The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel
Selin, a young Turkish-American student at Harvard, tries earnestly to be educated and has a crush on Ivan, an emotionally unavailable flake. Most of her communication with Ivan happens through enigmatic emails. The novel is about the attempt to find or imbue meaning. It’s an attempt that doesn’t meet with success, exactly; the novel ends with Selin declaring that she has learned nothing. Nevetheless, it’s an attempt that accrues experience we can see is a kind of learning. A very nebulous, negative type of learning, perhaps. The novel has a very bald, deadpan style. If the style doesn’t work for you, you will find this novel decidedly dull. For me, that was what made the novel work; it establishes a very direct connection to Selin and the way experience works. It walks a fine line between the banal and ascribing over-significance, and generally it kept its balance very well. The defining features of Selin is basically her emptiness, her nervous willingness to be filled and her inability to find anything that will do it, sorting through what seems to be on offer in a way both naïve and shrewd. That emptiness and fruitless search for meaning makes the novel sound more dreary and existential than it is; I found it droll rather than dreary. The emptiness is that of just not having been around that long, not that of ennui. Selin is passive because everything is new and therefore to have anything happen at all is a kind of seeking. Not a lot does happen and we can imply that this in itself will help Selin eliminate options; seeking becomes more active the more options are eliminated.
Alberta and Freedom
Here you spend some time blowing about uncertainly with Alberta in Paris. Alberta is not a painter herself but she is part of a social group of artists and there is a fair bit of description of the days and their atmospheres that seemed painterly. It’s not a happy book but I felt somehow something quite warm and likeable about it. Alberta is a very occasional artist’s model and freelance journalist but really she has no job. This means she has no role and no income. Sometimes she scribbles fragments which may ultimately add up to something, to a role, but they do not do so yet. Both the lack of money and the lack of role are problems but this rolelessness brings us to the freedom of the title. Alberta is lost and lonely, shut out from the action of life both because she is evading it and because she cannot get into it. This awkward, unnerving in-between-ness in which she somehow carries on is the nearest she can get to freedom because there she is as much herself as the world will allow her to be, without having to be something to somebody else. This is part of why the book has some warmth to it; Alberta’s life is not so devoid of consolation as it might seem. But then, in one of the most important moments of the book for me, Alberta has a fleeting epiphany that everything she has suffered has given her more wisdom and experience, more illumination, than before, and I feel this is a consolation which could be carried over into the next book, where I gather Alberta is not free. The freedom theme is very gendered; all the choices open to Alberta and other women involve more irrevocable commitment than they might for men, which corrupts the joy of romantic relationships.