In “The Seducer’s Diary,” a novella from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, a manipulative man stalks and courts a younger girl; soon enough, they are engaged. But the seducer takes his real pleasure in manipulation, not love, and he connives to have the girl break the engagement. Alone and without definitive proof of the man’s past affection, the girl wonders if the whole affair was a figment of her imagination.
With substantially lower stakes—no stalking, no engagement—this is also the plot of Elif Batuman’s 2017 The Idiot and its recent sequel, which is named for the Kierkegaard. Both of Batuman’s books are narrated, for a change, from the point of view of the younger girl. Selin is a comically naïve Harvard student who email-flirts with an older student named Ivan and finds conveniently relevant passages while browsing in the campus bookstore. “How was it, then,” she says, “that ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ corresponded so closely to what felt like the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to me?”
Kiekegaard’s Either/Or is about the choice between the aesthetic and the ethical life, a choice that, we are told, also preoccupies Selin. Related questions—around politics, utility, and indulgence in writing—have preoccupied Batuman since at least 2006. Writing for a nascent n+1, she implored American writers to “write long novels, pointless novels” and to “not be ashamed to grieve about personal things.” Four years later, in the London Review of Books, she railed against the fiction written by graduates or instructors of MFA programs, which is to say most recent American fiction. Such writing, Batuman claimed, is intellectually illiterate. Programs encourage young writers to focus on their own narrowly defined victimhood: especially good are stories about cancer, slavery, the Holocaust, or immigrant alienation. The MFA cult of concision—“kill your darlings,” etc.—is a sort of working-class drag meant to rebrand the unavoidably elite and pleasure-seeking writing life as a socially useful path of self-denial and hard choices.
The Idiot, Batuman’s first novel, is a rejection of these ideals. Named for a novel of Dostoevsky’s, it adopts his leisurely, discursive pace. (Dostoevsky had gambling debts and was paid by the page.) As a Harvard student, Selin is an international symbol of the intellectual elite. She is uninterested in political victimhood, hers or others’. What does interest her is her coursework, which she glosses; Ivan’s emails, which she close-reads; and an uneventful summer in Hungary, which she describes in a fragmentary travelogue. Batuman, who is unshy about the autobiographical basis of the novel, wrote the first draft in her early twenties, and sections—particularly the visit to Hungary—read like a slightly edited version of her teenage diary.
Either/Or is an argument between a younger and older version of Batuman.
The problem with The Idiot is not its narcissism, which, in the making of art, is morally neutral and often helpful. But if Batuman set out to prove that elite frivolity belongs in the serious American novel, then she failed. There is a history, especially in campus novels, of a first-person narrator who turns his (it’s usually his) back on the political world, only to find himself stymied in the expression of his own pain. In The Idiot, Batuman does not work in this tradition so much as avoid unpleasantness entirely. Selin’s romance with Ivan is academic in every sense of the word. Her personal grievances never amount to personal griefs. The moral questions are in no way Dostoevskian. Instead, Batuman reaches for aesthetic, if not ethical seriousness via descriptions of all the nice things Selin learns at school. As a strategy for the rejuvenation of American letters, this did nothing for me. We will not conquer our insipidness via pithy summaries of the literature of less-insipid times.
Either/Or is, I believe, also a miscalculation, but its project is more ambitious and so its errors more interesting. By the fourth page, there are hints that Batuman is up to something new. Having returned to Harvard for her sophomore year, Selin is about to check her email after a long summer’s absence:
I found myself remembering a book I’d read where a woman looked in a mirror for the first time after seven years in a gulag, and the face looking back wasn’t her own, but that of her mother. I immediately recognized how shameful, self-important, and obtuse it was for me, an American college student who hadn’t checked email for three months, to compare herself to a political prisoner who had spent seven years in a gulag. But it was too late—I had already thought of it.
Has Batuman shifted from a pro-frivolity aesthetic to a privilege-checking ethic? It is true that Selin scolds herself for a presumptive comparison, but notice the irony in the scolding, and notice above all that final sentence, which implies a power struggle between narrator and author, as if Batuman could not simply delete an inconvenient thought.
The Idiot was an argument voiced by Batuman via Selin for frivolity over politics, aesthetics over ethics. Either/Or is an argument between a younger and older version of Batuman, between an apolitical child of the nineties and a post-Trump, post-therapy, post-late-onset lesbianism, self-described “super woke” person. The widening gap between Selin and Batuman makes for a more provocative tension between narrator and author—Selin is no longer just ridiculous; now, possibly, she is wrong. The debate at hand is still broadly that of politics and the novel, but the concerns have coalesced more vividly. Should one write one’s life as if it were a novel? Should one live one’s life as if it were a novel? Is sex necessary for narrative? Is heterosexuality necessary for narrative? Are these apparently aesthetic questions not also ethical?
As late as 2018, Batuman planned to write not a novel but an essay collection called Either/Or, which would consider the difficulties of writing memoiristically and, specifically, of writing the sequel to The Idiot. The vestiges of this project remain in the book she chose to publish, which is basically two projects in one.
The first project is a continuation of The Idiot. A newly vulnerable and forthright Selin mourns her confusing entanglement with Ivan. She tells us the details of her parents’ divorce; she gets depressed and starts taking Zoloft. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis is cheekily rushed through. Selin flirts and is rejected, seduces and is seduced. She spends another summer abroad, this time in Turkey.
The second project is feminist literary criticism, modified by Batuman to believably come from Selin. The criticism asks whether and how the first project should be written. The first project is the Either; the second is the Or. As in Kierkegaard’s book, the first gives itself over to indulgence; the second worries over the implications of such indulgence.
Having combined these two projects, Batuman amuses herself (and this reader) with moments of slippage between them, and between author and narrator. Selin reads Proust and is inspired to describe a game she used to play in which she made her fingers look like faces. “I would never waste more time by writing about it,” Selin says later, struck by the triviality of such a memory. But it’s too late⎯Batuman already has written about it. Elsewhere, Selin considers the critical reception of Elizabeth Wurtzel and finds herself “newly troubl[ed]” by the “story of a girl who had gone to Harvard, and was depressed because her parents were divorced, and had written a book that was widely criticized as self-indulgent.” Of course, this is also a description of Batuman, who has undergone her own autofictional press junkets and knows something about being called self-indulgent.
A possible advantage of combining the two projects, to put it in MFA terms that Batuman would despise, is that it allows her to show-not-tell. Batuman does not explain that heteronormativity in the canon is bad. Instead, we watch as Selin compares her own novel-life to the novel-lives of Kierkegaard’s young girl, Breton’s Nadja, Freud’s Dora, and James’s Isabel Archer, among many others. In doing so, Selin absorbs the norms of concision (“So: it was important to spare people details”) and of heterosexuality (“Was that what seduction was?”) that Batuman will go on to reject in writing and life. Nor, Batuman suggests, are the rules of craft and heterosexuality unrelated. In a dig at the critics who wondered why Selin and Ivan never had sex in The Idiot, Selin asks: “Was it sex—‘having’ sex—that would restore to me the sense of my life as a story?” This puts the feminist critic in an awkward position. I did think the book picked up a bit when Selin lost her virginity, but perhaps I have simply failed to abandon my patriarchal expectations of the novel.
The disadvantage of combining the projects is that Batuman is smarter than Selin, and her unfiltered thoughts on heteronormativity in the canon would be of great interest. In Either/Or, one gets the sense of a writer capable of throwing great distances who nevertheless, out of a sense of duty or novelty, ties her own hands. The rope here is not the fictional layer itself but the regression to a tone meant to convey the awkwardness of youth. This is meant to be humorous, but it works against Batuman’s strengths; Selin is too observant and cutting to play a Dostoevskian holy fool. Batuman, for her part, need not be dumb to be funny, and can rarely be both. (Many of the preoccupations of her novels were rendered more capably and hilariously in an earlier essay collection called The Possessed.) How much more would I rather read the mature Batuman defend autofiction than read Selin doing her best Holden Caulfield:
You didn’t just write down a raw cry of suffering. It would be boring and self-indulgent. You had to disguise it, turn it into art. That’s what literature was. That was what required talent, and made people want to read what you wrote, and then they would give you money.
Relatedly, Either/Or has its share of moments in which Selin patiently explains something we already know. Have we realized, for example, that total adherence to Kant’s categorical imperative could get one into some pretty sticky situations? That it was really messed up for God to ask Abraham to kill Isaac? That Martin Amis is kind of sexist? The tendency toward vapidity peaks when Batuman reaches for a concluding sentence. From a quick flip through the book: “It felt both boring and depressing.” “When I found it, it felt like a dream.” “When I read that, I almost threw up.” “Was this depressing, or was it fun?” “Tears sprang to my eyes and my heart filled with yearning.” “Then I felt my heart also melt.” There is a fine line between mimicking an ingénue and writing like an undergrad.
These blights on the page are all the more painful because they are not gaffes but deliberate, ill-judged choices. Batuman is capable of much better. Consider a scene toward the end, in which Selin has been coerced into a hotel room by a strange Turkish boy whom she suspects is mentally ill.
Koray’s face was red and distorted and squinty, his expression no longer noble, he looked like an infant, like he was having a fit. He went through all three condoms—not by putting them on and saying there was something wrong with them and throwing them in the toilet, like Volkan, but actually using each one, laboriously, all the way to the end.
The reference to nobility; the comparison to a child and to a previously coercive partner; that phrase went through, not to mention the use of laboriously—the understatement here is breathtaking: Selin has just been raped three times. Batuman understands, finally, that the choice between the aesthetic and the ethical is no choice at all. A writer must make each serve the other.