Elif Batuman in 2019. Photo: Valentyn Kuzan.
In September 1852, when he was twenty-three, Tolstoy published his first piece of writing, in a Saint Petersburg monthly. Although it garnered praise, he was upset that the magazine had changed the title to “The History of My Childhood.” “The alteration is especially disagreeable,” he complained to the editor, “because as I wrote to you, I meant ‘Childhood’ to form the first part of a novel.”
Like Tolstoy, Elif Batuman always intended to write fiction. One of the essays in her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a collection based on her experiences as a grad student in the Stanford comparative literature Ph.D. program, had originally been pitched to a magazine—and accepted, Batuman thought—as a short story. “I had changed things to protect people’s identities,” she told me earlier this year over Zoom, “but then had to unchange them so they could fact-check it; the alternative was not to be published.” The piece appeared in print as “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy: A Forensic Investigation.”
Batuman approaches much of her life and work as a reader on the lookout for clues. Her autobiographical debut novel, The Idiot, follows a young Turkish American woman named Selin through her freshman year at Harvard as she studies elementary Russian and linguistics, falls in love with an inscrutable math-major senior, and stress-tests the capacity of the former to explain the behavior of the latter. Selin compulsively overreads everything and everyone she encounters, as if gathering evidence for a case that may reveal itself only in hindsight. Batuman’s second novel, Either/Or, published this year, picks up where The Idiot left off, covering Selin’s second year at Harvard, and serves as a reckoning with all the previously gathered clues. As the title suggests, it aims to explode the supposed distinction between an ethical and an aesthetic conception of the good life. It’s a paradoxical and seriously funny contraption, a bildungsroman that relentlessly deconstructs its author, the social world around her, and the very concept and value of fiction itself.
Speaking with Batuman about Either/Or feels a bit like watching someone ride a motorbike along a tightrope. At one point during our conversation, she took out a pen and paper to trace her argument through Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir. She expects from any book, her own included, nothing less than a real-time experiment in how we should think and live.
A lot of critics remarked on the lack of sex in your first novel. There are plenty of sexual episodes in Either/Or, some of them very uncomfortable. Were you reacting to that criticism?
It hadn’t occurred to me to put sex scenes in The Idiot, as it was closely based on my life. And so at first, that response from readers was kind of jarring. I felt like, Oh, the New York Times is upset that I didn’t have sex within my first year of college! I thought, I’m so different from these people—I don’t understand them and they don’t understand me. But then I started to remember. In my personal mythology, freshman year played a big role—my first love, this crush I had—and I didn’t really think about what had happened next. Hearing those questions from readers about why there was no sex—that they were frustrated and waiting for some consummation—I started to think about that second year, and I remembered that I had felt exactly the same way. I felt like I had failed completely by not having had sex, and I wasn’t living a full life, and I had to get it over with. I did read Kierkegaard that year, and Nadja by André Breton, and I think The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is also about how to live an aesthetic life. I thought I had been very childish, putting off this thing, and that was why I had all these problems. So in Either/Or I wanted to write about that feeling, and to show where it led me. Because it doesn’t lead to great places, necessarily, that you want to spend time in.
There is an anger that comes through in Selin’s voice in Either/Or that wasn’t there in The Idiot.
I just realized that this thing they’re upset about, I was upset about it, too. I was really upset. And that caused really horrible stuff to happen to me. Now I’m even more upset and able to articulate that. #MeToo helped me do that, and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was hugely helpful in that respect. And, yeah, I was angry.
What made Selin’s voice a better conduit for that than, say, nonfiction written in the first person?
One thing I got from being able to write as Selin was that she’s not trying to explain anything to anyone yet. She’s just in constant outrage, like, I can’t believe it’s like this, WTF?! It’s a much more open place to write from. Her voice lends me this mode of questioning. I kind of got into the Selin groove, especially toward the end of Either/Or, where I felt like that voice was letting me do cool stuff that I’m not able to do when I’m in my own annoying Elif persona.
To me, your profile of the filmmaker Céline Sciamma in The New Yorker felt very connected to your fiction. It read almost like a manifesto about what artistic form could and should be.
I do feel that that piece and the novel are in some kind of conversation. I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the middle of working on Either/Or. I’d written a lot, but it wasn’t shaped at all and I was struggling with it. Watching the movie, and then hearing her give a talk about removing conflict from narrative, was so exciting to me. I felt a kinship between what she was doing and what I wanted to do.
Something I’ve thought about from talking to both Céline Sciamma and Lindsay, my partner, is that everyone tries really hard to be straight. It’s a huge amount of effort, certainly for a lot of people. Tolstoy writes about this in The Kreutzer Sonata, about how you have to learn to have these sexual appetites. When the character’s fifteen, his brother takes him to a brothel, and he’s like, Wait, you’ve got to be kidding me. Then he writes, Everyone I respected was treating it like a good thing and the most important thing. That was an influence on Either/Or, too.
So everyone is trying to be straight, but some people just aren’t physically capable of it. Céline and Lindsay both knew from an early age that that was not what they were going to be, that they were different. As a result, there was so much bullshit they saw through—they weren’t part of what Céline calls “straight culture.” I wasn’t like that—I was able to feel the things you were supposed to feel.
You’ve said that being in a relationship with a woman changed your idea of the possibilities of narrative. Can you say more about that?
It made me see how limited those possibilities were by much of what I took to be universal, especially about the novel as a love story, and it made me see how much bigger they could be—that a novel could be about anything and anyone. I grew up reading these classical nineteenth-century novels, and I liked the ones that had girls in them, but there are none that are not about what man is she going to find, or whether she is going to find a man. That’s the thing that happens in your life. To be in a relationship with another woman automatically makes it not about that. It’s not just that instead of finding Mr. Right you’re finding, you know, Mrs. or Miss Right—it actually does change that power dynamic. Part of the inexorable, doomed feeling of these great novels was tied up for me with the idea of that inescapable inequality and how we’re all locked into it, how children are born into this power structure. Adrienne Rich writes about interrogating how all these things became so closely identified—creating new people and narrative and personal fulfilment and physical pleasure. Why should all of those be the same thing? They don’t have to be. I found that really eye-opening.
I know Either/Or began as a book of essays. How did it become a novel?
Increasingly, throughout 2017, after The Idiot had come out, I was getting the feeling that I’d been sold a bill of goods about the personal not being political, and about a literature person not being a politics person. I started to see that that idea was already present in The Idiot, when Selin is talking about the government majors, the gov jocks, and how they’re going to be our rulers. I was reading second-wave feminists for the first time. I had a kind of crisis of faith in the novel. I was thinking about the effect fiction had had on my life. I was realizing that despite my best intentions, I had been depoliticized, and that novels had played a role in my getting steered onto this track of romance and the personal.
At the time I was working on the book proposal for Either/Or, it was right at the beginning of the Trump administration, and my friends were getting more involved in protests. I remember a day when everyone was going to JFK to protest the immigration ban and I was like, No, I really want to stay in and work, I feel like I’m going to get somewhere on this proposal. Then I realized—this is how it happens. I started to feel that the annoying leftists who drove me crazy when I was in school were actually correct, and that the novel is an instrument perpetuating the status quo. I did not want the revolution to happen tomorrow, because I’d finally amassed the capital I needed to write a novel, and I wanted to write my novel! Writing a novel takes forever—of course you don’t want the revolution to happen tomorrow.
So I was thinking, Is this the end of novels for me? When Kierkegaard’s Either/Or assumed this central role and became the title of the book, then I could see a way through it; half the book would consist of this novel set twenty years ago, and the second half would be essays, written from the present, about how the novel screwed us all over. I spent a long time trying to get that to work, but the novel got too big to be half a book. And then I got more interested in the puzzle of how to go into the past and look at it from a place of empathy, and imagine that I’m actually there, and remember that I’m just as dumb now as I was then, I just have better information—the puzzle of how to have both perspectives at the same time.
You seem to have very direct access to that past self.
For The Idiot, I’d still had some of those college emails. For Either/Or, I had some of the scenes written already that were from the first draft of The Idiot. And I think I had diaries.
Does email still play an important part in your writing life? How long do you spend every day writing emails?
It’s now gotten to the point where it’s a chore and I feel horribly intimidated by my email. But I used to really like it, because it was like a combination of a letter and a diary. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to write letters by hand, and sometimes you would spend all this time writing, and then you’re like an asshole, somehow, if you’re trying to keep a copy of your own letter. And what would you do, use carbon paper? You know, there weren’t even digital cameras. So it felt like you were always writing this stuff and then losing it. And there was something about having everything, all of your letters, time-stamped, so that you could go back to them, that felt very nourishing to me. It made the project of writing letters feel more like a collaborative diary with my friends. When I was in college, you still couldn’t order a pizza online. You couldn’t apply for a driver’s license. You couldn’t do anything legal or practical. It was just for recreation.
Did you always feel the need to keep an actual diary, too? There’s that journal entry the Review published from when you were eleven.
Yeah, I kept diaries constantly when I was a kid, in little notebooks, from age five. Even before I could write, I dictated them to my aunt. It makes me think about what I needed the novel for. It was a survival tool for me, because I was hearing so many contradictory stories about what the world was, and how it was. I was so aware from a very early age of competing interests, and that no matter how good everyone’s intentions are, things can end up badly. As a kid you don’t have a whole lot of power or dignity. You’re just bouncing back and forth like a football—always being called on to say which is better, Turkey or America, who do you love more, your mother or your father.
Then you read a novel and see that there’s a plane where all these different voices can be, in some way, reconciled. There’s a place for a writer, especially someone like Tolstoy, to see and recognize everyone’s intentions, and to juxtapose them with humor and generosity, and to transform this panic-causing and potentially annihilating conflict into a delightful product to delight people with. I thought, What a magical feat that is, and it really helped me conceptualize my own life.
Now, when I look back, nowhere in this did I think, How can I change things? I just wanted to grow up and write novels that would help other people accept how messed up everything is, and comfort them for it as much as these books have comforted me. That’s what made me think that writers are all people who got into reading as children, when you actually don’t have any power. And that this thing that was a great coping mechanism for a kid is maybe not the most efficient way to channel effort and thought into changing the world.
It saves you as a child but deforms you as an adult.
It’s like how all of psychotherapy is recognizing that the tools and mechanisms that helped you survive a potentially life-threatening or difficult time are no longer serving you. You’re still doing them anyway, even though you don’t need them anymore. One thing I realized as I was writing Either/Or, which was at one point going to go into the essays that didn’t make it in, was about Kierkegaard’s childhood and Kant’s. I read this great book about the childhoods of Western philosophers. All their childhoods were horrible, abusive, they were all beaten either at school or by their parents, or they were orphaned and destitute. I started to get this feeling that Kant’s categorical imperative, and perhaps the whole edifice of Western philosophy, is a series of coping mechanisms created by traumatized children to process and create order in the world, and now we’re all kind of stuck using those as adults. I was disappointed by philosophy as I studied it in school, especially this supposed conflict between the ethical and the aesthetic life.
It was in this context that I really liked Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity—she slices through this idea in like ten pages, in a tiny part of the book. You can’t actually be like Kant and make one rule for everything and just follow that, because then you’re out of sync with the world. You can’t be like Nietzsche and decide you’re going to live an aesthetic life and be truly free, because you can’t be free while other people around you are not free. It’s like you have the day off and there’s no one to play with, because everyone else is still at school. The only way out of that is to strive in all things to free yourself and to free others at the same time, which is both aesthetic and ethical. A big part of it is operating on an ad hoc basis. You have to go through each situation and decide what counts as freeing yourself and freeing others. And you have to know that you’re going to be wrong, but you have to be okay with being wrong and accept that all you can do is make the best choice that you can. That just seemed like a much more enlightened viewpoint to me.
I also got really into Alice Miller when I was in this period of reading about childhood, and she has interesting analyses of Proust, Kafka, and James Joyce in terms of their biographies—what they were able to tell the truth about and what they weren’t. She really goes into it with Proust and his mom. And she doesn’t actually say this, but it starts to feel as you’re reading that the reason these writers change facts is because they can’t bear the possibility of accusing their parents any more than they already are. There’s another book, Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which shows how the development of fiction itself was intimately connected with the need to avoid libel and slander laws. If that’s what it is, then couldn’t we be moving away from it?
Do you think you might revisit these subjects and the essays that were going to be in Either/Or, or turn them into other nonfiction books?
I might. I have a lot of books that I’ve started and left unfinished. Another project I was trying to work on alongside Either/Or was called “Swan Park,” which was going to be about my changing experiences of Turkey and my understanding of my Turkish identity, so far as I have it. I wrote a lot but there was something missing—I don’t know if it was the voice or some kind of structure. Then I thought, Maybe if I thought about the Turkey book as being from Selin’s point of view, that’d free it up and make it easier to write.
I also have a lot of passionate ideas now about early childhood, about childhood trauma as a grossly neglected public health threat, and about childism, which is this theory that all the different kinds of discrimination and oppressive power structures we have are in some way a legacy of the oppression of children by adults. It’s an idea that we all live through and internalize those things, and they cause us to identify power with good on some fundamental level. This is much more true for people who grew up under an abusive parent or caretaker, but even a nonabusive relationship is still a kind of trauma. It’s almost like we’ve all been through this cult. I was reading about cult deprogramming and it’s the same as regular psychotherapy in undoing this programming that we get in order to survive our families as children. I’ve been thinking about writing a book about that.
And I’ve been rethinking Russian novels a lot. I have so many ideas about the way things are and how they could be better and how we could be thinking about them differently, what questions we need to ask, but it’s hard to find the right way in. I’m wondering whether Selin’s point of view is going to let me do that, or whether revisiting the Russian novels will.
Like in Parsifal, where only the spear that caused the wound could heal it?
Ha! I was just thinking that so many of the building blocks of how I learned to think happen to come from those novels, so those are what I have—and because a lot of people read them, they’re sort of a comprehensible language. My ideas about the importance of childhood in determining world events and war and perpetuating oppressive family structures were really informed by rereading War and Peace. I’ve thought a lot about The Kreutzer Sonata and Tolstoy’s conversion. When I was first learning about Tolstoy in college, I remember his conversion was this punch line. Like, he decided that novels are evil, so he’s going to wear a peasant shirt and be friends with Gandhi. Almost like he’s trying to spoil the fun for the rest of us. He’s trying to end the big Anna Karenina party the rest of us want to have, because he decided it’s immoral. But now it actually seems to me like he was struggling with serious questions about the novel and about aestheticizing different forms of injustice. It all makes a lot more sense to me now than it did then. Maybe that’s an angle through which I could get into my own ambivalence about the novel. I could revisit Tolstoy’s conversion and his confession.
Get into it in the sense of writing about it, rather than in practice, by going to farm somewhere?
That’s the plan, but then again, who knows. I did this residency upstate this year that was all international writers, and it was idyllic. It made me want to just, like, buy a big house in the countryside and start a commune for writers where everyone grows their own vegetables. When I was a kid, I felt like I couldn’t wait until I could just live alone in an apartment in New York City. And now I live with my partner and our cats in an apartment in New York City. And it’s great. But it does start to feel kind of isolating. You know, writers all have the same issues. And we’re all sitting in these rooms, alone, reinventing the wheel. And I just wonder, To what extent does it have to be that way?
Maria Dimitrova is a writer and editor in London.
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