talks about writing The Idiot,
her first novel
BY ELINA ALTER
In the summer of 2015, Elif Batuman was at the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany, trying to write a book. The foundation is a rural estate turned refuge for writers, a species forever in need of more time. In addi- tion to time and the company of Baronessa Beatrice
Monti della Corte Rezzori, who runs the place, writers at Santa
Maddalena can avail themselves of chestnut groves, rosebushes,
meals, several dogs, and Wi-Fi.
This last amenity turned out to be crucial for Batuman. The
book she had come to Italy to write was supposed to be her first
novel, prospectively called The Two Lives. Batuman was planning to set the action of this book in 2010, but as she wrote, she
kept remembering a manuscript she had worked on in California,
in 2000 and 2001, which was set during her time in college in
the 1990s. And when she got online in her room at Santa
Maddalena, she found that the manuscript had been waiting for
her in the cloud—a swarm of files, migrating from server to
server, that finally became her first novel: The Idiot (due from
Penguin Press in March).
The Idiot is Batuman’s first novel, but it’s her second book;
her essay collection The Possessed (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was
published in 2010, the year she became a staff writer at the New
Yorker. Batuman is drawn to Dostoyevsky and his titles:
Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot was serialized in 1868 and ’ 69.
The title of his subsequent book, Demons, has also been rendered
in English as The Possessed. But Batuman is not drawn by stylistic
or subject matter kinship; she has written that “Dostoyevsky’s
novel.” In double-entry bookkeeping, every debit taken from
one column becomes a credit in another. In The Possessed,
Batuman writes that Isaac Babel, her first model for the writer
as bookkeeper, was “incapable of living [life] otherwise than as
the material for literature.” Life is made manuscript, possibly
because familiar narratives “are the only means that you have
for assigning meaning to what would otherwise be a barrage of
impressions that don’t connect to anything,” Batuman says. “On
the other hand, these narratives don’t fit.”
In constructing the narrative of The Idiot, Batuman says she
found herself “simplifying and defictionalizing” her earlier work.
“So much time had passed that I didn’t totally remember what
was real and what I had made up. The writer of those original
files was a 23-year-old talking about how dumb she was when
she was 18, so it sounded really bizarre. It felt like fiction, because
I didn’t remember feeling the way Selin, the protagonist, feels.
I got really absorbed. I could see it as a book in a way that I
work... consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated
by outbreaks of mass violence,” which is a perfectly inaccurate
summary of her own writing. Rather, the connection was forged
in the intense years she spent in the comparative literature
department at Stanford, reading the Russians—Babel,
Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy—and writing about their work,
and about her own alternately baffling and illuminating experi-
ences in academia.
The essays in The Possessed are droll, perceptive reflections on
graduate school; Batuman had originally wanted to write the
book as a fictional counterpart to the critical work of her dissertation, which is about the way that writers transmute experience into art, but was advised against it. It is The Idiot, then,
that can be read as that fictional companion.
In Batuman’s dissertation, she wrote about double-entry
bookkeeping as a way of understanding “the complicated rela-
tionship between the lived material of everyday life and the