Nina in Siberia


Elif Batuman and her new book


Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language: Over and over again, Selin expresses her failure to interpret or understand.

Selin’s conversations, not least with her professors, sometimes verge on the absurd. Such episodes are funny or satirical but, in a more fundamental way, Batuman is interested in the mysteriousness of life and our struggle to give meaning. The novel’s main plot evolves around an unsuccessful pursuit of love. Selin is filled with yearning for an older math student named Ivan; he is Hungarian and already has a girlfriend. Our heroine finds the prospect of love confusing and, in time, even futile, but what makes this account engaging is that the real triangulation in her relationship with Ivan is with language.

In her foreign-language class, Selin is given to read “Nina in Siberia,” a Russian text specifically for beginning students. The text advances in brief chapters and tells a story that seems to precisely match Selin’s own — Nina’s relationship with her lover, Ivan, isn’t going well; when the story opens, Ivan is missing, he has left for Siberia, and Nina herself seems peculiarly stuck in language, unable to pierce the gloomy opacity of words. For that reason alone, I found “Nina in Siberia” a brilliant novelistic ploy. But there are further reasons for admiring such foreign-language lessons. As Selin notes, “The story was ingeniously written, using only the grammar that we had learned so far. Because we hadn’t learned the dative case, Ivan’s father, instead of handing the letter to Nina, had to say, ‘There, on the table, is a letter.’”

When I read the above lines, I thought of the enormous difficulty of the rules of grammar. The difficulty of learning a new language. And then, by implication, but more distantly, about the difficulty of loving. I understood why Selin was struck by the foreign-language lessons, seeing like her that “the story had a stilted feel, and yet while you were reading you felt totally inside its world, a world where reality mirrored the grammar constraints, and what Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist.” The believable world that “Nina in Siberia” had created — the goal of all fiction — Batuman’s novel was trying to create too. As a writer, I envied that, of course, but what I envied most was the artfulness of the foreign-language instructors who had designed such a handbook!

In an author’s note at the end of The Idiot, Batuman notes that “Nina in Siberia” is based on a real text, “The Story of Vera,” which she herself had encountered as an undergrad. “The Story of Vera,” according to Batuman, “was coauthored over the years by some number of Russian-language instructors working, as far as I have been able to determine, under a shroud of secrecy.”

All hail those anonymous authors! They teach us how to fall in love, and, to borrow a phrase from Selin, fall out of language.

When I wrote to Batuman to ask what had drawn her to “The Story of Vera,” she replied that she had been impressed by “how closely the plot of the missing-person story corresponded to the progressive disclosure of grammar in a language text.” Batuman added that of all the texts that Selin reads in her first year at college, “Nina in Siberia” most directly reflected the feeling of mystery and linguistic inadequacy that she herself was experiencing. Selin looked to it to explain her relationship with Ivan, though in the end it wasn’t a hundred percent useful.

Batuman also reminded me that she had already written about “The Story of Vera” in her introduction to her first book, The Possessed. I had read that book but didn’t remember any mention of the foreign-language lessons. On taking down the book from my shelves, I found the passages easily enough. Batuman had described how Vera’s story had progressed — new details accompanied by new examples of missing cases and tenses. “In this way, introductory Russian manifested itself to me as a perfect language, in which form was an ideal reflection of content.”

I read on, discovering over the next three or four pages of The Posessed all the details that were fresh to me from my reading of The Idiot: The autobiographical events Batuman had put down in the former had been turned into live fiction in the latter. This, too, was a lesson in language and writing. How one text, which had been composed as nonfiction, was paralleled by another text, with its own omissions and elaborations, into fiction. The task in both cases was to fashion a text that resembled life.

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