When Selin, an American teenage daughter of Turks, arrives at Harvard as a first-year student, she receives her first email address. After a while, she is fascinated by the new means of communication.
It is 1995, still far from the wireless internet, and an email conversation with a Hungarian boy from his Russian-speaking class will serve as a kind of parallel world for Selin, the protagonist of “The Idiot”, Elif Batuman’s first novel.
A kind of training romance, the plot follows Selin for a year, from the beginning of classes to summer holidays, when she travels with her friend Svetlana, a Serbian Harvard student, and goes to Hungary to teach English classes and try to get some attention from her. Ivan, the email boy.
The 2018 Pulitzer finalist book of fiction is inspired by diaries that the author kept in her first year of college. Also an American daughter of Turks, Batuman, 43, is a contributor to the New Yorker magazine, a specialist in Russian literature and wrote “The Possesses: Adventures with Russian Books and Their Readers”, published in Brazil by Leya.
By video, Batuman says he returned to the diary in the early 2000s, to turn the writings into a novel, but abandoned the draft. He then went on to study the Russians and make reports. In the early 2010s, she moved to Turkey. “All the time, as much as I was learning and enjoying it, it was in the back of my mind that I would go back and write novels.”
His plan was to write a book that would be called “Duas Vidas”, out of a concern that he had writing nonfiction. “The New Yorker texts must be a type of profile in which to talk, for example, about mushroom growing, you look for the biggest mushroom producer, start following him around, and ask the name of his dog,” he says. she, laughing.
“It looks like you’re writing about a person, but then you find them, they have a lot of interactions and you have to put everything aside because, in fact, I was just using them to talk about mushroom growing.” She was thinking of a romance that realized what was left out and what hadn’t been given due attention – her painful relationships, including dating a married man.
But her life at 30 seemed too close and writing was not moving. “I started to have several flashbacks involving that character from the first book. I had written an entire novel and abandoned it,” he says. In the draft, Batuman came across a phrase, about campus life and her email exchange, that made her realize that she was already living two lives.
He noticed that the most interesting parts were the ones where Selin (or she) did things that she was ashamed of. “The stupid things you do at 18 don’t look so stupid from the 30’s point of view.” It was then that he decided on the name “The Idiot”. “I wrote that in my 20s, trying to sound smarter than I actually was, so I took it out and left only the 18-year-old girl.”
His previous book also had a name inspired by Dostoevsky. “Os Possessos” is a common translation in some countries for the novel we know in Brazil as “Os Demons”. In English, however, you can’t tell the genre of “idiot”. “Some people find it presumptuous to use Dostoevsky titles, so it makes me feel better to know that in translations where the word has gender and, in this case, the one in my book is feminine, it is a little different from his.”
But “The Idiot” can be seen, as Batuman says, as a fanfic – stories created by fans from previous works – of another novel by another Russian. “Eugene Onegin”, by Púchkin. Eugene is Ivan, the Hungarian colleague. “Eugene is almost a parody, he is cool and different, but Tatiana knows him and thinks it is great, writes a letter to him, who rejects her. And he spoils everything he does,” he says.
“Púchkin makes it clear that Tatiana is a better person than Eugene, smarter. And he’s OK, but that’s not all. And she ruins her life for him. And Anna Kariênina too. She’s better than Vronski, and yet she is destroyed by him. Púchkin and Tolstoy show how unjust relations are and how women end up with men who were not worth it. “
She says that, being fascinated by books, she always wanted to write, but also that her life was a novel. “Many of my decisions were attempts to replicate situations that seemed to be universal in literature. And so I missed a lot of opportunities.”
The pandemic ignited in many readers the courage to face long classics, including some Russians. “Here the fashion was banana cake and ‘Guerra e Paz'”, says Batuman.
She has just delivered a new book to the publisher, the sequel to “The Idiot”, which will be called “Either / Or”, something like one or the other, and which made her think about the relationship between Selin and Ivan. “In 2016, I fell in love with a woman and I am still with her today. It has already given me men, enough”, he says, laughing.
The new book is a kind of romanticized adaptation of the essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality”, by the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich, which deals with bonds between women and how they are superimposed by the construction of a narrative according to which the woman has to fall in love with a man , be dominated and your sexual fulfillment really only exists like that.
“I read the 1980 essay only recently and realized that, in ‘The Idiot’, there was already that,” he says.
Regarding the changes since 1995, Batuman says that the story would be completely different if it were set today. There was blind belief at the end of the story, she says, mentioning Francis Fukuyama.
“Belief that the problems are over, that democracy and the free market would spread around the world, that everyone knew that racism and machismo are wrong, there was no need for political identification, happiness was in the path of the individual. I grew up with that.”
According to her, in the United States, now, the conversation about race, class and gender is another. “I certainly wouldn’t have identified myself as a heterosexual woman until I was 38 if I was born later.”