Either/or by Elif Batuman is a literary-type romantic tale
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like his Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut, The idiot, The sequel to Elif Batuman Whether or is primarily set at Harvard University, where the protagonist, Selin Karadağ, is entering her second year as a literature major after a turbulent summer in Europe. Selin is unhappy, insecure and tries – desperately – to make sense of things: first and foremost, her infatuation with Ivan, the elusive mathematician with whom she had a passionate, but depressing relationship. and unconsummated, while working in rural Hungary.
Given that Batuman titled both of his novels after canonical works of literature and philosophy, it will come as no surprise that his latest is once again filled with high-level scholarship and references: Goethe, Woolf, Proust , Nabokov, Benjamin, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol. , Akhmatova, Breton, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Pynchon and Friends, among many others, get a mention.
For Selin, an omnivorous reader, the best literary texts are transcendent artifacts through which authentic and examined lives are represented. How is hers doing? Not very well, apparently. And that’s a problem because she wants to be a writer: “I wanted to become a novelist even before I could read.” It wasn’t until high school that she realized she “wasn’t good at creative writing.” Part of the problem, Selin believes, is the “anti-romantic” quality of her own life.
The ironic vanity behind Whether or it’s that we’re reading a novel told by a character who laments that his own life is immeasurable with some notion of “literacy” – whatever that means. Moreover, the novel derives much of its sustenance from Selin’s encounters with other works of literature, and thus with other fictional lives.
Some of them cause him actual physical pain; she nearly vomits while reading “The Seducer’s Diary”, a section of Kierkegaard’s titular book. In this respect, Batuman’s Künstlerroman departs from other novels of this rather niche genre. At Ben Lerner’s Departure from Atocha station (2011), for example, the narrator denounces his inability to be moved by most of the arts, while others insist that he should be.
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What Batuman’s novel shares with Lerner’s is both a relentless intelligence and a protagonist who is good company. Despite all her insecurities, Selin possesses a wit and a playful irreverence – the absence of humor is intolerable to her – which is nothing short of charming. Some books make her cry; others are dismissed, in blasphemous vernacular, as “lame” or “boring”. Few leave her indifferent. I could say the same of Whether or.