May 18, 2022
Should one spend one’s brief time on Earth guided by hedonism and pleasure, or by morality and responsibility? The second instalment of Elif Batuman’s chronicle of Selin, a student of Russian literature at Harvard in the 1990s whose biography corresponds fairly closely to the writer’s own, takes as its title Søren Kierkegaard’s first book, which suggests that one must choose whether to live according to ethical or aesthetic principles. For Selin, now in her sophomore year and with an unsatisfactory, perplexing quasi-relationship with mathematics student Ivan apparently behind her, the real issue seems not so much how to make a choice between two starkly opposed systems, but how to start living at all.
Kierkegaard is not Selin’s only template: as in Batuman’s preceding novel, The Idiot, and her nonfiction book, The Possessed, works of literature exist, variously, as vast mansions in which to wander, marvelling at the ingenuity and beauty of the fixtures and fittings; unexpectedly capricious haunted houses, in which mirrored doors open on to dead-end corridors and distorted reflections; and, occasionally and disappointingly, arid thought experiments, destined to trap the reader in repetitive and unyielding arguments.
In the course of Either/Or, Selin finds herself in agitated dialogue with André Breton’s Nadja. “I started keeping a running record in my notebook of everything in Nadja that seemed related to any of my problems,” Selin explains, before pondering the possibility of writing a concordance to the novel in the manner of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. “I knew that nobody would want to read such a book; people would die of boredom.” Later, she takes herself off to her student bunk to read Proust, and weeps at the thought that, like him, she will spend much of her life repairing to bed early and minutely dissecting his memories. Why, she wonders, does Proust have to keep thinking about this stuff? “Why couldn’t he write a book about something else?”
Selin’s creative dilemma – that she wants not only to read but to write novels – is accompanied by other “real-life” complications. One is how to reconcile the Turkish and American parts of her heritage and upbringing, as the daughter of divorced parents who has grown up in New Jersey, but travelled each summer to see her family in Ankara; she often bristles at how cultures and places outside the US are subjected to its lens, and at how ignorant Americans appear to be of their own blinkers. She must also navigate the profound weirdnesses of her fellow students and, perhaps most pressingly, experience her first kiss.
In terms of writing, she suspects that there’s something more to creating fiction than simply titivating one’s own observations and daily life, that some form of literary alchemy must take place (though she’s not always convinced that the supposedly great writers have achieved it). As Leonard, her creative writing tutor, points out to a classmate whose short story sounds depressingly pedestrian and strikingly similar to his own life, it’s fine if you want to write about not being able to get laid, but you have to take the reader with you.
Batuman’s success in Either/Or is how thoroughly she exploits the gap between Selin’s scepticism about the creation and the consequences of literature and her narrator’s wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice. While Selin is worrying over how to marshal the fragments of existence into writing, she is tossing off one-liner after one-liner, her tone ranging from the lugubrious to the withering. When her friend Svetlana encourages her to see a therapist to process her confusion and grief about Ivan, she reflects that Svetlana’s own counsellor “was just the kind of jocular Socratic advice-implier I didn’t want to hear from”. Of another friend, Jeremy, who is in love with two girls named Diane, she notes that “even though he talked about the Dianes constantly, he didn’t seem incapacitated; he always had the strength to pivot to his other favourite topic, which was the works of Thomas Pynchon”. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I felt that an entire lifetime of talking to men about books was encapsulated there.
Selin’s tendency to bounce between such shrewd character assessments and complete naivety is also charming, even when it borders on the far-fetched. Her disbelief at the sheer oddness and pointlessness of the mechanics of sex, which she apprehends as a rite of passage she must endure rather than enjoy, is so wholeheartedly deployed that one feels all the reading of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther will not make a dent; similarly, her Ivan-shaped heartbreak is likely to remain resistant to even the most detailed scrutiny of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Although it’s a form of literature that Selin doesn’t mention, her story has much in common with the picaresque; episodic in structure, filled with acquaintances, misadventures and strangers whose motives are questionable, it is meandering rather than propulsive. Batuman thinks nothing, for example, of taking three pages to describe Selin’s reaction to listening to the Fugees, or to reading Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, which, fairly predictably, a male friend has suggested to her – she comes to the astute and pithy conclusion that it is better to be the writer than the written about.
Either/Or does not exactly conclude; rather, a third volume seems almost inevitable, given that Selin appears to be leaving Kierkegaard and Breton to one side as she embarks on a reading of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Sex has also entered the frame. Spending her summer updating student guidebooks, Selin seems suddenly struck by the idea that conveying information plainly – “Hearty sandwiches. Hot dishes” – might be just as useful, and indeed truthful, as the greatest literature. From the vantage point of greater age, one might point out that it is not an either/or situation, and perhaps Selin’s further adventures will help her appreciate that.
- Either/Or is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99).