The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

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If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich

“It’s been so hard for me to believe that being adored doesn’t mean I’m one mistake away from being despised.”

If you are looking for an escapist read, look on further. If This Gets Out is a cute and ultimately uplifting YA romance. It does have the sort of tropes and scenarios that you would get from fanfic but I happened to be in the mood for something cheesy and fun.
I have never been a fan of boybands nor am I into ‘shipping’ real-life people so I read If This Gets Out on its own merit (ie without drawing comparison to that boyband). Our dual narrators, Ruben Montez and Zach Knight, are members of a famous American boyband, Saturday. While Ruben, Zach, Angel, and Jon all love being in a band together and enjoy the perks that come with their job, they have little freedom (creative or otherwise). Their management has forced them into adopting a certain personality (for example Angel and Jon’s ‘personas’ are shaped by racial stereotypes) and the boys are beginning to resent this. Ruben is gay and is tired of being forced to keep his sexuality a secret. Zach is not too happy with his lyrics always being turned down for not being ‘pop’ enough. Angel, who is very energetic and loud, turns do drugs and partying. Jon, who happens to be the son of their manager, is clearly not comfortable with being the band’s ‘sex’ symbol.
On a tour to Britain and Europe, things get worse. Their management controls their every move and the boys feel increasingly under pressure. They aren’t allowed to do any of the touristy things and their management are constantly monitoring them (often criticising them). Ruben and Zach become particularly close during this time and their feelings are definitely less than platonic. Zach, however, is unsure of his sexuality or what he wants and briefly, things between them don’t go too well. Thankfully the story doesn’t dwell on their disagreement for too long and the two get together. But as you might guess their management isn’t too keen on their romance (given that their audience consists mostly of young girls they have to remain ‘available’).

The story is certainly entertaining. While most of the adult characters are rather one-dimensional I did like the dynamics within the band. Some of the disagreements between Ruben and Zach did not make much sense (especially towards the end, it seemed like the plotline needed an argument so an argument happened). The narrative mostly focuses on showing how controlling, manipulative, and downright shitty the adults around the boys are (Ruben’s mother being the worst of the lot, even if she was not entirely convincing) and the downsides of fame (creepy/stalkery fans etc.). The story is clearly about the freedom to be yourself and being allowed to figure yourself out without others pressuring you into being someone you are not. I appreciated these messages and I did find the novel to be engaging. The writing was decent, but I did find myself preferring Ruben’s chapters. At times Ruben and Zach seemed a bit undefined but I didn’t really go into this expecting nuanced character studies. If you are looking for an easy read (kind of silly, lil bit angsty) that manages to lightly touch upon some important issues, If This Gets Out may be the right read for you.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Abigail by Magda Szabó — book review

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“In later years, whenever she dreamed of the fortress and the city the wind would always be present, moving restlessly among human figures obscurely glimpsed in the haze.”

Abigail follows fourteen-year-old Gina Vitay’s time as a Matula student in the months leading to the German occupation of Hungary. First published fifty years ago, its English translation has only just come out (Len Rix’s translation does not disappoint). Last year I read, and was perturbed by, Magda Szabó’s The Door. While I was enthralled by Szabó’s prose, I was ultimately left feeling rather mystified by the whole ordeal. Abigail, on the other hand, is deceptively simple in that it may at first strike readers as a conventional coming-of-age. Szabó however permeates this tale of youthful innocence and friendships with an air of unease. Similarly to The Door, Abigail presents its readers with a narrative that is fraught with a quiet suspense. Our heroine is initially oblivious to the threat looming over her country and she’s far more concerned with the various dramas that make up her everyday life at her exclusive all-girls school. After she’s made privy to a secret that if known could wreak havoc, she will have to learn “dignity and self-discipline”.
Although the narrative obliquely hints at this possibility of danger and violence, an atmosphere of apprehension prevails.

“From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands. What can you swear on that you will never betray us?”

61W2x8+3CJLIn the autumn of 1943 (when Hungary was still a member of the Axis powers), the pampered daughter of a widowed General is abruptly sent away from her beloved home in Budapest and enrolled in a remote all-girls boarding school. Located in Árkod, Bishop Matula Academy is an exceedingly puritanical institution, a place that our heroine quite fittingly describes, more than once, as a “fortress” and a “world of black and white”. The General refuses to disclose the reason for this ‘exile’ and an uncomprehending Gina is unable to discern her father’s true motivations.

“In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and had merely informed her what would happen.”

At Matula Gina feels constricted by the school’s “strictly regimented life, with every minute accounted for”. Worse still, after her catastrophic first day at Matula she becomes persona non grata with the rest of the fifth year. To begin with Gina views the other girls and their traditions through her ‘big-city’ lenses. She’s contemptuous of their childish games believing that her flirtations with a young lieutenant (which took place at her Auntie Mimó’s tea dances) make her far more worldly than the other girls. Being ostracised from the other girls soon takes its toll and Gina is left feeling profoundly alone and miserable. Most days, her classmates (who share her living quarters with) refuse to interact with her, and when they aren’t ignoring her they insult or bully her.
Gina is also forbidden from interacting with the outside world, and her letters and weekly phone calls to her father are monitored, and if need be censored, by members of staff (since the general should only hear “cheerful, positive things from [her]”).
Gina’s difficult beggings at Matula are alleviated by the presence of a statue known as Abigail. According to school legend, Abigail aids and protects Matula’s students. Gina’s initial skepticism dissolves when she herself receives Abigail’s protection. The mystery of Abigail’s identity underlines Gina’s story, even after Gina reconciles herself with life at Matula.

“Everything that had been boring, childish and indeed hateful the day before now seemed wonderful, reassuring and comforting.”

szabo.1_2048x2048.jpgWhile there are moments of idyllic happiness, these are far and few between. Gina’s prickly, and impulsive, nature are rendered with great empathy. Szabó’s narrative reflects Gina’s ‘limited’ worldview. She misunderstands and misinterprets the adults around her, in particular the dynamics between two of her teachers and Sister Susanna, the fifth year’s prefect. Gina, like most of the other girls, views her class tutor Kalmár as a contemporary “St. George, a knight in shining armor”. Her feelings towards her Latin teacher, Kőnig are far from amicable. She mistakes his kindness and compassion for cowardice and stupidity (another reviewer quite aptly compared him to Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin).

“Once again she had the feeling of being caught up in a play, a play in which she had a totally insignificant role and whose plot was impossible to follow.”

After Gina’s adolescent worries are replaced with far greater ones (ones that serious social implications), she tries to become a responsible adult. She soon learns that even good actions can backfire. Similarly to The Door, the characters in Abigail often cause the most harm to each other when they are trying to do good.

“All my life I have been a wild thing, Gina reflected. I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me. Now I shall try to learn these virtues, and I shall do so for the sake of my father: for him I shall seek to be gentle and patient.”

In spite of her best efforts, Gina cannot pacify herself with her school’s authorities nor does she feel less stifled by its suffocating rules. Still, readers will be able to witness Gina’s incredible, and admirable, character growth. I deeply sympathised with Gina, especially since I too found Matula to be a repressive institution, more interested in assigning blame and punishment than actually encouraging students to learn and grow from their mistakes.

“She was oppressed by a consciousness of living in a world of strangers, subject to rules that constantly disrupted the rhythm of her life, and where everything that belonged to her, everything that was part of her, seemed far away.”

In many ways Abigail has all the trappings of a coming-of-age. While Abigail’s identity is not a mystery to the reader, there are plenty of smaller mysteries peppered throughout Gina’s story. Harrowing moments are made all the more powerful by the fact that they often occur off-page. Gina’s troubled relationship with her classmates feels far from childish, and the friendships that she will later develop with some of the other girls are rendered with surprising tenderness.

“When they were at last in bed she lay there, wide awake, thinking about the strange and unexpected way important events in our lives come about—never as we imagine them beforehand, always in quite other ways, in very different circumstances and seemingly by chance”

Szabó’s sinuous and beguiling storytelling gripped me from the very first pages. Abigail provides us with an intimate glimpse into the life of a girl burdened with a dangerous secret. Szabó captures the fraught climate of a country at war.

“She tried to imagine what it would be like if every window in the country could be left open and every street flooded with light, and there was no war and none of this dying, no burdensome secrets, no danger or destruction. ”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Door by Magda Szabó — book review

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“[I]t was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her. Each time it was as if yet another undisclosed facet of her million secrets glittered before us”

One of the most obscurely bizarre books I’ve ever read.

Moving between the 1960s and the 1980s The Door’s narrative is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Throughout the course of the novel our narrator, a Hungarian writer called Magda, combs through her memories in order to revisit her complex relationship with Emerence, in what seems to be an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this enigmatic and perplexing woman.

Although The Door is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read it does share certain elements with Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (which is also semi-autobiographical, set in a similar time-period, and narrated by a writer determined to revisit her relationship with her secretive friend), Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (yet another narrator/writer who interrogates her intense relationship with an old friend) and Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice.
From its opening pages The Door throws us into a dizzying tale that seems to ignore logic or structure. There is little to no plot, but rather a collection of Magda’s memories of Emerence.

The first part of the novel has very little dialogue (a few lines here and there), and relies instead on Magda’s recounting what Emerence said or did. Soon we acquire a surreal impression of this formidable woman, yet Emerence remains an ambivalent figure, impossible to pin down. Magda’s attempts to make sense of her past behaviour towards her and others often results in little more than speculations and suppositions on her part.
However ordinary Emerence and her life may seem, her many peculiarities and her aversion towards God, the Church, the idea of an establishment itself, make her into a potentially disruptive figure. At times Magda’s recounts of Emerence make the latter seem as little more than an unhinged woman prone to childish temper tantrums and liable to bad moods. Her hatred towards ‘cultured’ and intellectual people seems to reveal a deep resentment towards those who unlike her did not have to start working at a young age. And yet, she seems so completely disgusted by them that it seems impossible for her to be secretly envious of them.
Emerence appears as a mercurial individual who, in spite of living in a country which imposed uniformity on its subjects, manages to retain her individuality. She seems the sole governor of her own existence, unbothered by the laws, policies, and societal norms that affect her neighbours.

As this murky narrative progresses, and Emerence slowly emerges from Magda’s memories, we begin to accept Emerence’s multivalency. Not one character seems to have thought of her the same way, whether they feared, hated, admired, or loved her. Her secrecy and control over her own self and her private space, make her seem closer to a sphinx than a mere mortal. She seems to radiate strength seeming to be a force of nature, a solid and unmovable presence in the lives of her neighbours and clients.
Yet, Magda’s memories are comprised of so many gaps and absences that we are constantly aware of the unreliability of what she does or does not remember. The Emerence that surfaces from Magda’s ‘reconstruction’ is a fragment of the actual woman, and Magda, alongside her readers, has to content herself with her imperfect knowledge of her former housekeeper. Ultimately Emerence remains unknowable.

Backdrop to Magda’s retrieval is a quiet sort of violence. We are aware of a potential danger but we cannot pinpoint what shape or form it will take. The unnerving relationship between Magda and Emerence is filled with recriminations, uneasy truces, and bitter exchanges. There are allusions to deaths and destruction but these never lead to a cathartic event or revelation.
In navigating the past the narrator is able to see anew many of the things that she had likely overlooked about her own life. She attributes new significance to certain moments of her life and of the way these shaped her relationship with Emerence. She seems to be both in her past and in her present, obsessed, if not desperate, with truly knowing Emerence, her life, secrets, and motivations.

“The situation had drained my energy. Cheerfulness keeps you fresh, its opposite exhausts. Now I was miserable, but not because I had to look for another help. The problem was simpler. I had finally accepted that it wasn’t just Emerence who was attached to me, with the sort of feelings normally reserved for family, but that I, too, loved her.”

For much of the novel, the two women are engaged in a war of constant surveillance. They are always scrutinising each other, and often criticising their different values and attitudes (more than once they clash over their different attitude towards religion and literature). Emerence’s secretiveness, her ‘closed’ door, mystify Magda who comes to think of Emerence’s apartment as an extension of Emerence herself.
Emerence’s ‘shut door’ allows for an array of interpretations. It is the very fact that this door is shutting out the rest of the world that arouses Magda, and the reader’s, curiosity. My mind formed the most wild of theories regarding Emerence’s past and what lay beyond her door. Yet, as Magda informs us early on, we are aware that we will never truly know Emerence or her motivations. It seemed that the novel emphasised the unknowability of a person, and the freedom that we can experience by presenting a self that isn’t entirely true.

Magda’s narratives describes seemingly mundane scenarios that teether on the edge of becoming something more: miscommunications regarding house routines can cause unforgiving shifts between the two women. The novel imbues the most ordinary of scenes or conversations with a sense of surreality. There were many moments that verged on absurdity (there were many almost Kafkaesque occurrences).
Emerence seemed the antithesis of normal. My mind was never made up about her. Certainly Magda’s recollections of her always left me feeling uneasy, almost queasy. At times she could be quick to anger and unforgiving, while in other instances she could seem so caring and kind. Her erratic behaviour, her naiveté, her small manipulations of those around her…I found myself interrogating everything she said or did, wondering alongside Magda ‘who‘ Emerence really was.

This novel is far from a pleasant read: it is unnerving and confusing, and I was mystified most of time (it left me with more questions than actual answers….) and yet, I felt a horrible sort of fascination towards it…read at your own risk.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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