Elif Batuman’s new novel The Idiot, published by Penguin Press, has been lauded as “a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book.” It tells the story of Selin, the introverted, tall daughter of Turkish immigrants in her first year at Harvard. The book, and its protagonist, share many commonalities with Batuman and her earlier book of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Novels and the People Who Read Them. Read an excerpt from The Possessed here and reenter the charming, hilarious world of Elif Batuman.
By that time, the conference had begun. Scholars arrived from around the world: Russia, Hungary, Uzbekistan. One professor came from Ben Gurion with a bibliography called “Babelobibliografiya” and a talk titled “Babel, Bialik, and Bereavement.” But the star guests were Babel’s children: Nathalie, the daughter from his wife Evgeniya; and Lidiya, the daughter from Antonina Pirozhkova, with whom Babel lived his last years.
When it turned out that Antonina Pirozhkova would be in attendance, my classmate Josh was ecstatic. Josh’s parents were Star Wars fans and his full name is Joshua Sky Walker; to differentiate him from other Joshes, he was often called Skywalker. Skywalker was also working on the exhibit and, based on photographs from the 1930s, had developed a crush on Pirozhkova.
“Man, do I hope I get to pick her up from the airport,” he said.
“You do realize she must be more than ninety years old?”
“I don’t care—she is so hot. You don’t understand.”
I did understand, actually. I had noticed some Cossacks in the Rodchenko book whom I would gladly have picked up from the airport, were it not that, in accordance with my prediction, none of them came to the conference.
Skywalker, however, got his wish: he and his friend Fishkin, a native Russian speaker, were appointed to pick up Pirozhkova and Lidiya, the Sunday before the conference. I was initially supposed to pick up Nathalie Babel, but Nathalie Babel had called the department to warn that she had a very heavy trunk: “You must send me a strong male graduate student. Otherwise, do not bother. I will take a bus.” So a male graduate student had been sent, and I had the afternoon free. I was cramming for my university orals, trying to read all eighteen pounds of the Human Comedy in one month, and was desperately speed-reading Louis Lambert when the telephone rang. It was Skywalker, who had apparently broken his foot the previous night at the Euromed 13 dance party, and wanted me to go pick up Pirozhkova and Lidiya. “You can’t miss them,” he said. “It’ll be, like, a ninety-year-old woman who is gorgeous and a fifty-year-old woman who looks exactly like Isaac Babel.”
“But—but what happened to Fishkin?”
“Fishkin went to Tahoe.”
“How do you mean, he went to Tahoe?”
“Well, it’s kind of a funny story, but the thing is that their plane lands in half an hour . . .”
I hung up the phone and rushed outside to dump all the garbage that had accumulated in my car. Realizing that I didn’t remember Antonina Pirozhkova’s patronymic, I ran back inside and Googled her. I was halfway out the door again when I also realized I had forgotten how to say “He broke his foot” in Russian. I looked that up, too. I wrote BABEL in big letters on a sheet of paper, stuffed it in my bag, and ran out the door, repeating “Antonina Nikolayevna, slomal nogu.”
I got to SFO ten minutes after their plane had landed. For half an hour I wandered around the terminal holding my BABEL sign, looking for a gorgeous ninety-year-old woman and a fifty-year-old woman who looked like Isaac Babel. Of the many people at the airport that day, none came close to matching this description.
In despair, I called Freidin and explained the situation. There was a long silence. “They won’t be looking for you,” he said finally. “They’re expecting a boy.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “What if they didn’t see a boy and, you know, they took a bus.”
“Well, my gut feeling is that they’re still there, in the airport.” He had been right about the Bolshevik ape, so I decided to keep looking. Sure enough, ten minutes later I spotted her sitting in a corner, wearing a white headband and surrounded by suitcases: a tiny elderly woman, nonetheless recognizable as the beauty from the archive photographs.
“Antonina Nikolayevna!” I exclaimed, beaming.
She glanced at me and turned slightly away, as if hoping I would disappear.
I tried again. “Excuse me, hello, are you here for the Babel conference?” She quickly turned toward me. “Babel,” she said, sitting up. “Babel, yes.”
“I’m so glad—I’m sorry you were waiting. A boy was going to get you, but he broke his foot.”
She gave me a look. “You are glad,” she observed, “you are smiling, but Lidiya is suffering and nervous. She went to look for a telephone.”
“Oh no!” I said, looking around. There were no telephones in sight. “I’ll go, I’ll look for her.”
“Why should you go, too? Then you’ll both be lost. Better you should sit here and wait.”
I sat, trying to look appropriately somber, and dialed Freidin again.
“Thank goodness,” he said. “I knew they would still be there. How is Pirozhkova? Is she very angry?”
I looked at Pirozhkova. She did look a bit angry. “I don’t know,” I said.
“They told me they would send a Russian boy,” she said loudly. “A boy who knows Russian.”
• • •
The atmosphere in the car was somehow tense. Lidiya, who did indeed look very much like her father, sat in the front seat, reading aloud from every billboard. “‘Nokia Wireless,’” she said. “ ‘Johnnie Walker.’ ”
Pirozhkova sat in the back and spoke only once the whole trip: “Ask her,” she told Lidiya, “what is that thing on her mirror.”
The thing on my mirror was a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit. “It’s a toy,” I said.
“A toy,” Lidiya said loudly, half turning. “It’s an animal.”
“Yes, but what kind of animal?”
“It’s a donkey,” I said. “A donkey in a tiger suit.”
“You see, Mama?” said Lidiya loudly. “It’s a donkey in a tiger suit.”
“I don’t understand. Is there a story behind this?”
The story, to my knowledge, was that Tigger had developed a neurosis about being adopted and having no heritage, so Eeyore put on a tiger suit and pretended to be his relative. As I was thinking of how to explain this, another patch of orange caught my eye. I glanced at the dashboard: it was the low fuel warning light.
“It’s not my donkey,” I said, switching off the fan. “It’s my friend’s donkey.”
“What did she say?” Pirozhkova asked Lidiya.
“She said that it’s her friend’s donkey. So she doesn’t know why he’s wearing a tiger suit.”
“What?” said Pirozhkova.
Lidiya rolled her eyes. “She said that the donkey put on the tiger suit in order to look stronger in front of the other donkeys.”
There was a silence.
“I don’t think she said that,” said Pirozhkova.
We drove by another billboard: “‘Ted Lempert for State Senate.’”
“Ted Lempert,” Lidiya mused, then turned to me. “Who is this Ted Lempert?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think he wants to be senator.”
“Hmm,” she said. “Lempert. I knew a Lempert once—an artist. His name was Vladimir. Vladimir Lempert.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to think of something to say. “I’m reading a novel by Balzac now about somebody called Louis Lambert.” I tried to pronounce “Lambert” to sound like “Lempert.”
We drove the rest of the way to the hotel in silence.
• • •
Babel’s first daughter, Nathalie, looked younger than her age (seventy-four), but her voice was fathomless, sepulchral, with heavy French r’s.
“YOUR HAND IS VERY COLD,” she told me when we were introduced. It was later that same evening, and all the conference participants were heading to the Hoover Pavilion for an opening reception.
“We have black squirrels here at Stanford,” another graduate student told Nathalie Babel, pointing at a squirrel. “Have you ever seen a black squirrel?”
Nathalie glanced vaguely in the direction of the squirrel. “I CANNOT SEE ANYTHING ANYMORE,” she said. “I cannot hear, I cannot see, I cannot walk. For this reason,” she continued, eyeing the steep cement stairway to the pavilion, “everyone thinks I am always drunk.”
At the top of the stairs, two Chinese men were taking turns photographing each other with Viktor Zhivov, a Berkeley professor with a kind expression and a tobacco-stained Old Believer beard.
“Lots of Chinese,” I overheard someone say in Russian.
“True. It’s not clear why.”
“They’re taking pictures with Zhivov.”
“They want to prove that they’ve been to California. Ha! Ha!”
• • •
The two Chinese were in fact filmmakers, whose adaptation of the Red Cavalry cycle, Qi Bing Jun, was supposed to premiere in Shanghai the following year. (I believe the project was eventually canceled.) The screenwriter was tall, roundfaced, smiled a lot, and spoke very good English; the director was short, slight, serious, and didn’t seem to speak at all. Both wore large cameras around their necks.
In the Chinese Red Cavalry, the screenwriter told us, Cossacks would be transformed into “barbarians from the north of China”; the Jewish narrator would be represented by a Chinese intellectual. “There are not so many differences between Jews and Chinese,” he explained. “They give their children violin lessons, and they worry about money. Lyutov will be a Chinese, but he will still have ‘spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.’” At nose, he touched his nose, and at heart, he struck his chest. The director nodded.
Looking at the Chinese filmmakers, I remembered Viktor Shklovsky’s account of how Babel spent the whole year 1919 writing and rewriting “a story about two Chinese.” “They grew young, they aged, broke windows, beat up a woman, organized this or that”; Babel hadn’t finished with them when he joined the Red Cavalry. In the 1920 diary, “the story about the Chinese” becomes part of the propaganda that Babel relays in the pillaged shtetls: “I tell fairy tales about Bolshevism, its blossoming, the express trains, the Moscow textile mills, the universities, the free food, the Revel Delegation, and, to crown it off, my tale about the Chinese, and I enthrall all these poor tortured people.” At Stanford, we had it all: a university, free food, and, to crown it off, the Chinese.
Not all of the Russians were as delighted by the Chinese as I was. “We don’t mess with your I Ching . . . ,” I overheard one audience member saying.
Some Russian people are skeptical or even offended when foreigners claim an interest in Russian literature. I still remember the passport control officer who stamped my first student visa. He suggested to me that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.” The resistance can be especially high when it comes to Babel, who wrote in an idiosyncratic Russian-Jewish Odessa vernacular—a language and humor that Russian-Jewish Odessans earned the hard way. While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for? On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.”
“Right,” I finally said. “As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”
He nodded: “So you see the problem.”
• • •
The reception was followed by a dinner, which began with toasts. A professor from Moscow was proposing a toast to Pirozhkova. “In Russian we have an expression, a little-known but good expression, that we say when someone dies: ‘He ordered us to live a long time.’ Now I look at Antonina Nikolayevna and I think of Babel who died before his time, and I think, ‘Babel ordered her to live a long time.’ We are so lucky for this, because she can tell us all the things that only she knows. A long life to Antonina Nikolayevna!”
This toast struck me as both bizarre and depressing. I downed nearly a whole glass of wine and became light-headed to the extent that I almost told a dirty joke to Freidin’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Anna. Anna, who was applying to colleges, had asked about undergraduate advising at Harvard. I told her about my freshman adviser, a middle-aged British woman who held advisee meetings in a pub—once I missed our meeting because they were checking IDs at the door—and who worked in the telecommunications office.
“The telecommunications office?”
“Uh-huh. I would see her there when I went to pay my phone bill.”
“Did she have any other connection to Harvard, other than working in the telecommunications office? Was she an alumna?”
“Yeah, she got an MA in the seventies, in Old Norse literature.”
Anna stared at me. “Old Norse literature? What good is an MA in Old Norse literature?”
“I think it’s useful in telecommunications work,” I said.
“Old Norse literature,” Anna repeated. “Hmm. Well, it must be a fecund area of study. Aren’t the Norse the ones who invented Thor, god of thunder?”
“Oh— know a joke about Thor!” The joke involves the comic exchange between Thor and a farmer’s daughter: “I AM THOR!” says Thor, to which the farmer’s daughter replies: “I’m thor, too, but I had tho much fun!”
“So Thor comes down to earth for a day,” I began, when I suddenly became conscious that Joseph Frank—the Stanford emeritus famous for his magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevsky—had abandoned the lively discussion he had been having with a Berkeley professor about Louis XIII.
Both were regarding me from across the table with unblinking interest.
“You know,” I said to Anna, “I just remembered it’s kind of an inappropriate joke. Maybe I’ll tell you another time.”
By now, every single person at the table was staring at me. Frank leaned over the arm of his wheelchair toward Freidin’s wife, a professor at Berkeley who was also in a wheelchair. “Who is that?” he asked loudly.
“That is Elif, a graduate student who has been very helpful to Grisha,” she replied.
“Ah.” Joseph Frank nodded and turned his attention to his pasta.
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor, she also holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University. The Idiot is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.