Thursday, September 20, 2018

Growing Years

A couple of buddies from the university days recently got together in Sydney. Although both of them have settled down in different cities in Australia, they did not meet for decades since the day they left the university. Thanks to the internet, it is not difficult to locate someone you once knew if you want to. Once upon a time, we were the young ones.  

From the vantage point of a young person, I had absolutely no idea what would lie ahead. When I was in my early twenties, I was briefly acquainted with a medical practitioner and his young adult son who were into palm reading. I was told that I would have a very colourful life. I remember the odd and intrigued look on their faces when they looked at my palms. Thanks to their amateurish reading,  unsure of what lay ahead,  I was in anticipation of serendipities with the curious mind of a young person about the exciting future.

In August I placed an order for several books and one of them is The Idiot by Elif Batuman. I wonder if nostalgia might have prompted me to order that book, to remind me of those growing years.The metamorphosis of each individual is a continuing process, yet we are not unlike each other  in various stages of our lives. We will not regret whatever we have done for we must not. As we age,  we lose the ability to risk any vulnerability and we are unwilling to make errors thus every action or inaction becomes measured and calculating. 

In The Idiot, the year is 1995. The story is about Selin Karadag, a nineteen-year-old of Turkish descent who grows up in New Jersey. She starts her freshman year at Harvard. Email is new and she only gets to know about Ethernet cable and what email is when she goes to college. She signs up for classes in literature, linguistics and subjects she has never heard of. She is supposed to take only four classes but when she finds out that they do not charge extra for five, she signs up for beginning Russian.

In her Russian class, she gets to know Ivan Varga, the Hungarian and Svetlana from Serbia. Ivan is an older mathematics student from Hungary and she begins corresponding with Ivan through emails. The act of writing seems to take on new and increasing mysterious meanings. Ivan becomes her love interest and  when he goes back to Hungary, Selin signs up to teach English for five weeks in the rural villages of Hungary. Before Hungary, she goes to Paris with Svetlana, who is worldly.


Selin is a dorky and bookish character and she is inquisitive about the theory and philosophy of languages and semiotics as a means of communication. At nineteen, Selin finds herself disorientated and overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. Selin wants to lead a life  “unmarred by laziness, cowardice and conformity”.  
 The story is narrated in Selin's voice. For her something basic in language has escaped her.
    '  Later I was walking to the gym with Svetlana and we passed a guy I knew from linguistics class. 
    “ Hey Selin, how’s it going,” he said. I paused to reply. Svetlana also had to stop walking, so did     the guy. None of us could go until I said something. But I thought and I thought, and couldn’t think   of what to say. After what felt like hours, I just gave up and started walking again.
 What was that all about ?” asked Svetlana.” Who was that ?”
“Nothing. Nobody.”
“ Why wouldn’t you talk to him?”
“ I couldn’t think of an answer.”
Svetlana stared at me. “ ‘How’s it going’ isn’t a question. It’s not like he actually cares how it’s going.”
“ I know,” I said miserably.

“ I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you ‘re incapable of saying, ‘ Fine,thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance. You can’t be unconventional in every aspect of life. People will get the wrong idea.”

The fiction encapsulates the awkwardness of a young female forging a self and how she goes through the ineffable humiliating confusion about love, what people say and what they actually mean as she enters adulthood. As an aspiring writer, Selin realises that language and words have let her down as she has never learned how language work in real life.

The Idiot is nominated as one of the finalists for the 2018  Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Elif Batuman is articulate and her book is written with deadpan humour and wit. She captures the self-consciousness of a young person well and I read that it is autobiographical. 

The book's epigraph is from Marcel ProustIn Search of Lost Time, Vol 17, Within a Budding Grove.
"But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through -- awkward indeed but by no means infertile -- is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything "

That is life in progress. Brilliant.