Is that life or is that literature?
By Cole Cahill
Shipping away to a university for four years of undergrad really isn’t so different from going to a foreign country. Here at Columbia, our customs are localized: routines are dictated entirely by academic pursuits, language is inflected by institutional idiosyncrasies (“I saw my CC and Art Hum professors talking outside EC”), and cuisine is shaped by a dining program. Like any country, the Republic of Undergrad has a national canon, and Elif Batuman’s pair of autofictional college-years novels, The Idiot and Either/Or—the former of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist—are obvious inclusions to the roster.
Having spent this fall teaching creative writing at Barnard, Batuman analogized her return to a college campus after writing about the world of undergraduates to moving in and out of a foreign country. Metaphors aside, this is an experience she knows intimately; born in New Jersey to Turkish emigrés, Batuman spent her 20s at Harvard (for undergrad) and Stanford (for a comparative literature PhD) with stints in Hungary, Turkey, and Uzbekistan while developing her authority on Russian literature. As the New Yorker’s in-house Istanbul contributor, Batuman wrote extensively about goings-on in Turkey, as well as dung beetles and the Japanese rental family industry.
Batuman injects her passion for Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Babel in her books, which walk a dutiful line between criticism and bildungsroman. Her 2010 essay collection The Possessed chronicles her maniacal sojourn through graduate-level study of Russian novels; in The Idiot (2017) and its sequel, Either/Or (2022), Batuman narrates her college protagonist’s introduction to the Russian greats, but also to intimacy and Fiona Apple, with boundless wit and an absence of pretension. Selin, the not-quite-autobiographical narrator of the novels, voices Batuman’s early adulthood impressions of new territories of all kinds, reflecting on such feelings as encountering the “surprising border of sex and sadness like the border between Italy and Slovenia.”
During her semester-long visit, the writer can sometimes be found in a shared Barnard Hall office overlooking the college’s gates. When I met her there in early November, the thermostat was cranked to boiling and a Turkish rug lay atop institutional gray carpet. In the extreme warmth, she regaled me with reflections on compulsory heterosexuality, the Headspace app, and the narrative sophistication of Snoopy.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
. . .
The Blue and White: Both of your novels are based in the world of undergraduates. You’ve taught at colleges throughout your career, but what do you make of this place so far?
Elif Batuman: I love it. I haven’t gotten a super intense experience of campus life apart from just this one class, [Fiction and Personal Narrative], which has been a complete delight. I love the students. It’s been very moving for me to spend time with [college students], having just written those two books—I haven’t taught since before The Idiot came out. I’m older now—I’m very conscious of being the age that my mom was when I was the age of the students. So it just really feels like a generation. I feel really moved and I feel lucky to get to hang out with people at that age. And it’s just been really emotional to have visited that time in my own life and then to get to interface with people who are still there now. It’s almost like I wrote a book about some country that I’m never gonna go to again, but then I get to meet a bunch of people from there. It feels really intense.
B&W: Using that metaphor, does it feel like it’s the same country that you were in at that time?
EB: More than I thought. There are definitely a lot of things that have changed and I can see that. But sort of like a country—I remember I didn’t go back to Turkey for five years or something, and everyone was like, “You’re not gonna recognize it, it’s changed so much, Istanbul’s changed so much, you won’t recognize anything.” And I was really expecting to not recognize anything. You can imagine, “Oh, New York has changed so much, you won’t recognize it.” Of course if you come back in five years, some of the stores are gonna be gone, but it’s still New York. You still recognize it. It feels kind of like that.
What was exciting to me about writing about that time is that it let me ask questions about why things are the way that they are that you tend to stop asking after a certain point. You just get invested in institutions and you’re a part of them and you’re not really thinking about, like, why is a family the way that it is and why is school the way that it is? But at that age, you’re constantly questioning it—you’ve still only been alive for a certain amount of time, so you’re still at this particular stage of taking in the system.
B&W: Is that what you wanted to tap into when you were writing books about being an undergraduate?
EB: It wasn’t a plan that I had in advance—it’s a plan that evolved as it happened. I wrote the first draft of The Idiot very close to that time. It was based on my own experiences in college, and I wrote the first draft of it in my early 20s. So I didn’t really think of it as being a book about that, I just thought I was writing about open-ended life. I was actually trying to write another autobiographical kind of novel when I was in my 30s about someone in her 30s. Again, it was very close to what was going on and I was having a lot of trouble. It was just too close to write about for a lot of reasons. And I found myself putting in more and more flashbacks. And at some point I was like, didn’t I write a whole novel about this time in college?
I realized this is sort of a prequel to what I’m writing now, but the issues are already kind of there, but they’re there in this bizarro form that I also felt like I could write about and I could manipulate it as fiction in a way that was much harder with the stuff that was closer to me. So that’s kind of how The Idiot came about. And then Either/Or happened from promoting The Idiot and hearing some of the responses, and meanwhile various political changes were happening in the U.S. and I was having personal changes in my own life. And it was making me think back to that period of early adulthood and realizing some things that The Idiot was about that weren’t super clear, that were kind of like subtext. I wanted another crack at that world. So I decided to do year two and get to drill down on stuff that I felt like had only been implied in The Idiot.
B&W: One thing that I really loved in Either/Or, having read it while I’m in this period of time, was your portrayal of college friendships, mainly between Selin and Svetlana. Through The Idiot, and then in the first portion of Either/Or, Svetlana is her main confidant. And then as I get further into Either/Or, I start thinking, Where’s Svetlana been?
EB: I know.
B&W: Quietly, she just becomes less and less of an immediate presence in Selin’s life. And that to me rang so true with how friendships and relationships in this stage of life often are. What do you think Selin might show about those kinds of relationships?
EB: In between [writing] The Idiot and Either/Or, I had this moment of realizing my consciousness and now I’m in a lesbian relationship—and I’d only dated men, and I read Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” for the first time and I was like, Oh my goodness. The idea that there’s this system of forces that’s wrenching women’s attention away from each other and themselves and towards men just felt so true to me. And I just started to think about The Idiot and thinking about how I had thought that the A-Plot was the romance plot with Ivan. But actually, and I heard from readers too, the relationship with Selin and Svetlana had a lot more content. They talk more, they know each other better. There’s more at stake. It’s richer than the relationship with Ivan, which is kind of in both of their heads in different ways.
And then I was thinking about the scene at the end of The Idiot where they’re holding hands at the gay pride march in Paris, and then Svetlana sort of drops her hand and is like, “Let’s not flaunt the gay pride that we don’t actually have.” And I was remembering what a sad moment that is. From the beginning I was thinking of Either/Or as the breakup novel of Selin and Svetlana—that friendship was allowed to survive The Idiot. It was a constant friendship. But those friendships often don’t survive with that level of intensity because adult life is not made to support that. I was conscious that that was a friendship that was not going to survive dating men.
B&W: In another interview, you mentioned that you now see Either/Or as a book written from a queer and political consciousness about a person who doesn’t yet realize that she has either of those things. I also think that’s so precise about what it means to be this age. I’d love to hear about writing a character who acts and narrates with this defined consciousness even though she might lack that direct awareness of it.
EB: I was talking to the filmmaker Celine Sciamma, who I was profiling at a time when I was in the final editing stages of Either/Or, and I was really engaged with her work. She’s this queer radical, and I kept asking her, “When did you first use the word ‘patriarchy’? When did you first think of yourself as a feminist? When did you think of the scene as a rape?” Because I just kept wanting to know that timeline for myself. She said there’s the scene in Water Lilies, where at the time she thought it was about how teen relationships are sad. Now she’s like, “No, that was a rape.”
Then she’s like, “I’m not interested in this archaeology because what I’m interested in is the feelings. The feelings were always there. You just didn’t have the words for them.” The shorthand we have as we get older through life is like, “Oh, when I was young I was just dumb and I didn’t know better and I thought this wrong thing.” [But] I was no dumber then than I am now, I just have been around longer. I was the same person as I am now.
I knew about feminism, I knew about psychoanalytic theory, I knew about queer theory. It’s just that insofar as I heard about those things, I thought they weren’t for me. Writing a novel was a chance to get to go back in that space. I was also really influenced by Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone, where she talks about romance as a kind of propaganda that makes people choose their own subjugation. You choose it because it feels good; if it didn’t feel good, you wouldn’t do it. I wanted to dramatize that.
B&W: One line that encapsulates The Possessed is where you write that you “remember believing firmly” as a college student, “that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life and not from other novels and that as a novelist, you should try to not read too many novels.” Do you think that college you was totally wrong on that one?
EB: If you think about the history of the novel, I guess that’s a story that everyone could tell differently, but I would start it with Don Quixote, the story of this guy who loves these books so much that he wants his life to be like those books. He goes out and he’s using them as a map and they’re not accurate, right? He wants to see a giant and then he sees a windmill and he’s like, “Well I guess this is what a giant looks like.” Then he runs into it and the owner comes out and he has a whole fight and that becomes the plot of the book.
Is that life or is that literature? It’s life mediated by literature. I think that is the line that novels are riding. I think about books that are only inspired by life and aren’t inspired by other books, and I think that leads to a lonely and weirdly competitive and unhealthy way. It’s like, “Oh, I wanna write the best book that’s the truest to life.” Whereas now I feel like whenever I’m tempted to feel competitive with other writers, it’s like, no, there can’t be the best one. You can’t have just one book. They only work if they’re all in a conversation with each other.
B&W: One thing I’m really excited to ask is about Snoopy.
EB: Oh, Snoopy!
B&W: And Peanuts. When we started emailing, I noticed your Snoopy profile photo and I read your piece in Astra on Pigpen. You said that the Peanuts comics might have been your first novels.
EB: Oh yeah, I do love Snoopy. That Snoopy’s been my Gmail avatar for like, I don’t know, more than 10 years. I was in grad school and I was like, “Okay, am I gonna try to get an academic job or am I just gonna try to write full time and see if I can pay the bills from that?” And I was like, “I'm just gonna do it.” And I think that was when I changed the avatar to Snoopy because there was something about “oh, I'm gonna be a writer,” but it feels kind of fake and like you’re pretending to do it. But the way that Snoopy pretends to do things, he’s also really doing the thing. And it blurs that line.
I wrote about it in the Astra piece: I would go to the bookstore with my dad and he would be buying Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar and whatever weird stuff he was reading. I was too young to really read books like that. I remember being very excited by those Peanuts books that looked like actual paperback novels. The first novel that I ever wrote I tried to write when I was seven, and it was about all of the different witches in the Grimm stories. When you’re reading the Grimm stories and then the witch came and, you know, shut them up in a house made out of candy or whatever. And then you come to another story and there’s another witch, and Rapunzel has a witch, everyone has, there’s like a different witch in each story.
And I was like, “Wait, so like, is it the same witch or is it a different witch?” And then I was like, “Okay, in some places it can’t be the same witch because she has some clear identifying feature, but it could be maybe four witches.” So it was a book about the four witches and they meet and have brunch and talk about how hard their life is. But it didn’t get very far. I couldn’t think of adventures for them to do.
There’s something about the world of Peanuts—the characters clearly have these roles. Lucy’s a fussbudget and Pigpen is dirty and Snoopy is, you know, whatever Snoopy is, and Charlie Brown’s kind of a loser. But then those relationships permutate, you can see Charlie Brown give someone advice or sometimes Lucy is the loser in an interaction. It made the complexity of human relationships comprehensible and meaningful in a way for me that I got later from Anna Karenina.
My parents were divorced when I was 10 and I would hear about them from each other. As a kid you’re like, “Okay, so which one is right?” And then you realize at some point, “Well they’re all sort of right.” And then you’re like, “Is that gonna send me into a spiraling vortex of existential meaninglessness?” Well maybe, but in a novel like Anna Karenina, [Tolstoy] shows so clearly that the people who seem like they’re acting unreasonable, they’re acting reasonably based on all the stuff that they know. The arguments that people have are all, you know, they’re all kind of right. The people contradict themselves sometimes, but they’re also consistent in some way that your world isn’t totally rocked by their acting a little bit different. The whole thing coheres into a story. Being able to do that was extremely appealing to me as a kid. That was what I wanted to do, to be able to turn disorder into that kind of story.
B&W: I would love to hear about the moment in The Possessed when you’re in Turkey as a college student and having this sergeant driving you around, telling you that you have this responsibility by being at a fancy American university to tell the truth about Turkey to Americans. I think constantly about the obligations and responsibilities that come with being at a school like Columbia—that’s certainly nothing new, but I think it’s a pervasive thought among people in college now.
EB: It is crazy that some man from the Turkish army was like, “You have a responsibility to tell the truth about Turkey.” It’s a subconscious message that you get, but it’s really funny to think that some guy from the army just told me that to my face. I feel this has changed for me about Turkey a little bit in the past few years—I actually did an amazing event at Columbia with Mina Seçkin. She’s part of a younger generation of Turkish American writers. I didn’t know of any other Turkish American writers when I was writing, and I didn’t want to have to comment on Turkey because I felt like all of these issues are so emotional and polarized and charged. It’s not actually about the writer who’s saying something about the West, it’s about the toxic 400-year relationship between Turkey and the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe.
So to get in the middle of that, especially as a young person, is not very appealing. I think that we have a responsibility to tell our own stories, which includes those stories that we have access to. There’s a lot of incentive to not think about your own experience and to not do that kind of critical work about yourself, about the world that you live in, about history. I don’t know if there’s a responsibility, but there is a social value in it. There’s a social value in describing what it’s like to be a person in the world. There’s a social value that we get from novels that we don’t get from political philosophy.
Because the novel really, it’s where the wheel hits the road—what is it like to actually be a person and to feel all of these emotions that are brought about by nations and by all of these political constructions and different ideologies. If you just read the ideology versus if you read about how they make people feel and act in their family, that’s a huge motor for how the world works. It’s never actually frivolous to write about that stuff or to write about your emotions. I don’t know, I’ve learned a lot from the Headspace app.
B&W: The Headspace app?
EB: Yeah. I really like that app. He’s like, “When you familiarize yourself with the mind, you’re not just learning your own mind, you’re learning how the mind works.” That’s true of writing and personal experience, that you’re learning how people do things. It’s like the question of War and Peace, which is “Why do hundreds of thousands of people get up in the morning and march hundreds of thousands of miles to kill people they’ve never met?” Half the book is these essays that are trying to solve that, and then half the book is just stories about people who are like, “I fucking hate my mom, I need to get away,” and “my wife is driving me crazy.” And you see that that’s why the people are joining the army. That’s where I think responsibility comes in.