The summer break from lessons and exams1 is the perfect time for picking up books I have on my to-read list. Three entries in particular from this lot have been prompting so many notes and discussions with my partner lately that I cannot miss the opportunity to recap everything here. The works I am referring to are The Idiot and Either/Or by Elif Batuman and Dario Ferrari’s La ricreazione è finita.
I will not go into many details about plots and characters in order to avoid unfortunate spoilers. Still, a bit of context is necessary. Both Batuman and Ferrari write about academia experiences in a semi-autobiographical fashion, meaning they use bits and pieces from their lives to fuel their pages. With different approaches they look back at what university did to and for them. Having seen my share of the academia world in the last four years I can relate to some of the episodes, which helps appreciate Batuman’s humour and Ferrari’s sarcasm, but this sort of narrative has always fascinated me.2
What I like about Batuman is how she plays with time. She states the importance of time by opening The Idiot with a quote from Proust, and she understands perfectly well what the relationship between writing and time means for the French author.
Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the point of writing wasn’t just to record something past but also to prolong the present, like in One Thousand and One Nights, to stretch out the time until the next thing happened[.]
Like Thomas Pavel says,3 writing for Proust is not only a vocation, it is a means for personal salvation. With The Idiot and Either/Or Batuman is using her protagonist to confront a present that only makes sense as it unfolds. For all the love for Kierkegaard she shows in Either/Or, using the title of the book and the epigram to make it as clear as possible, Batuman is subtly defying the Danish philosopher’s words about the meaning of life.4 Instead of treating the past as a line that joins previous events and eventually leads them to the present, Batuman lets the reader notice, over and over again, how hard it is to look back at our experiences to make sense of who we are here and now. There is so much going on and even more could have happened that tracing consistent trajectories is impossible.
This is where Ferrari fails. The Italian writer wishes to juxtapose past and present using different alter egos, but in the end he has the two temporal dimensions running in parallel, struggling to connect them via moral and historical checkpoints. Whereas Batuman deals with Turkish culture as an unsolvable puzzle, Ferrari handles Italian anarchism as bygone folklore to be admired through the nostalgic eyes of a paraphernalia collector. He then directs the same pair of eyes to love and friendship, moving between failed romances and dramatic camaraderie with characters whose feeble personalities exist only to abstract the protagonist away from himself. Batuman’s heroine, on the other hand, is surrounded by human beings so rich and specific that she is constantly reminded of the depth of the human condition she desperately wants to capture. Love goes only in predictable directions for Ferrari, while remaining a mystery for Batuman, who is able to depict the vast incomprehensibility of such a powerful feeling with kindheartedness and bitter seriousness at the same time.
Ferrari surpasses Batuman prose in one regard, though, which is the portrayal of university’s inner workings. Batuman moves lightly here, focusing on a limited set of problems, the big picture always a bit too far to be properly seen. Ferrari, however, is an unstoppable force. He knows firsthand what is wrong with Italian academia, the political mess behind it, the poor state of the research sector and the lottery that a career as a professor turns out to be in this country. He may sound too cynical and caustic at times, self-deprecation not being my favourite writing style, yet if one by any chance is or was a student at an Italian university they know Ferrari is right.
I am glad I have come across Elif Batuman and Dario Ferrari. It is obvious that I enjoyed Batuman’s books more, but both writers found more or less compelling ways to tell relatable stories. Summer demands nothing more.
Well, sort of. I am still working on a couple of exams waiting for me between the end of August and the beginning of September. ↩
I have admired Donna Tartt’s The Secret History long before the recent wave of enthusiasm. ↩
See: Thomas Pavel’s The Lives of the Novel: A History. ↩
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.” (Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, IV) ↩