Writers & Company

Elif Batuman on her love affair with Russian literature

Elif Batuman's debut novel is the semi-autobiographical story of an ambitious woman embarking on her first year of university.
Batuman believes her fondness for Russian novels has a deep connection with her family's Turkish background. (Penguin Random House, Beowulf Sheehan)

It's the year 1995 and email is a relatively new phenomenon. Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's debut novel, The Idiot, has just started her first year at Harvard. She is the daughter of Turkish immigrants with an affinity for Russian literature and an obsession with understanding the subtle complexities of language. 

Through the character of Selin, Batuman artfully traces a time where self-discovery and heavy contemplation are driving forces in a young person's life. The Idiot, which borrows its name from the Russian classic by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a coming-of-age tale that dives deep into an adolescent's college experience, touching upon issues of identity, communication and heartbreak.

Elif Batuman spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from CBC's New York studio about the inspiration behind her novel and her alter ego, Selin.

Humour and melancholy

I always wanted to write novels, even before I had read a lot of novels or had a very good idea of what they were. The novel is like a melancholy form. It's about some kind of disillusionment with the way things are versus the idea of how they could be or how they used to be. But the experience that I had as a young person first reading these things and orienting myself was that English novels could be quite funny. The French novels were cynical and sad. And the Russian novels had this kind of comical melancholy that was very universal and very specific at the same time. That was really what attracted me.

How Russian literature mirrors Turkish identity

The problems in the Russian novel are quite similar to the problems of Turkish nationalism and Turkish culture, which was something that I grew up thinking didn't affect me very much because my parents didn't really talk about it. Their attitude was basically like, "We're people of the world." I think they didn't want to burden me with nationalist mythologies and grudges and stories from the past. And yet the tensions of the Turkish national narrative and national identity, specifically between religion and secularism and these kind of cosmopolitan westernized cities and the villages that still have this almost feudal structure — I realized kind of belatedly. I knew on some intellectual level that this tension was really a present theme in Russian literature, but I didn't really think that was what drew me to it.

Romance isn't the whole story

I've been thinking a lot about love plots, because the novel is almost always a love story. It's so hard for the meaning of that story not to be defined by whether or not the couple gets together. Even in novels where the love relationship isn't the focus, I feel like it's often there, and the background is some barometer of whether this is a happy or sad story or whether this is a successful or unsuccessful life. This is something that I want to explore more and to think about in different ways — how to write stories that have this erotic magnetism that keeps you reading, and that have love and do justice to the power of love to invest our lives with meaning, and yet don't have this kind of narrative structure that defines the protagonist in terms of whether or not she gets the guy.

Elif Batuman's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Derdin Ne" performed by the Taksim Trio.