this realisation when I was walking around in a Picasso sculpture exhibit and it was just fragmented women, broken up into pieces, their wounds coming out and their boobs pointing in different directions. They have big holes cut out of their body and it’s like, why is this great? Remind me why this is great again? Because it makes me feel something? I don’t believe that at all.
DS: The book’s press release asks: how does one live a life that is as interesting as a novel, a life worthy of becoming a novel, without becoming a crazy abandoned woman? Is that a question you’re still reckoning with now?
EB: No! Fuck no. But I did in the past. The idea that the woman has to always be in trouble, like – what if she’s not? Then we’re just at the beginning of something really exciting.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman is published by Jonathan Cape, and is out now.