Elif Batuman has turned her years in college into another book. Her highly anticipated sequel to the 2017 Pulitzer finalist The Idiot is out on Tuesday – and the lively, witty, inquisitive protagonist Selin is just as curious about “the human condition” as she was in the first novel.
Either/Or picks up where The Idiot left off. Selin is now a sophomore, after having spent the summer trying to understand her obsession with a boy she followed to Hungary. In Either/Or, Selin continues to muse about every choice she makes, comparing herself to literary characters and thinking deeply about her identity as a writer.
Selin is also more in touch with her feelings this year, and as Batuman told NPR’s Morning Edition, she’s learning more about her sexual preferences and trying to better understand the way people live, and the decisions they make.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On seeing herself in the protagonist
I was a seeker, I was looking for the meaning of life and how to live. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States. My whole family is from Turkey and I did go to Harvard like Selin. I was aware that I had this incredible opportunity and I had to make the most of it. And, that if I didn’t, it was going to be this giant dishonor. I also knew that I wanted meaning to come from books and from literature. And even though my parents are doctors, they didn’t really pressure me to go into science. So I was really just looking for literature to show me the answers, how to live, and how to create a successful life. And that’s also the case for Selin in these books.
On the influence of Russian literature
I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. When I look back at what really attracted me to books like [Tolstoy’s] Anna Karenina and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – which were two of my big favorites early on – [it was that] Tolstoy and Pushkin really saw what was unfair in life for women and children in a way that no other part of serious discourse that I could see was talking about. And what I really got from those Russian novels is a potential way that I could take this threatening and menacing chaos of stories, and at least theoretically, reconcile them all into one single story.
On the aesthetic versus the ethical way of life
The Kierkegaard book Either/Or is one that I actually read at that stage of life – in my second year of college. And Kierkegaard is talking about how you can either live your life as a work of art or you can live your life and try to be a good person. And for Kierkegaard, there’s a huge conflict between these two things. And his example is that if you want your life to be a work of art, you should go out and seduce lots of women and seduce young girls, and some of them might kill themselves or go crazy. But like, you’re living a really aesthetic life. And an ethical life means getting married and being really bored because like a boring marriage in this sophisticated way is actually more interesting than a series of interesting love experiences.
On the protagonist’s sexual awakening
When Selin researches how to live an aesthetic life, she’s really reading a lot of books that are written by men, and she’s learning that the person who lives an aesthetic life is a man, and the way that they do it is by seducing and abandoning young girls. And when I set out to write Either/Or it was in 2017 during the Me Too [movement], when a lot of women were revisiting their own sexual histories. I was, at that point, one year into a lesbian relationship for the first time in my life after only [ever] dating guys. One text that I read at that time was Compulsory Heterosexuality by Adrienne Rich, which blew my mind. It’s about the existence of a force that is sometimes secret, and sometimes not secret, that is always working in society to wrench women’s energies away from themselves and each other and towards men.
When I thought back about my college experience, part of the question I had was, ‘I feel so wonderful in this relationship now with the woman with whom I hope to spend the rest of my life. Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ And that was part of the motivation for me to write Either/Or, to go back to that period and revisit why that didn’t seem like it was an option, and why it seemed so important to have these relationships with guys.
On what the next book might be
I feel like I’m going to run out of time. If I write another book for [Selin’s] next year of college, she’s [just] going to be a few years out of college by the time I die of old age. So, I think I’m probably going to skip forward to her thirties because I have some ideas about where she’s going to end up with that.