Critique of Either by Elif Batuman – Adventures in Literature and Life | Fiction

SShould one spend one’s brief stay on Earth guided by hedonism and pleasure, or by morality and responsibility? The second part of Elif Batuman’s column on Selin, a student of Russian literature at Harvard in the 1990s and whose biography matches that of the writer quite closely, takes as its title the first book by Søren Kierkegaard, which suggests that we must choose to live according to ethical or aesthetic principles. For Selin, now in her second year and with a near-unsatisfying and confusing relationship with math student Ivan apparently behind her, the real problem seems not so much how to choose between two starkly opposed systems, but how to begin. to live at all. .

Kierkegaard is not Selin’s only role model: as in Batuman’s earlier novel, The Idiot, and his non-fiction book, The Possessed, literary works exist, in various ways, as vast mansions in which to walking around, marveling at the ingenuity and beauty of the fixtures and fittings. ; haunted houses with unexpected whims, whose mirrored doors open onto dead-end corridors and distorted reflections; and, occasionally and disappointingly, arid thought experiments, meant to trap the reader in repetitive and inflexible arguments.

During Other/Or, Selin finds herself in an agitated dialogue with Nadja by André Breton. “I started noting down in my notebook everything in Nadja that seemed to be related to one of my problems,” Selin explains, before thinking about the possibility of writing a concordance to the novel in the manner of Pale Fire. by Nabokov. “I knew that no one would want to read such a book; people were dying of boredom. Later, she retires to her student bunk to read Proust, and weeps at the thought that, like him, she will spend much of her life going to bed early and painstakingly dissecting her memories. Why, she wonders, must Proust keep thinking about such things? “Why couldn’t he write a book about something else?”

Selin’s creative dilemma – that she not only wants to read but also write novels – comes with other “real world” complications. One is how to reconcile the Turkish and American parts of her heritage and upbringing, as the daughter of divorced parents who grew up in New Jersey but traveled every summer to see her family in Ankara; she often bristles at how cultures and places outside of the United States are subjected to her lens, and how ignorant Americans seem to be blinders of their own. She must also navigate the deep quirks of her comrades and, perhaps most pressingly, experience her first kiss.

In terms of writing, she suspects that there is something more to creating fiction than simply titillating one’s own observations and everyday life, that some form of literary alchemy must take place (even if it is not always convinced that the so-called great writers realized it). As Leonard, her creative writing tutor, points out to a classmate whose short story seems depressing and surprisingly similar to her own life, it’s fine if you want to write about not being able to get fucked, but you must take the reader with you.

Batuman’s success in Either/Or is the way she fully exploits the gap between Selin’s skepticism about the creation and consequences of literature and the wonderfully idiosyncratic comedic voice of its narrator. As Selin agonizes over how to bring the fragments of existence together in writing, she spouts line after line, her tone ranging from mournful to withering. When her friend Svetlana encourages her to see a therapist to deal with her confusion and grief over Ivan, she thinks Svetlana’s own counselor “was just the kind of pleasant Socratic advice I didn’t want to hear about”. Of another friend, Jeremy, who is in love with two girls named Diane, she notes that “even though he talked constantly about the Dianes, he didn’t seem incapable; he always had the strength to pivot to his other favorite subject, which was the work of Thomas Pynchon”. Maybe I’m planning, but I felt that a lifetime of talking to men about books was summed up there.

Selin’s tendency to bounce between such sensible character assessments and downright naivety is equally charming, even when it borders on wacky. Her disbelief at the sheer strangeness and pointlessness of the mechanics of sex, which she apprehends as a rite of passage she must endure rather than enjoy, is so fully deployed that one feels the whole reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther won’t make a dent; likewise, his Ivan-like grief is likely to withstand even the most detailed scrutiny of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Although it is a form of literature that Selin does not mention, its history has much in common with the picaresque; Episodic in structure, filled with acquaintances, misadventures, and strangers with questionable motives, it’s meandering rather than propulsive. Batuman doesn’t hesitate, for example, to take three pages to describe Selin’s reaction to listening to The Fugees, or to read The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, which, predictably enough, a male friend suggested to him. – she comes to the astute and lapidary conclusion that it is better to be the writer than the writing.

Either/or does not conclude exactly; on the contrary, a third volume seems almost inevitable, given that Selin seems to leave out Kierkegaard and Breton as she embarks on a reading of Henry James’s Portrait of a Woman. Sex also entered the frame. Spending her summer updating student handbooks, Selin seems suddenly struck by the idea that conveying information clearly – “Hearty sandwiches. Hot dishes” – could be just as useful, and even truthful, as the greatest literature. From the perspective of a later age, one could point out that it’s not one or the other situation, and perhaps Selin’s new adventures will help her appreciate that.

Either/Or is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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