The Idiot

Elif Batuman ( is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. Her 2017 novel The Idiot concerns a college undergraduate, Selin, attending Harvard. The title is a conscious echo of the novel by Dostoyevski.


Selin has a conversation with her university friend Svetlana about whether or not one’s life should be thought of as a story. “Everyone experiences their own life as a narrative,” Selin says, “If you didn’t have some kind of ongoing story in mind, how would you know who you were when you woke up in the morning?” “That’s saying that narrative is just memory plus causality”, Svetlana responds, “But, for us, the narrative has aesthetic, too.” Selin isn’t convinced.


Signing up for various courses, Selin teaches algebra and English to immigrants. She reads Proust, and Mann, and Flaubert.  She learns about the ‘infinite uselessness’ of Freudian analysis and literary criticism, and there is much comedy about her frustrations in academic life.


During the summer holidays Selin travels to Europe, following fellow student Ivan to Hungary in order to teach English. In this section The Idiot is composed of a series of nicely observed vignettes about life at the end of last century. The author’s eye is acute and her description memorable. For example – she sees ‘a church, a dog and a tree. Everything looked strangely isolated, as if each item in the landscape had been purchased separately from a catalogue’. There are flavours of Sartre here from ‘Nausea’. All along the narrative seems not to much purpose, and this embodies a certain late 20th century knowing world weariness.


Check if this intelligent new novel is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at



432 pages in Jonathan Cape

First published 2017

ISBN  978-1910702697


Elif Batuman

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