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.
“I’m sorry, what was the woman wanting to give him?” Ivan asks.
“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 …read more