On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

Our lives are often shaped by unplanned events.  We have big dreams – I wanna be a fire fighter when I grow up! – but then the unexpected happens and our whole course shifts – my counselor helped me get through a hard year, and now I want to do the same for others.

Undergraduates seem particularly susceptible to this sort of sudden swerve.  Perched on the cusp of adulthood, everything feel momentous… and many are in a position, for the first time in their lives, to make their resolutions stick.  In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, an undergraduate inadvertently attends a review session for the certified public accountant exam and decides that this is the heroic career he was destined to pursue.

frank drawing
This dude is probably not prepared to make decisions that will reverberate for the rest of his life… and yet. Anyway, this is me, freshman year of college.

19537_27p1pIn Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a slapdash decision changes a life:

You were only supposed to take four classes, but when I found out they didn’t charge extra for five, I signed up for beginning Russian.

This logic made me smile – at my university, too, students were supposed to enroll in three or four classes each quarter, but a fifth was free as long as you gathered a sheet full of signatures (as was a sixth, as long as you didn’t insist on receiving a grade or credits toward graduation).

Indeed, being a cheapskate steered the course of my own life, too.  Like the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot, I chose my class schedule with an eye for value, enrolling in as many classes as possible, always choosing the highest numbered course from each subject I was interested in (having mistakenly assumed that bigger # in catalog = more learning).  Worse, a woman I was attempting to woo liked studying with me, so during my sophomore year I signed up for all her classes in addition to my own; at the end of that year, I’d completed all the requirements for a chemistry degree.

Toward the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I figured why not do more school?  I applied for graduate school… in chemistry, because that was my undergraduate degree.  All despite never liking chemistry.  My plan, before I’d arrived on campus, was to study mathematics, economics, and philosophy.

Whoops.

But the woman I had a crush on sophomore year did briefly date me.

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This dude? Still not prepared… and yet. This is me, first year of graduate school.

Back in the world of Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist soon develops a similar life-altering crush on a student in her haphazardly-selected Russian class:

On Thursday, I got to Russian conversation class early.  Only Ivan was there.  He was reading a novel with a foreign title and a familiar cover: the illustration showed two hands tossing a bowler hat in the air.

          “Is that The Unbearable Lightness of being?” I asked.

          He lowered the book.  “How did you know?”

          “It has the same cover in English.”

          “Oh.  I thought maybe you knew how to read Hungarian.”  He asked if I had liked the book in English.  I wondered whether to lie.

          “No,” I said.  “Maybe I should read it again.”

          “Uh-huh,” Ivan said.  “So that’s how it works for you?”

          “How what works?”

          “You read a book and don’t like it, and then you read it again?”

UNBEARAB.gifI can understand why someone – especially a female character – might not like Kundera’s book.  Yes, it depicts the way an out-of-control state can derail someone’s life… but so much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being depicts an entitled protagonist behaving rakishly toward women.  I happen to like this book, but only because Kundera, by revealing events out of sequence, includes a transcendentally beautiful description of where love comes from.

Midway through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a sad passage included several seemingly unimportant details:

Three years after moving to Paris, [Sabina] received a letter from Prague.  It was from Tomas [her former paramour]’s son.  Somehow or other he had found out about her and got hold of her address, and now he was writing to her as his father’s “closest friend.”  He informed her of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza [Tomas’s wife, whom he’s treated shabbily through most of the book].  For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver on a collective farm [because, despite his successful medical career, the new regime would not let him practice].  From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.  The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline.  Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp.  The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition.

We live.  We die.  This passage would seem a tragedy – an ill-maintained vehicle was the death of them (from the final pages: [Tereza] recalled a recent talk with the chairman of the collective farm.  He had told her that Tomas’s pickup was in miserable condition.  He said it as a joke, not a complaint, but she could tell he was concerned.  “Tomas knows the insides of the body better than the insides of an engine,” he said with a laugh.  He then confessed that he had made several visits to the authorities to request permission for Tomas to resume his medical practice, if only locally.  He had learned that the police would never grant it.).

And yet – a stray line, which I thought unimportant when I read this passage, suddenly blossoms into romance in the book’s final chapter: From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.

Four pages from the end:

          “Seeing you in that dress makes me want to dance,” the young man [whose dislocated shoulder Tomas had just reset] said to Tereza.  And turning to Tomas, he asked, “Would you let me dance with her?”

          “Let’s all go and dance,” said Tereza.

          “Would you come along?” the young man asked Tomas.

          “Where do you plan to go?” asked Tomas.

          The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

This moment – brought coincidentally about, because who could know that this young man would dislocate his shoulder?  That he would want to dance?  That he would know a nearby bar where they could dance and drink and spend the night? – is special.  Finally, after years of marriage, this is the beginning of Tomas and Teresa’s honesty with one another, their happiness and their love.  Which we, the readers, know because of that stray line earlier.  Kundera lets us watch the first night Tomas and Teresa go dancing together, after coyly embedding the knowledge that they would repeat this experience through the rest of their lives.

          “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

          “Surgery was your mission,” she said.

          “Missions are stupid, Tereza.  I have no mission.  No one has.  And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

So, yes, I liked The Unbearable Likeness of Being… but only for this moment, this sudden twist that Kundera enacts inside a reader’s brain.  Without this – considering only the plot, for instance, or the characters – the book wasn’t for me.

But I can understand why the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot considers lying.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being is very popular – especially at Harvard, where she was attending college.  During my sophomore year, someone published a list of most-purchased book titles at various collegiate bookstores.  The woman I was wooing felt extremely dejected after she saw this list.  She’d chosen to attend Northwestern instead of Harvard because the former had admitted her for a 7-year combined undergraduate & medical degree.  The list made her think she’d chosen wrong – that Harvard was the place for cultured human beings, and Northwestern appropriate only for over-earnest Midwestern strivers.

The most-sold book at Harvard’s bookstore?  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  At Northwestern’s?  An organic chemistry textbook.

s-l225.jpgI have to admit – I contributed to this problem.  I bought a copy of that organic chemistry textbook.  I took the class my freshman year, when I foolishly bought texts for every class I was taking and stumbled back to my dorm crestfallen after forking over $450.  I was so appalled that I resolved to never buy another textbook… which I stayed true to until I bought a text for the grad-level microeconomics series my junior year.

When I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’d borrowed it from the library.

In Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist one day decides to write an email to Ivan from Russian class.  This first email spawns a long correspondence: an electronic simulacrum of romance.

Batuman’s style resembles that of Tao Lin’s Taipei (which in turn resembles Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises).  We are drawn into a privileged world through the sheer accumulation of detail regarding the characters’ day-to-day lives.  In Lin’s and Hemingway’s novels, the characters take drugs and muck up their romantic lives – in Batuman’s, they skip class, teach the less fortunate, and muck up their romantic lives.

All brought on by what?  The sudden realization that a fifth class would be free.  When we look back, it becomes glaringly clear: such small decisions set our paths!