I read some good books in June. I’ve already written at length about Annie Ernaux’s The Years in a separate post, so I’ll leave that be. The funniest book I read last month – the funniest book I’ve read in a long time – was Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’m talking about regular chuckling out loud on the train, and in bed, enough to annoy anyone travelling alongside me on either vehicle.
It’s half campus novel, half American abroad in Eastern Europe tale – think The Marriage Plot meets Everything is Illuminated, but is better than either of them. Selin, Batuman’s stand-in, turns up to Harvard to study but finds the whole process overwhelming: classes, teachers, roommates, friends, potential boyfriends. The plot doesn’t progress so much as… well, either drift or plod or both. It ends up reading like a Kafka novel leached of moment, as if Selim doesn’t realise she’s supposed to be in a tragedy. And why should she? Unlike a Kafka hero she doesn’t have a goal that she sees herself failing to move towards. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the undergraduate existence: you bundle all personal goals into the uber-goal of getting your degree. Ambition is deferred, dissipated. That sense of life unfolding without trajectory feels accurate.
There’s a funny running gag about an adult education class Selin volunteers at, trying to help people more hopeless than herself with her lessons. She is supposed to be helping Joaquim, a Dominican plumber, with his spoken American.
“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.
He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.
“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”
“Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.
“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”
After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to “The pen is blue.” We started with “El boligrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up.
This is the stuff that had me chuckling. (There’s a less good running gag about a Russian-language story Selim has to read in her Russian classes, which I started to skip. This is novel-writing 101. You never expect the reader to put up with more than one of these things.)
Then Selim goes to Hungary for her summer break, volunteering again, to help remote villagers with their American. It’s more of the same: comic characters – which means, essentially, stupid characters – idiots – though treated with greater or lesser degrees of compassion. All comedy is based on cruelty. Even puns have as a butt the hypothetical person who doesn’t know a particular word has two meanings. Batuman is not cruel, however – not needlessly so – and she makes Selim almost as dumb as everyone else.
The mayor thanked us for coming to share our culture and language, and hoped that we would take something away in return. Then he asked whether any of us knew HTML, because his village needed a webpage.
There is cruelty here – as in the ‘papel is blonk’ piece above, and it’s these parts that make me think, anxiously, about Safran Foer’s novel – but there is compassion, too, though it is compassion laced with nostalgia. Once upon a time, we were all a village that needed a webpage. Continue reading