City Lights is very excited to welcome award-winning author Elif Batuman to the bookstore on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Elif will be promoting her new novel, The Idiot published by Penguin Press. We asked Elif our five questions. More about her, and her responses, below.
The Event: Wednesday, March 22nd at 7pm. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco CA, 94133
About The Idiot: The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin’s summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.
With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman’s fiction is unguarded against both life’s affronts and its beauty–and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.
About Elif Batuman: Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor, she also holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University.
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?
Elif Batuman: The first time I visited City Lights was right after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999, to start grad school at Stanford. I had always lived on the East Coast and had never been to California. I only had one California-related artifact that meant anything to me: a pocket edition of Howl that I bought in college. I somehow heard the opening lines of “Howl” for the first time, went to the bookstore, and found this beautiful $5 pocket edition, which became kind of a talismanic object for me—especially the poem “A Supermarket in California,” where Walt Whitman is interrogating the supermarket (“Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”).
One weekend I went to North Beach with a cool older grad student, we went into Vesuvio and City Lights, and I remember seeing this whole foggy edge-of-the-world noir vibe that I thought only existed in movies, and feeling that the world was so much bigger than I had known. And then at City Lights I realized you guys published that Pocket Poets Series—that was where my little Ginsberg book came from. I was really moved by that.
In general, that was a really heady time for me. I was just starting a PhD in comparative and Russian literature, I was thinking about literature in new ways. For the first time, I was really thinking about historicity and the writer’s relationship to their time, to the texture of time and place—and I was making these realizations in this surreal atmosphere of palm trees and frescoes and linear accelerators—and at the same time it was all part of this same world with Russian literature, with the Frankfurt School, with the way all those guys came to California, and everyone somehow seemed to wind up in California in the end.
After I finished grad school, I published a book of interconnected essays about it, called The Possessed, and was so honored to have the book launch at City Lights. Peter Maravelis made vodka martinis—it was a total dream. And just now, I just realized that one of the essays in The Possessed—an essay that mentions Chekhov being bemused by the sight of Tolstoy’s floating beard, and ends with me asking Chekhov, “Where are you now?”—was totally influenced by “A Supermarket in California”!: “Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?”
CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?
EB: My father taught me to read when I was three, with Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends. Then he told everyone I had taught myself to read. I remember identifying with Toad most of the time—but then sometimes I felt like Frog, which was confusing, because, you know, which one was me? Over time, I realized that that’s what reading is—you find parts of yourself in different characters.
Right now I’m reading the galley of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, a brilliant book of criticism by my friend, the great and cranky poet, Michael Robbins.
CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?
EB: In the past seven years, I’ve moved between the East and West Coasts, and also between the U.S. and Turkey, and ended up selling or giving away most of my books, and still haven’t replaced most of them. People who visit me are always like, “Wow, I didn’t realize you were an illiterate person.” Anyway I think I only have about 10 books with me now, that I’ve had since college or earlier, and I’m not planning to get rid of them any time soon, either. Among them are: that Pocket Poets edition of Howl; the Redhouse Turkish/ Ottoman-English Dictionary, which I bought in Ankara when I was in college (I’ve carried it everywhere, even though it weighs a ton and is falling apart); and a bright orange Schocken edition of Kafka’s Complete Stories that I stole from my father when I was in high school.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
EB: Music mentioned in my book, which is set in 1995-96 at Harvard and in Paris and in a Hungarian village, includes: “Linger” by the Cranberries; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana; “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran; “A Hard Day’s Night,” “All My Loving,” and “Seventeen,” by the Beatles; “Maria” from The Sound of Music; Albinoni’s Adagio, Aram Khachaturian’s violin concerto; and the Hungarian folk song “Az a szép.” The Butthole Surfers, Ella Fitzgerald, Boris Vian, and Rigoletto, are also mentioned, and the representative tracks I would choose would be “Pepper,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Je suis snob,” and “La Donna è mobile.” For extra-deep cuts, it might be nice to have a song by the 1990s Hungarian boy band, Hip Hop Boyz, and also an a cappella choir singing “Respect.”
CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
EB: I think it would be cool to have a bookstore space with a small, rotating selection of books, maybe even with the covers facing out, curated by a different person every few months, so when you went in you would feel like you were walking into a legible, minimalist version of someone’s mental library.
Please join us on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 to celebrate the release of The Idiot. The book is available direct from Penguin Press, on the City Lights website, and at your local independent bookseller. For more about Elif, go to her official site.
For more information on our events this spring, please visit the complete events calendar.