Elif Batuman never intended to become a non-fiction writer. She always planned to write novels, and it was only when she was told that nobody wanted to read a retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons set in a Stanford-like Comp Lit PhD program that she ended up with The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010). An essay collection containing work previously published in n+1, Harper’s, and The New Yorker, where Batuman is a staff writer, The Possessed pioneered the ‘bibliomemoir’. Its tremendous success set off an obscure chain of events that would lead to such things as the discovery that Jonathan Franzen keeps weed in his freezer, and magazine photo shoots ‘clutching… a Russian-language volume of Dostoevsky’ to her bosom.
Batuman has, however, returned to her first love: having recently completed one novel, The Idiot, she is working on two more (one a sequel, another about Turkey). The story behind Batuman’s newest book is like the dream of a writer on deadline crossed with a television cooking show: stymied by the novel she was under contract to write, she turned to an abandoned draft of a different novel she had written sixteen years prior, during a year off from her PhD. Intending simply to borrow some choice period touches, Batuman found the real beginning of the story she had been hoping to tell — ‘here’s one I prepared earlier!’ — even if the manuscript itself, with its Y2K postmodern trappings, was painful to behold. She set out to edit and rewrite what became The Idiot, the autobiographically inspired story of Selin, an 18-year-old Turkish-American girl, during her first year at Harvard in 1995. Selin goes to work on linguistics, befriends a cultivated Serbian named Svetlana, and falls in love with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician in her beginning Russian class. They write to each other by email, at that time a new technology possessing for Selin a mystery and romance that seems utterly impossible today.
Though I was already an admirer of Batuman’s work, The Idiot hit particularly close to home. I met Elif in London, in the midst of a tour for the UK release of The Idiot. Upon arrival, she had been whisked away to Wales for the Hay Festival. On her day off, she visited the Giacometti exhibition at the Tate. She washed a cluster of grapes and set it down uncertainly between us, eyeing intently the visual conundrum of the excess of fruit in the too-small bowl.