What The Idiot teaches us about the failures of language

Reflections on Elif Batuman's brilliant mess of a novel

Old Slavonic grammar
(Image credit: iStock/rootstocks)

Elif Batuman's novel The Idiot superficially reads as a bright undergraduate's intellectual autobiography about her first love. But really, it's about the ways language structures and distorts the way we think, feel, and relate.

This is the story of Selin, a precocious Turkish-American student at Harvard who thinks she wants to study linguistics. While studying Russian, she strikes up an email correspondence with Ivan, a classmate majoring in math whom she spends most of the novel thinking about, even following him to Hungary under the auspices of volunteer work. If this were just the love story, it would be a perplexing and deeply unsatisfying read. That's partly the point: Selin and Ivan, both of whom turn out to be formal experimentalists, start off by partially re-enacting the dull adventures of "Nina" and "Ivan" as set out in their Russian text for beginners titled Nina in Siberia — most of which consists of Nina looking for Ivan, who disappeared and turns out to have married someone else. Their jousts deepen into a sparring match that revolves around the ways language doesn't quite work. Take this exchange, in which Selin tries to explain Thoreau's commitment to living simply:

"Some lady tries to give him a mat, but he won't take it," she says.

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"I'm sorry, what was the woman wanting to give him?" Ivan asks.

"A mat."

"A mat? Why did she want to give a mat?"

"I don't know," I said. "I guess she felt sorry for him."

"Aha, okay. Go on. She wanted to give him a mat but he didn't want it."

"Right — he said it would have taken up too much space."

"Was it a big mat?"

"I don't know," she said. "I don't think so."

We've drifted far from the point by the end of this exchange, and that, of course, is the joke. The love story matters, but this is ultimately a novel about language. Batuman's book is a nostalgic ode to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language determines the way you perceive and categorize experiences), in which everyone, but linguistics especially, loses. It's a comic novel — a truly great one, up there with A Confederacy of Dunces — about the inadequacy of any linguistic theory to explain human miscommunication.

Batuman introduces Selin as someone whose worldview is so strictly shaped by language that she agrees to "a drink" thinking the phrase means exactly one beverage. She herself does not drink. Unsurprisingly, she has trouble assimilating into "normal life" at Harvard. "The beer was cold and not especially unpleasant but I couldn't tell what the point of it was. Like the iced coffee, it was at once watery and bitter. Apparently that was desirable," she observes, miserably and anthropologically.

The same is true of dancing:

In a black room with orange lights and pounding Spanish music we stood in a big circle dancing. It reminded me of preschool, when you also had to stand in a circle and clap your hands. I began to intuit dimly why people drank when they went dancing, and it occurred to me or the first time that maybe the reason preschool had felt the way it had was that one had to go through it all sober. [The Idiot]

Selin's consternation at the things people do for fun is gentle and broad. She doesn't quite feel herself to be a person, and although she's trying hard to become one, she's continually surprised at how others go about it. "All around, people were shouting, wearing T-shirts. They seemed to have more backs than faces," she notes. If the drama of this novel is how badly she wants not just to understand but to belong, it's leavened by how much Selin resents it when she almost does. "I was upset by the motorcycle," she says of her crush's ride. "He felt to me increasingly like the parody of a love interest."

She's wrong, of course: Even Selin's most generic problem, her love story, is too weird to be legible to others.

What makes Selin the kind of person you'd spend 400 pages with is her liveliness and curiosity as an observer and scholar of those she wishes to join. She's immensely perceptive, and she tries hard to meet people's expectations of the normalcy she never quite grasps. When she wins a prize for a story, for instance, she spends the reception in amiable spasms of effort.

The fiction editor, Helen, was petite and cute, with a down-to-earth manner. I could see she wanted me to like her, and I did like her. Without knowing how to demonstrate it through any speech act, I towered over her mutely, trying to project goodwill. [The Idiot]

Reviews of Batuman's novel have tended to label Selin's curiosity and oddly incompetent approach to fun as innocence or naiveté. And while that isn't wrong — it is innocence of a kind — it stems from circumstances that Batuman renders more accurately than anyone I've read: namely, a bicultural upbringing that, by exposing you to multiple sets of social norms, immunizes you to their universality. It's a form of wordliness that makes you less certain. "I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English — not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things," she writes. Selin reasons that people who think in Hungarian or mathematics — as Ivan does — might think differently still. When she tries to hold him accountable in English, it doesn't quite work.

The effect of these linguistic cross-pollinations is a kind of benign and anxious incomprehension at human behavior that Batuman uses often and to hilarious effect. I laughed my head off reading this novel and I couldn't explain why — its comedy is slow and cumulative and overwhelming in ways that one-liners can't capture.

If Batuman nails the reluctance among bicultural people to draw firm conclusions — a confused broadmindedness that keeps them from fitting fully into any of their cultures — the things Selin doesn't understand will be achingly familiar to many readers who grew up bilingual. "I was troubled by the Beatles, by the contradiction between their jaunty, seemingly innocent warbling, and the calculating cynical worldview that seemed to underlie it," she observes. (I underlined that, hard.)

In Selin, in other words, the novel portrays someone linguistically fluent who remains unfamiliar with the stereotypes that make a culture legible — whether it's Ivan's joke about a "German sense of order" or a joke in Anna Karenina. It's a conceptual gap — which, again, stems from being raised under two competing systems of "self-evident" truths and refusing to choose between them — that scans as ignorance. When Selin does understand a cultural stereotype, therefore, she leans on it too hard, hating herself a little: "I'm afraid I'll accidentally eat it all before I get there," she says of the chocolate she brought her hosts, "following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn't resist chocolate."

At one point, Selin writes a paper about the Turkish inferential or evidential tense (which uses the suffix -miş). Used in "oral transmissions and hearsay," in jokes and gossip and fairy tales, "the inferential tense allowed the speaker to assume the wonder and ignorance that children live in — that state when every piece of knowledge is basically hearsay." Selin's whole state of being, like this novel, is shaped by the reality that particular Turkish grammar imports — just as the failed romance between Nina and Ivan in the Russian textbook is constrained by the simple grammatical tenses to which they're condemned. The power of the Turkish suffix is its honesty: "You were always stating your degree of subjectivity. You were always thinking about it, every time you opened your mouth," Batuman writes.

The downside of the inferential tense is its intrusiveness, its cognitive ubiquity:

It was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else's experience, that your own subjectivity was booby trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others. It compromised and transformed everything you said. It actually changed what verb tense you used. And you couldn't escape. There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, only making factual statements about direct observations. You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition — just by existing in relation to other people. [The Idiot]

Selin's scholarly efforts to tame the subjectivity out of her observations by making "factual statements" are hilarious failures: "Rigoletto turned out to be about a poor girl being dishonored and then murdered. It was supposed to be really sad for her father," Selin writes. She also pens the most truthful sentence ever written about traveling abroad with a group of people you don't know: "Peter went somewhere for some reason."

Batuman's novel isn't just smart, and it isn't just funny: It's the kind of portrait that made this reader, at least, start to lose all objectivity, embarrassed by how completely I understood Selin and her linguistic predicament. That doesn't mean it's flawless. Formally, The Idiot is kind of a mess. Sections and subsections don't make much in the way of sense. The major event dividing Parts I and II barely registers, echoing Selin's own failure to maintain whatever boundaries she tries to erect. I'm reminded of Selin's visit to the Pompidou Center "to see an exhibit based on George Bataille's concept of 'the formless.' It was formless, all right."

But this novel is a deep pleasure because of how vividly it renders the way its heroine thinks. Selin is one of my favorite observers of the world: a modern-day Harriet Vane who can't help but apply her scholarship to her life — in ways that tend to enrich the former more than the latter. The more languages Selin learns, the more tangled the nests of cognates and associations become. It's a story about a woman struggling with the perennial problem of subjectivity — and with the ways attempts to connect and categorize keep dissolving into mişcommunication, which ends up being an altogether richer language than the ones she set out to study.

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