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Interview with Elif Batuman

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.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve mentioned that The Idiot came out of trying to write a book set in 2010 about a character closer to your own current age, but finding that the true beginnings of certain dilemmas and situations she faced stretched back to her time in college. What kinds of dilemmas and questions were these?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Well, the book that I was working on was called The Two Lives, and it was about a journalist. The phrase ‘the two lives’ comes from a story by Chekhov, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. It’s an adultery story and Chekhov’s character realises at some point that ‘he was living two lives: one that was open and seen by anyone who cared to know about it and that was his work and his life at the club and the way he talked about women… And the other was running its course in secret’. Somehow, through reasons he didn’t know, maybe by coincidence, everything that was important to him was in that second life, the secret one. The idea of the two lives came into play in my book with the main character’s personal life, but also with genre and her work life. She was working as a journalist, as I was, and there was a feeling that I was having at the time, writing reported non-fiction, that half of life was getting left out.

 

The character in the book was experiencing these same frustrations and she was trying to write a book that was going to tell the story of the two lives at once. It was a very hard book to write, because just genre-wise, it wasn’t totally clear whether it was non-fiction or not. It’s not totally surprising that it was hard to write, especially since I was living through those problems at that time and they were really close to me. Trying to decipher the situation that character was in, I kept going earlier to try to find a beginning point that would make things make sense. I found myself thinking about things that I had experienced in college, and that’s what made me go back and look at that draft. Then the thing that really made me seriously consider going back to that draft rather than just pillaging to make The Two Lives make more sense was that around page 100 in the book that’s now The Idiot there’s a line where Selin says, ‘I began to feel that I was living two lives, one that consisted of these emails with this guy and the other that was my schoolwork.’ I had read that story by Chekhov at that time, so maybe I was already thinking about that. But that my younger self already knew this concept of the two lives that I thought I had only discovered well into my thirties made me want to go and decipher what that was about.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve talked a lot about you and Selin as both being types of people who want their lives to be as meaningful as their favourite books, and the plotlessness of the second half of The Idiot as exploring the disorientation of ‘falling outside of narrative’. What does that mean to you? What does Selin think her narrative is?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  ‘Falling out of narrative’ to me is based on experiences that I had when I was that age. First of all, leaving high school and leaving home and going to university, it really felt like a new kind of story was starting, and I hadn’t completely been expecting that. I already felt quite world-weary by the end of high school. And then to end up somewhere completely new and feel like, Oh, this is reality and this is what everyone’s been talking about all this time? But I would find that at times the story that I was telling about myself, which was sometimes a love story, sometimes a story about someone who was becoming a writer, sometimes a story about whatever kind of person I thought I was… There would be times when I would just feel that I wasn’t in it anymore, and it was a terrible feeling, it was really frightening. And I would just think, I’m going to go back to the way that I was in high school. There’s a recurring dream that I have that I’m back in high school and it’s a terrible feeling. High school is the opposite of narrative, in my brain.

 

I wanted to write about that feeling of external lives not holding up and making a story. In a way I was thinking of specific stories, but in a way I just meant ‘storyness’. One of the parts of the spiel that I’ve been going around saying is that the novel is a synthesis between pre-existing narratives and the open-ended, unprocessable data dump of experience and that it’s a constant negotiation between those things. I think Selin is looking for a story to tell about herself — it’s not as clear as Don Quixote wants to be a knight in a story, or Madame Bovary wants to be the heroine of a romance. It’s not clear that there’s one kind of story that she wants to be in. I guess for her it’s the story of becoming a writer.

 

But also the language text that she studies in Russian class, that becomes really important to her. There are parallels between that story and her relationship with Ivan, the classmate that she has a crush on, and she’s looking to that story to find meaning and find a way that it works out and she’s reading it in a very artificial way because she doesn’t totally know the language and she’s reading it in these instalments and waiting to see what happens next. And she then starts to feel that her life is like that too, that she’s waiting to find out what’s going to happen next and she doesn’t know and it’s like a book that she’s reading. And then she’s quite disappointed by the actual ending of that story when she gets to it.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Is there incongruity in feeling that novelists should feel comfortable writing about mundane events and the desire to see one’s life as a meaningful story? It seems that, for example, you’ve yearned for a life where every activity is as meaningful as it is in Anna Karenina, but that you also have affection for the fact that sometimes life is just going to eat fro-yo in a basement and discovering that all the flavours taste the same.

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Oh, I think those are two sides of the same thing. Because wanting everything to be meaningful… One way of looking at that is the Don Quixote way of ’I don’t want to go out in the morning and take the train and go to an office, I want to kill giants and have adventures.’ That would be one way of finding meaning. But the way that I was thinking of was more, we’re all just sitting surrounded by all of this stuff which we do experience as mundane. To me, the desire for meaning… it’s directly proportional to the attention that you give to mundane things, because those mundane things are the very things that you want to invest with meaning. There’s that line in The Possessed, ‘Oh, nobody plays frisbee or barbeques in Anna Karenina, they’re going to balls and horse races.’ But there is a lot of mundane activity in Anna Karenina. That line was about the tyranny of leisure. And maybe they don’t have the same idea of leisure that people in 1980s American suburbs did, but they do do a lot of mundane stuff. Dolly has to negotiate between the governess and the nurse, and Levin is doing this paperwork for his sister and even the paperwork for the divorce… Those things are infused with meaning through the story, through the way they’re written about.

 

Q

The White Review

— Early in The Idiot, Selin watches a Robert Flaherty documentary called Man of Aran for her non-fiction film seminar. She’s flabbergasted by the idea that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is whether it’s an ‘authentic’ whale harpooning or a reconstructed whale harpooning, and that she’s supposed to care about this. Can you elaborate on this and why that particular angle is so off-putting to her?

 

A

Elif Batuman

— Hm, that’s an interesting question. Well, this kind of reminds me of when I was TA-ing a class on the nineteenth-century Russian novel at Stanford. I remember getting the evaluations at the end and one of them said, ‘Instead of talking about important issues, both the professor and Elif spent all their time talking about trivia.’

 

Q

The White Review

—  That’s what Selin says about her professors.

 

A

Elif Batuman

— Selin says, ‘I want to understand why Anna had to die and instead they talk about like, the plight of the landowner.’ It’s true, when you go to university, when you’re at a certain age, you want the big answers to come right away. And then it can be very disappointing and disillusioning that the things that you talk about in classes are so mundane and small and detail-oriented and kind of pedantic and historical. I guess what Selin was hoping for in a class about the difference between fiction and non-fiction was, Why does fiction have to be invented? Why are novels fictional? What’s the difference between stories and reality? And why do stories have to be made up? What are they made up out of? It seems like cheating to her for the conversation instead to be, do we classify historical reenactment as fiction or non-fiction? That’s just a completely different and smaller and more technical question than the one that she wants to answer, so that’s disappointing to her.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The Idiot is paced very differently than The Possessed and your non-fiction work, partly because you weren’t obliged by a word count. Can you talk about the pacing? Does the amount of description that’s not evidently pointed come principally from the switch to the novel form, or does it relate also to Selin’s stage in life? Sometimes it seems that she absorbs everything, because she’s not yet sure what to consider ‘significant’. For example, Svetlana tells her a story about a distant acquaintance who died tragically, and Selin writes very dutifully in her notebook: ‘He died by falling off a barstool. It might have been suicide.’

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah, I think my editor actually cut that out and I put it back in. Because something about falling off a barstool and it might have been suicide was very funny to me.

 

Q

The White Review

—  It is funny. But I see your editor’s reasoning and your reasoning. Because it’s like: why is that here, but then also it seems apt, because something she’s so preoccupied with is, ‘Svetlana seems to see the world as invested with meaning and I just see everything and I take it all in and I don’t know what any of it means.’ And so it seems part of her methodology.

 

A

Elif Batuman

— Yeah. And also if Svetlana really knows what’s going on, then maybe everything Svetlana says is important. That’s kind of what the epigraph from Proust says, that we don’t know what’s important. We take every chance utterance that people make as essential statements about who and what they are, so we live surrounded by gods and by monsters. In that way, Svetlana is kind of a god and a monster, because she supposedly speaks from this position of knowing all these things, whereas of course she’s just another person.

 

I think a lot of the pacing does come from what age she is. A lot of the way the pacing happened was in the editing. In the original draft it was quite different, there were a lot of flashbacks. But there were also very long, meandering parts. I was thinking about what to take out and what to leave in, and a big guiding principle to me was that if something was funny, if something really made me laugh when I reread it, then I almost always left it in. Because I feel like for me humour as much as plot keeps me going and keeps me from getting bored. And since there isn’t that much plot, I wanted it to be as funny as I could make it.

 

But a lot of it is what you said, that she doesn’t know what’s going to be important. It’s that gap again between the data dump and the story, where you don’t know exactly what the story is. You’re looking for the clues, and as with clues, a lot of them…

 

Q

The White Review

—  They don’t lead anywhere.

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah, they don’t lead anywhere.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve mentioned that you consider part of Selin’s openness to all experiences as a consequence of being a child of immigrants and lacking scripts for how things should be. Can you talk more about that?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah. When I was a kid — like Selin, the child of immigrants — I would go to my friends’ houses and they had these very rigid senses of tradition. One of my friends’ mothers in particular found my household very disordered, and I remember from an early age feeling like, this woman is very closed-minded. She doesn’t realise what’s important and what’s not important.

 

Also, we would go back to Turkey every summer and then I would see that there was a whole country where a lot of things were different. Language is different, word order is different, the politeness is different, the expectation for how a day is going to go, when you’re going to be indoors, when you’re going to be outdoors, what time you’re going to do the shopping, how often you cook, whether someone cleans your house, who that person is, how you to relate to them, relations with people in stores, the class system, family dynamics, everything was different, all those things were different. So I had from an early age a sense of provisionality and contingency.

 

Q

The White Review

—  It seems that for Selin that’s both valuable and frightening.

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah, definitely. Yeah, for me too I would say. I did find it frightening, and valuable.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The Idiot presents a quietly competitive environment. What’s the significance of that theme in the novel? Selin does, for example, tell a counsellor that part of the reason she’s attracted to Ivan is that he seems as though he is genuinely interested in her rather than trying to size her up in a competition for limited resources.

 

A

Elif Batuman

— Yeah. That’s a lovely point. I hadn’t really thought about it. A lot of social novels, especially the French ones, like The Red and the Black and Balzac and Proust, they’re about some very ambitious young person who wants to succeed and who wants to make a name for himself and is going into the world and seeing all these people and is full of envy. Envy is really a motivating power in those novels. And the big kind of discovery that they have in various ways is that the most successful and fortunate and happy-seeming people are actually really miserable and constantly seeing themselves as lacking. For René Girard that’s the main novelistic insight, which is debatable. But it’s definitely a novelistic insight. We do all compare ourselves to other people, and think of other people as being fundamentally different from and less troubled than we are, especially when we’re young. So it makes sense that that would be a big part of the book.

 

Also, sociologically, the way the American university system is set up, it’s such a competition mill. In a way you could think of it as selection for the most self-critical, miserable people.

 

Q

The White Review

—  On the point that you were making about envy and the point of the French novel being that everyone is actually really troubled — in your piece about Hanya Yanagihara for the New Yorker, you mentioned initially feeling disinclined to read A Little Life because you ‘didn’t appreciate the ready-made importance or seriousness that seemed to be conferred by the subject matter’. Does that inclination as a reader inform the subjects that interest you as a writer?

 

A

Elif Batuman

— Well, for a long time I was disinclined to write about anything very political. One of the things that really made me very upset from an early age was — I’ve been trying to write about it recently — when the news would be turned on, the way that the whole room would go quiet and the way, particularly, I felt women were sort of hushed and it was the time for everyone to watch the news and the men were always more interested in it than the women. There was no aura of seriousness like that that attached itself to the game shows or the soap operas or whatever other shows, it was just the news, and it was like, this is life or death. And yet the picture that they showed on the news was so gendered. It’s the deeds of men, the decisions of men, it’s men talking… Now, there are lots of women on the news, but when I was a kid that was less the case. It was like what Tolstoy describes in War and Peace where they wanted the whole story of war to be Napoleon did this, whereas in reality you can’t tell the story of war without the story of peace, which is the story of women and their domestic troubles and issues and the way households are run and people’s relationships… Soldiers join a war not because Napoleon is a genius but because they’re frustrated with their parents or they want to get away from their girlfriends or whatever. Or you know, it’s both, it’s not one or the other.

 

My very best friend when I was six years old — and we’re still very close — we both wanted to become writers. She was from a very Jewish family, and they went on the March of the Living, where children are taken to visit concentration camps. I think we were around eleven or twelve. She went on this and she kept a diary there and this diary was published. I remember reading the diary and I remember her saying, anything that you write in a gas chamber is going to be meaningful. It’s impossible to write something that’s not meaningful by being an alive person sitting in a gas chamber where children your age were killed. And I remember deeply objecting to that, there was something that I didn’t accept about that. It’s only now, that I’m getting quite old, that I’m finding myself wanting to write about — actually about genocide, and about nation-forming, about all of these things that I avoided writing about for so long.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Why is Selin so embarrassed to talk about people when they’re not in front of her, or to be talked about outside of her presence?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Oh, that’s a good question. Selin is just realising something that I think we all realise and then immediately forget, which is how casually we talk about other people and what an act of violence it is to describe another person’s story from your point of view. I used to puzzle over that a lot. My college boyfriend wanted us to trade email passwords so there would be nothing between us. He was like, you can read any of my emails. I read one email that was from his mother because I was curious about his mother. I was kind of looking for whether there was some mention of myself, because my parents always talked about my boyfriend when they wrote to me. And there was no mention of me. Furthermore, there was such a cohesive world that she described, and there was no room in it for anything else. I felt so wounded by that. There was something really annihilating about it. And then I thought about it a lot and the message that I took away from that is that we cannot read things that other people write… you have to try not to know things that people say about you, because you’re just incapable of hearing them and experiencing them in the spirit in which they’re spoken.

 

Selin is just starting to realise that. She complains about her roommate, but then she also has this view of her roommate as this really vulnerable person who wants to be liked, and she’s like, oh my god, what if she could hear the way that I talked about her. She doesn’t want to wound her, but she also wants to be able to describe her own experience. She just really feels herself to be in this bind, which is something that I think is especially intense for writers. I actually think that a lot of people — especially, this is my theory, a lot of women — become writers for that reason, because their mothers tell stories about them in which they are represented differently than they see themselves, or their mother is the main character and they’re a secondary character. I think that girls grow up wanting to tell their own story and get that back.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve said that at the time when the novel is set, ‘a certain kind of ambitious young woman tended to internalise all kinds of slights in the name of open-mindedness, humanism, and the big picture’. Selin herself has certain anxieties about seeming overly feminine. Do you think Selin would be different if she were 18 in 2017 instead of 1995?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah, definitely. When I was in college, I really felt like feminism was over, women had equality, and it was just up to them to make use of it. I thought that women just have to work a little harder and be better than men, and problem solved. Instead of complaining about feminism, they should just do a better job than everyone else. And it didn’t occur to me how burdensome and kind of annihilating that would feel in the long run and just how exhausting it is to see men get rewarded for doing nothing and women being overlooked for…

 

Q

The White Review

—  Everything.

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Yeah, for everything. And those weren’t really things people talked about then. But they are a huge part of the discourse now and I’m sure that if I was younger now I would feel differently. Because when I look back at the ideas I had then, now they just sound so retrograde and patriarchal and brainwashed, I can’t imagine that I would have those ideas now.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Svetlana tells Selin: ‘You think language is an end in itself’. Can you talk more about that? Has Selin’s attitude changed by the end of the novel, considering the final line?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  That’s so interesting. I’m not sure how to answer that. Selin decides to study linguistics and Russian because she thinks that there’s some truth that’s beyond language that she can get at. She has these conversations with her mother about books, where her mother, who’s not a native English speaker defers to Selin, and any time Selin has a good point, she says that that’s because ‘you really speak English’. And Selin thinks that there’s some way that the ‘true meaning’ of literature and therefore just the true meaning of everything — because for her they’re quite transparent and interchangeable — is somehow dependent on the actual meaning of the words. There’s some meaning that’s intrinsic in the language itself and if you know the language really well then you know what that meaning is. Of course that’s not the case, the whole definition of literature is that it’s open to interpretation and that the words mean many things. And the more she studies language, the more she feels herself getting stuck at the barrier of language and not being able to get to the thing the was beyond it that she thought would be there.

 

I think her correspondence with Ivan is on that level, the level of being stuck at language. And that’s what Svetlana’s talking about when she talks about when she says, ‘you think language is an end in itself’. I would say that at the beginning she doesn’t think that language is an end in itself, and she kind of finds out in this difficult, painful way that it sort of is, that there isn’t anything past it, there isn’t any absolute meaning to which language is the conduit. And her disappointment at the ending of the book is really about that, it’s that she didn’t learn the thing that she thought was behind the screen, it was just all this screen.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve said that there were certain postures or attitudes in your early non-fiction that you wouldn’t take now. Do you look back on your early writing and think that you would write differently?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Recently I had the experience of reading The Possessed aloud in 2017 (for an audiobook). I’d written it between 2006 and 2009. It was very strange. There was a lot that I found myself wanting to change. The introduction had more theoretical word games than I would feel comfortable using now. There were some very unfortunate word reps.

 

But the way I made myself feel better about it was remembering when I read The Portrait of a Lady in this cheap edition in English that I got in Turkey when I was 20. I love that book so much. Years later I bought the fancy Norton edition, and I was reading it and was like, this book is somehow worse than I remember. I got to some point where one of my favourite lines was different, and I was like, did I just hallucinate a whole different book that was the book that I wanted it to be? And then I Googled it and I saw that the one that I read was the original one that James wrote and the Norton one was the revised, it was from the New York edition where he, in his older age, went back and re-edited all of his novels. I really think he made The Portrait of a Lady worse and I’m sure he made those revisions out of the same sense of shame that I felt when I was re-reading The Possessed. I think that every time of life has its own kind of language. So then I just told myself, people responded to The Possessed when it came out, and if it seems a little bit embarrassing to me now, that’s beside the point.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In both of your books you write about, as a young person, valuing beauty over truth, or thinking that what makes something unethical is that it’s ugly. How has your thinking about this changed over time?

 

A

Elif Batuman

—  Before, I thought, oh, everyone who thinks they have ethical principles has actually misdescribed their aesthetic principles as ethical principles, and now I feel almost the other way around. I do think more about ethics now than I did then.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve described, over the course of your life, coming to see that your Turkish identity has informed you more than you understood when you were younger, and realising that even the post-nationalism that you grew up with was historically conditioned. What caused that change for you?
A

Elif Batuman

—  I think it was going to Turkey. I think, first of all, it was living long enough for the mores that I grew up with to expire. I thought history was just a trajectory going in one direction and it was progress, progress, progress… For the values to change, and to live through that, it’s kind of the same thing as going to Turkey over the summer and seeing that there’s a whole other way that things can be, only it happened not through space but through time, which is much more dramatic. I saw that post-nationalism turned out to be untrue. I saw the rise, or the re-rise, of xenophobia and all kinds of things that I thought were over. I saw the phasing out, the gradual and continuing phasing out of secularism in Turkey. I would not have believed that that was going to happen if someone had told me when I was a kid.

 

Part of it was going to therapy, because I thought of myself as someone who was less formed by their parents and their upbringing than most people. I thought, Oh, we have fewer traditions, I’m more self-made, and I didn’t really realise until I started therapy that even if your parents played a smaller role, that smallness of the role is still really important and that things that happened in the past really formed who you are and your parents’ lives really irrevocably shaped them and shaped the way they acted toward you and thus shaped the way that you are.

 

And another part of it has been just seeing the tension between secularism and religion, and religion and science, exacerbated in Turkey and to some extent in the whole world. That made me realise that these central tensions of the Russian novel — particularly for Dostoevsky, between Westernisation and authenticity, some kind of more Eastern authenticity, and the limitations of the scientistic world… Growing up as the child of scientists, I thought science could explain everything. It’s been recently that I’ve realised that that world view does have limitations. And seeing that echo between what’s going on in Turkey now and the world view of the Russian novels that I thought I chose out of some disinterested ahistorical interest made me realise that history and my parents’ history and national history were actually more of an influence on me than I’d realised.