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This Drifty State of Being

By (April 1, 2017) 2 Comments

The Idiot
By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, 2017

The Idiot
By Fyodor Dostoevsky
trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Vintage, 2003

Titles are delicate and often vexing work for writers. Hats off, then, to Elif Batuman, who has discovered an ingenious method for avoiding all that suffering: just take the ones whose reputations have already been made. Her first book, a collection of essays focusing on Russian literature, is called The Possessed, and her new novel, out last month with Penguin Press, is The Idiot. Neither is a retelling of its namesake, and so the question arises straightaway: why choose these titles, besides the ease of choosing? What is the effect of this—to use a Dostoevskyean concept—doubling?

Well, first off, it’s funny, and Batuman is a very funny writer. Both The Possessed and The Idiot—her iterations—are in large part comic projects, which is not to say that they aren’t also serious or ambitious. But besides the boldness and humor of the gesture, Batuman is also clearly placing her books in conversation with the novels whose titles they share, acknowledging her indebtedness while setting her own standard high. It seems both fair and intriguing, then, to read her book alongside Dostoevsky’s, and to search for correspondences.

I should say from the start that my investment in reading Batuman this way has much to do with my own longstanding love of Dostoevsky, and of The Idiot in particular. I first read it in high school during a period in which I read Russian novels at breakneck pace, and out of all the books I devoured during that time, it was a favorite; its big questions about the possibilities and dangers of compassion struck me as vital and important. I read the book again at 23. I loved it just as much, but was terrified by it, too—by the way in which, as I wrote in my journal at the time, “the prince… does everything to be good, but does not do anything right—because, Dostoevsky seems to be saying, it is not necessarily right to be good in this world…” The Idiot ranks for me among the best fiction, the sort that offers up more every time you sit down with it. Even before fully understanding Batuman’s project, I was excited by its potential; I’ve wanted to engage with the original Idiot in writing for years, and was glad that someone else might also want to, even indirectly.

Many reviews of Batuman’s Idiot have treated its link to Dostoevsky either straight-up erroneously or as topical and easy to gloss. “Like Dostoevsky’s idiot,” Molly Fischer writes in her review in Harper’s, “Batuman’s possesses a naïvete that is a source of both uncommon insight and uncomfortable ignorance.” This is a sweeping enough statement to avoid untruth, but it also ignores some striking differences between the concept of “idiocy” put forth in the two novels. To equate the “idiocy” of a saintlike epileptic and a somewhat sullen teenager feels not only like a misreading of both books, but also a shortshrifting of the humor of Batuman’s novel. A baffling preview in the Boston Globe‘s 2017 “most anticipated” list reads, in its entirety: “The nod to Dostoevsky is no mistake in this witty, endearing coming-of-age saga of a Harvard student, the daughter of Turkish immigrants living in New Jersey, who heads off after a head-spinning freshman year to rural Hungary to teach English and begins to both find and invent herself along the way.” No mistake indeed! It may well be that critics have thus far skirted the relationship between the two novels because the connection is not easy to discern, especially on the surface. Nevertheless, that is where I’d like to start, as the happenings within each story are inextricably bound up with the authors’ respective choices about structure, narration, and aesthetics.

Dostoevsky’s novel begins with a chance meeting on a train to St. Petersburg: Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, returning from several years of treatment in Switzerland “on account of illness, some strange nervous illness like the falling sickness or St. Vitus’s dance, some sort of trembling and convulsions,” encounters Parfyon Rogozhin, a man infatuated with Nastasya Filippovna, a woman kept from the age of twelve by a wealthy society man as a sort of concubine. The prince charms Rogozhin with his openness, and he is in his own way charmed; the action unfolds from there. There are overlapping love triangles, multiple scandals involving the intersection of money and desire, clashes between social mores and moral action; there are mysterious correspondences (perhaps the strongest resemblance between the novel and Batuman’s own), a large cast of avaricious meddlers, drunks, and boors, and numerous digressions into the nature of executions, the Russian soul, and Hans Holbein’s painting Christ’s Body in the Tomb. It is an exuberant, expansive book, in which something is described as “extraordinary” on nearly every page. Dostoevsky, in a letter to his niece Sofya Ivanova, puts forth the big ambitions of what he’s writing:

The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man. There is nothing more difficult in the world and especially now. All writers, not only ours, but even all European writers, who have merely attempted to portray the positively beautiful, have always given up. Because the task is immeasurable. The beautiful is an ideal, but this ideal, whether ours or that of civilized Europe, is still far from being worked out.

One of the most riveting aspects of The Idiot is that, despite this project and despite its numerous moments of exultation and generosity, it ends in a spectacular darkness, and in a return to a kind of terrifying wordlessness. The book is preoccupied with the idea of riddles, and in some sense it is itself a riddle, or a series of them: what is the distinction between love and pity? Where, on that scale, do we place compassion? What about this world (Dostoevsky’s, our own) makes someone striving to be morally good a “fool”? (I think of one of the most vivid lines from another Dostoevsky novel, Notes from Underground, in which the narrator, a kind of polar foil to Myshkin, cries out: “They won’t let me… I can’t be… good!”)

I have seriously condensed the plot of the Dostoevsky novel, but Batuman’s endeavor is easier to summarize—there’s not much plot in a traditional sense. (I should note here, to be clear, that I don’t consider that a disadvantage.) The Boston Globe blurb I cited earlier gets most of the major occurrences in: Selin, a freshman at Harvard, stumbles through her first two semesters and goes to Hungary for the summer, mostly for the sake of Ivan, an “unusually, almost unreasonably tall” Hungarian math major with whom she strikes up an ambiguous, correspondence-based relationship. Batuman moves episodically and at an unhurried pace through this year of Selin’s life, letting us see how pretentious professors, classroom acquaintances, unsuccessful attempts at community service, unremarkable excursions off campus, and more are, quite sincerely, the drama of Selin’s days. Along the way, plenty of texts slip into the story: Selin’s oddly mesmerizing Russian homework, her emails to and from Ivan, and Selin’s own references to other writers’ work. The novel starts out with the air of a bildungsroman and moves into a kind of picaresque as Selin arrives abroad, though it flouts the arc and closure traditionally followed in both forms.

If any of this sounds familiar, might it be that you have read Batuman’s The Possessed? In the collection’s introduction, Batuman tells the story of what brought her to graduate school, and that story is her Idiot condensed into five pages, without the pretense of fiction. The baffling linguistics class propositions are there; so is the strangely absorbing story the narrator is asked to read for her introductory Russian class; so is the mysterious older Hungarian student with whom the narrator falls in love. Even the “boys’ leg contest” that the narrator is strongarmed into judging while teaching in a Hungarian village makes an appearance. In interviews, Batuman has said that she wrote a draft of The Idiot in her early twenties and returned to it nearly two decades later—so we can surmise that perhaps this introduction in The Possessed was a condensation of that early draft, a kind of remaking of as-yet-unused material. Still, it’s strange to see this story told in such neat summary in The Possessed, just as I found it strange to see the excerpt from The Idiot that appeared in the New Yorker this January, which took small sections of the first 90 pages of the novel and strung them together, with small additions and changes, in a different order. It speaks to a feature of Batuman’s book that to me seems worth noting and questioning. Just after recounting this period of youth in the introduction to The Possessed, Batuman writes:

Today this all strikes me as somehow typical of the way things happen, when you try to follow life. Events and places succeed one another like items on a shopping list. There may be interesting and moving experiences, but one thing is guaranteed: they won’t naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book.

In this worldview, excerpting small sections of a novel and rearranging them as a New Yorker story makes sense: if you take a grocery list and remove half the items from the list, no overall meaning is lost, because the meaning doesn’t depend on sequence, or even on the meaning accrued by the proximity of all the items. Sure, your meals might suffer if you skip some ingredients, but the list itself is still unimpeachably a list: “bananas” makes as much sense next to “tomato sauce” as it does next to “milk.” The metaphorical equivalent, then, is that life in total can be described as a series of fragments, interesting in themselves but not necessarily in relation to one another. But Batuman’s attitude here is also a bit perplexing. Is she advocating the construction of narratives that don’t “naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book”? Is she critical of them? What is, in her mind, a “wonderful book,” anyway?

It’s easier to say what type of book might not seem wonderful to Batuman. Besides the story of her college and post-college experiences, one of the topics that she returns to over and over again in essays and interviews (and even in a brief scene in The Idiot in which Selin’s story wins a campus magazine prize) is her distaste for so-called “program writing,” which she sees as spreading beyond the offending MFA programs and into American literary culture as a whole. She describes the aesthetic of this writing, in an essay called “Get A Real Degree,” as “oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.” Batuman seems, both by way of her many polemical pieces on this topic and her books themselves, to be advocating for work that puts at its center what she calls “novelistic alienation—the realization that lived experience doesn’t resemble literature.”

This alienation is, Batuman is careful to point out, as old as the novel itself—her claim is not that she or other contemporary writers have invented this angle, but rather that

[t]he novelistic hero is by definition someone whose life experience hasn’t been fully described, possibly because of his race or class, but more broadly because he didn’t exist before, and neither did the technology for describing him. The durability and magic of the novel form lies in the fact that, having gained a certain level of currency, the latest novel is immediately absorbed into the field of preexisting literature, and becomes the thing the next novel has to be written against.

This is compelling stuff, and Batuman backs it up beautifully in her essay. One of her touchstones is Don Quixote, which she credits with not only the creation of novelistic alienation, but also with the novel’s omnivorous inclusiveness. “[I]n Don Quixote,” she writes, “class and race have no higher an order of significance than, say, a hidalgo’s typical weekly diet, or the noise produced by a textile mill…” Don Quixote is also one of the texts most obviously referenced by Dostoevsky in The Idiot, and the difference between what the two authors highlight in Cervantes’s novel is telling—Dostoesvky wrote in his diary that Don Quixote is

a great book, not the sort that are written now; only one such book is sent to humanity in several hundred years… Man will not forget to take this saddest of all books with him to God’s last judgment. He will point to the fact that humanity’s most sublime beauty, its most sublime purity, chastity, forthrightness, gentleness, courage, and, finally, its most sublime intellect—all these often (alas, all too often) come to naught, pass without benefit to humanity, and even become an object of humanity’s derision simply because all these most noble and precious gifts with which a person is often endowed lack but the very last gift—that of genius to put all this power to work and to direct it along a path of action…

So yes, another type of alienation—this one tragic, and based on both a kind of grand interiority and an understanding of interiority’s limits. Though Dostoevsky and Batuman’s takes on Cervantes are not at all contradictory, they do foreground the authors’ radically different endeavors. If Dostoevsky is taking on sublimity, with all its connotations of immensity of scale, Batuman very deliberately—and in some sense courageously—devotes herself to the contemporary equivalents of what a hidalgo might eat for breakfast, what she calls “aspects of an undocumented historical present.”

The writer who attempts this sort of project runs into problems, one of which might be, to borrow another set of ideas from “Get a Real Degree,” how to turn a “comically mundane” life into one that is also “eternally surprising.” Batuman pairs these two traits as if they are intrinsically linked—but I’m not so sure they are, and neither is Dostoevsky. In the opening chapter of the final section of his Idiot, we find our narrator contemplating his task: “Writers… try to take social types and present them graphically and artistically—types which in their full state are met with extremely rarely in reality and which are nonetheless almost more real than reality itself.” But what if your story contains people less easy to hyperbolize—if your literary ambition is to capture precisely “reality itself”?

Nonetheless, a question remains before us all the same: what is a novelist to do with ordinary, completely “usual” people, and how can he present them to the reader so as to make them at least somewhat interesting? To bypass them altogether in a story is quite impossible, because ordinary people are constantly and for the most part the necessary links in the chain of everyday events; in bypassing them we would thus violate plausibility.

Dostoevsky’s narrator then identifies the people in his story who are “ordinary,” and describes how this ordinariness affects their roles in the tale he’s telling. But he also suggests that “such people even acquire a kind of typicality”—and, more importantly, the passage points out a major question intrinsic to both Dostoevsky and Batuman’s books: if not everything is in fact interesting to readers, how do you decide what to omit or exaggerate or change? How do you make the mundane surprising?

Dostoevsky’s narrator seems to imply the answer to such questions in the passage above. The narrator is the key, the current running underneath—his presence, and his relationship with the reader, carry it all. And the two Idiots take near-opposite approaches to this structural concern. The most obvious distinction is that Batuman’s book is told in the first-person, whereas Dostoevsky’s is in third omniscient (although, as will be discussed later, this omniscience is at odds with a kind of ethos of intrigue and concealment). But the differences extend well beyond this choice. Whereas Dostoevsky’s narrator seems to strive to guide the reader—to, in a sense, explain what is unclassifiable, as in the example above—Selin’s entire presence is based on her unwillingness or inability to do so. The unclassifiable and ordinary are her entire world. At one point early in her college semester, she describes her life at Harvard this way: “Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.” She feels unable to interpret any of what she’s learning or seeing, and she compares her interior blankness to a passage in Chekhov’s “The Darling,” which she quotes:

She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.

Selin references literature throughout the novel, but this is the only passage given to Batuman’s reader at length, and it feels essential for understanding the book. There is a slight critique built into Chekhov’s words of the very line of thinking they describe—the teleological and rational bent of “what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make” seems both silly and a little frightening. Can’t something be and be seen “for” itself? But the feeling of being overwhelmed by sensation and experience, and of the possible futility of our desire to evaluate that experience, permeates Batuman’s Idiot. Selin’s correspondence with Ivan is more about describing dissonances than resonances—what the two of them don’t know, both individually and about each other. Summarizing an early email, she says:

Part of me thought that nothing would be here anymore—that I would come up the escalator and there would be only snow. Instead I found brick walls, Balzac, frozen yogurt, alveolar fricatives, everything just the way I left it. I felt a great need to tell him how I was surrounded, overwhelmed, by things of unknown or dubious meaning, things that weren’t commensurate to me in any way.

Ivan, despite Selin’s interest in him, isn’t commensurate to her either, and that word, linked to ideas of correspondence and coextensiveness, describe a state of relation to oneself and the world that is not accessible to Selin—or, if it is, it’s refused to Batuman’s reader. In this sense The Idiot differs from the book to which I believe it most truly attempts to pay homage, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (the first two volumes in particular—Batuman uses a quote from Within a Budding Grove as her epigraph). Like Marcel, Selin is interested in the strangeness of what is normally not noticed, and, like Marcel, she is trying to figure out how to be a writer without precisely knowing what to write about. But Proust’s novels are predicated entirely on a sense of phenomenological linkages: the way time strings together, the way one sight echoes another, the way a relationship carries both present and past selves in its tide. There are moments in which Selin—and, more importantly, Batuman—seem interested in this idea, but the overall effect of spending time in Selin’s mind, especially as the novel moves through its meandering second half, is one of almost obstinate refusal to allow any grandeur of connectedness.

This reticence gives Batuman’s book a mysterious aspect, a sense of concealment. Dostoevsky’s novel is full of mystery, too—the difference is in what this mysteriousness suggests about narrative and, by extension, life itself. While the entire weight of Batuman’s book rests on Selin’s remote-seeming subjectivity, the narrator of the original Idiot‘s position in relation to its characters and action is not as fixed as initial moments in the novel might lead the reader to expect. Though he is capable of moving from character to character and leaping forward and backward in time, there are also limitations, whether they are to be read as conscious withholding or actual obstacles to “knowing,” to what he can tell the reader. An example from the start of the second part of the novel, which begins with Prince Myshkin’s sudden departure from Petersburg, ostensibly to claim an inheritance:

It was said then that there might have been other reasons for such a hasty departure; but of that, as well as of the prince’s adventures in Moscow and generally in the course of his absence from Petersburg, we can supply very little information. The prince was away for exactly six months, and even those who had certain reasons to be interested in his fate could find out very little about him during all that time.

There are several layers of restraint here. “It was said” implies a kind of hearsay-based information-gathering; the narrator also explicitly tells us that there is a limit to what he can tell us about. (Does it have to do with things happening in Moscow versus Petersburg? Is the narrator embedded in a particular time and place?) And there is, in that final sentence, an adjective that, like “extraordinary,” appears innumerable times in the book: “certain.” People are forever going to town on “a certain matter,” “a certain person” is interested in X or Y, or “certain information” is withheld—in this way, Dostoevsky’s book employs an almost detective-story-style intrigue, and keeps us wondering who or what’s behind that “certain” thing.

All the masking devices in the passage I’ve quoted above, and in Dostoevsky’s book in its entirety, posit that behind them is a whole tangle of connectedness and motivation. Selin’s world is not posited on such a thing. In an interview with Book Page, Batuman characterizes Selin’s brand of alienation, particularly in the second half of the novel, as a “feeling of falling outside of plot,” and as a “devastating” experience:

I think for all or many people there are times when one feels like a character in a book or movie, and everything that happens feels meaningful, picturesque, like it’s heading towards something; but it’s possible to lose that feeling, sometimes quite suddenly, and then for a time, sometimes quite a long time, life feels like just a list of occurrences or experiences with no order or meaning.

This logic—very reminiscent of the passage from The Possessed quoted earlier—seems unimpeachable: what Batuman describes is a recognizable feeling. But does it need 400 pages to make itself clear? The experience of reading was, for me, marred by Batuman’s insistent and exclusive focus on this drifty state of being, combined with her relentlessly wry and often distant narration. Her Idiot is at its best during its early sections, which make smart and pleasurable use of fictional intertextuality; the strange correspondences of “Nina in Siberia,” the serial story used in Selin’s Russian class, with Selin’s own life make us question the origin of the text itself, and the emails Ivan and Selin exchange feel productively charged with ambiguity, painfully recognizable by anyone who has ever had a romance (or almost-romance) of that sort. But by refusing any extravagance of language or feeling, Batuman limits the impact of her story, and the choice feels cynical to me, even if Selin herself does not.

Like Batuman, I have my doubts about MFA programs—but, unlike Batuman, I recently passed through one, and though her book is certainly more formally interesting and thoughtful than many of the pieces I saw produced there, I couldn’t help feeling as I read it that it suffered from the same trait I found most frustrating in the “program fiction” I read each week: not its ahistoricity, but its desire to deny its characters and its readers any unashamed grand feeling. Life is “comically mundane,” yes, but it is also full of what Virginia Woolf describes as “sudden violent shock”: glimpses of great pain or great brilliance that elicit an equally strong response. Batuman’s book, so well-defended by her critical writing, seems to suggest that the epiphanic power with which Woolf or Joyce or even Proust endows prosaic moments would appear false in literature today, precisely because of the scale of that feeling and the directness with which those authors express it. Even the narration of an adolescent, for both Selin and Batuman, requires unwavering restraint, whether for the sake of some austere aesthetic or because of an assumption that fullheartedness, not bewilderment, is real foolishness. In the rare moments when Batuman does allow Selin an explicit emotion, the prose itself falters: the line “I felt a wave of tenderness toward her” shows up over and over, as if it were the only figurative formulation of friendship that Batuman could permit herself.

Consider, as a counterexample, this passage from Dostoevsky’s Idiot. I’ll quote it here at length, in part because it seems to me to describe some version of what Selin feels in Batuman’s novel—what resonates with her in the Chekhov passage I quoted earlier, and with her description in her email to Ivan of being “surrounded, overwhelmed, by things of unknown or dubious meaning, things that weren’t commensurate to me in any way.” This moment arrives just after one of many dramatic crowd scenes in Dostoevsky’s book; an all-night gathering at the prince’s summer dacha has ended in an attempted suicide by Ippolit, a young consumptive who, whether intentionally or out of genuine error, does not load the gun with which he tries to shoot himself. Ippolit has forced the group of people at the dacha to listen to a long and harrowing “Necessary Explanation” of his wish to die, and, after the guests disperse, the prince takes a walk to clear his head. But the scene, and Ippolit’s explanatory words, come back:

Above him in the trees a little bird was singing, and he started searching for it with his eyes among the leaves; suddenly the bird flew away from the tree, and at that moment for some reason he recalled the “little fly” in a “hot ray of sunlight,” of which Ippolit had written that even this fly “knows its place and participates in the general chorus, and he alone was a castaway.” This phrase had struck him earlier, and he remembered it now. A long-forgotten memory stirred in him and suddenly became clear all at once.

It was in Switzerland, during the first year of his treatment, even during the first months. He was still quite like an idiot then, could not even speak properly, and sometimes did not understand what was required of him. Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this great everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, since childhood, and which he could never join? Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every “little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus; knows its place, loves it, and is happy”; every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.

This passage is startling both for the similarity between the feelings described here and in parts of Batuman’s novel—the sensation of somehow falling out of the world’s inclusive order—and for the difference in the way this alienation is conveyed in each book. Dostoevsky draws on images of nature that might seem to some clichéd, but he pairs them with the strange, original detail of the “little fly… in a hot ray of sunlight”; he allows the pacing of the sentences, as the passage progresses, to stretch out into lyric, patterned lament. I hear what Selin is saying when she expresses her loneliness and bafflement, but, here with Myshkin, I also see and feel it.

Perhaps what I object to in Batuman’s book is not Selin’s reticence, but a kind of implication, by way of the novelist’s choices, that such reticence is the best way to truly render lived experience. The only nonincidental reference to Dostoevsky in Batuman’s novel (Tolstoy gets many more shoutouts) occurs in a conversation between Selin and Ivan in Hungary, after Ivan describes a dog’s eyes as “Dostoevskian,” and she says Dostoevsky is “so-so.” He asks her:

“So what don’t you like about Dostoevsky?”

I thought it over. “He makes me embarrassed and tired… He invents these supposedly complicated problems and then gets so worked up about them—like, it’s hell, it’s intolerable humiliation, it’s the mathematically highest point of abasement. But to me, none of those things seem particularly hellish or humiliating or complicated. When I can’t get worked up myself, I feel embarrassed. And tired.”

Ivan responds to this by defending Dostoevsky: “’Isn’t it a real question—what’s so bad, practically, about killing an old woman who nobody likes?’” Both attitudes are at least a little ridiculous, and certainly the fact that Selin is our narrator doesn’t mean that her attitude is shared by her creator—my guess is, in fact, that it’s not. But the essence of what Selin says here—that Dostoevsky’s scenarios, his very outlook itself, have something excessive and thus false-feeling to them—somehow does manage to inform the ethos of Batuman’s novel.

In a 2006 essay for n +1, we get a glimpse of the sort of style Batuman prefers. “Short Story and Novel” speaks admiringly of a quality Batuman calls “openness,” by which she seems to mean an absence of perceivable authorial intent. In place of this, we might find “graphomania” and “botchedness,” an aesthetic of artlessness. This appears to be Batuman’s way of reacting to the “useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic” dictates of program fiction—and indeed, there’s no reason why a great book must involve characters undergoing transformation or trundling along any sort of neat trajectory. But I wonder a bit at celebrating any book for affectlessness alone. For me, the “openness” of authorial ambiguity has to be in some way tempered by another sort of mystery, this one a presence rather than an absence—the sense, for the reader, of someone else inhabiting the text alongside you (character or narrator or author or some admixture of all three), invested in your readerly experience as well as in the experience the book describes. And, too, I want and wish for some sense of stakes, whether they are as grandly moral as Dostoevsky’s or not; I want to feel what the writer Sam Michel once described to me as the force, vital and propulsive as a breath held long and then released, of an author saying something she believes has to be said, has to be set down in fiction. This force comes in part from a belief in literature’s power and obligations as relational: what is internal, interior moves out into the world to encounter and touch others. Despite the liveliness of some of Batuman’s scenes, despite my interest in the abstract scope of her novel, I get the sense that the greatest urgency on her part comes mostly from the intrinsic interest all of us cannot help but take in our own experience, combined with a dogged sense that “real life” should be directly transcribed on the page, even if that means leaving the reader to wade through arbitrariness on her own.

In one of the earliest scenes of Dostoevsky’s novel, Prince Myshkin demonstrates various handwritings he has mastered while abroad. He concludes his description of one such style to his audience by saying: “…what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” Perhaps what I missed most in Batuman’s book is precisely this. It refuses, on its own aesthetic principles, any flourishes either in style or substance. I admire her work, I see its intelligence and merit—but it is Dostoevsky’s words and world, with their author’s willingness to exclaim and to, in Selin’s words, “[get] so worked up” about his subjects, that I fall in love with, and that I will return to again and again.

____
Liza Birnbaum is a founding editor of Big Big Wednesday. Her writing has appeared in Web Conjunctions, Tammy, Rain Taxi, and previously in Open Letters Monthly. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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