RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There are times in this job when I go into a certain conversation thinking it's going to go a certain way, and then it opens up in surprising directions. That's how it went with writer Elif Batuman. We were talking about her newest novel. It's called "Either/Or," a sequel to her book "The Idiot" - which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, by the way. In her new book, her protagonist, Selin, is a sophomore in college. And, to her, every question feels existential because that's how Batuman herself felt in those years.
ELIF BATUMAN: 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's from Turkey. And I did go to Harvard, like Selin. And 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 and show me how to live and show me how to create a successful life. And that's also the case for Selin in these books.
MARTIN: Right. So, Selin, she sees her life through these great works of literature - Russian literature, in particular. Can you explain what those books in particular have opened up for you?
BATUMAN: I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. And when I look back at what really attracted me to books like "Anna Karenina" and Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" - which were two of the big favorites for me early on - Tolstoy and Pushkin really saw what was unfair in life for women, and also for children, in a way that no other part of serious discourse that I could see was talking about that. And what I really got from those Russian novels is a potential way that I could take this, you know, quite threatening and menacing chaos of stories and, at least theoretically, I could reconcile them all into one single story. I think that's something that I learned from Russian literature and that I really wanted to be able to do for other people.
MARTIN: So for Selin, she does a lot of questioning, right? She's...
BATUMAN: Mmm hmm (laughter).
MARTIN: ...Her brain is very active (laughter). There's a lot happening. And it's wonderful to sort of remember what it's like to be full of all of those kinds of questions about why we're here, right? And she is considering this question, that comes to her from Kirkegaard, about whether to live an aesthetic life or an ethical life. Can you explain how she understands that choice?
BATUMAN: Yeah. So that Kirkegaard book "Either/Or" is a book that I actually read at that stage of life, in my second year of college. And Kirkegaard 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 Kirkegaard, there's a huge conflict between these two things. And his example is, like, oh, if you want your life to be a work of art, you should go out and, like, seduce lots of women and seduce young girls. And some of them might 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.
MARTIN: So Selin endeavors to live - or experiment with an aesthetic life.
MARTIN: And a big part of that is a sexual awakening, I suppose you could call it.
BATUMAN: You could call it that. You could also call it indoctrination.
MARTIN: So explain this. How does sex fit in to Selin's experiment with aesthetic living?
BATUMAN: Selin, when she wants to research 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" - I started writing it in 2017 during #MeToo, when a lot of women were revisiting their own sexual histories and describing them in different ways. I was, at that point, one year into a lesbian relationship for the first time in my life after, you know, really only dating guys.
And one text that I read at that time was "Compulsory Heterosexuality" by Adrienne Rich, which blew my mind. And it's about the existence of a force, that is sometimes secret and sometimes not secret, that's always working in society to - over history and over different cultures. It's always working to wrench women's energies away from themselves and each other and towards men. And when I thought back about my college experience - you know, because 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, you know, that was part of the motivation for me to write "Either/Or," was to go back to that period and revisit why it - that didn't seem like it was an option on the table and why it seemed so important to have these relationships with guys.
MARTIN: Yeah. Selin seems often in two places at the same time - in the experience, whether it's the conversation, the sex, the travel adventure, and simultaneously sitting outside of it, thinking about how she could turn it into art some way.
BATUMAN: Yeah. You know, there's a scene where she takes a creative writing class. And one thing that the teacher tells her, which is something that a creative writing instructor actually told me when I was in college, is the writer is someone who's always outside and inside at the same time. And he was really like, if you could do anything else besides be a writer, you should do that because as a writer, you're not able to experience anything authentically because you're always outside of it and describing it at the same time. And there's a very dark way of viewing that.
But - I don't know - I've gotten more into meditation in my 40s, and there's actually a connection between that writerly point of view and mindfulness. Like, on the one hand, you don't want to get so caught up in narrating the story that you're just in the narration. But then in another way, it's kind of useful to have this, like, outside perspective on your life and to be able to think about what's happening and to look for meanings and to question it and not just to assume that, you know, this is human nature. This is the way that things have to be. But I do think that she's eventually going to get there at some point.
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MARTIN: Elif Batuman is the author of "Either/Or," the sequel to her bestselling novel "The Idiot."
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