Watch the Video
Elif Batuman discusses The Idiot.
about the author
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of the novel, The Idiot and The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories have been anthologized in the 2014 Best American Travel Writing and the 2010 Best American Essays collections. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor. Batuman holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Stanford University. From 2010 to 2013, she was writer-in-residence at Koç University, in Istanbul. She lives in New York.
The Reading from the Author
Resources & Discussion
Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.
- How does being Turkish and from the different world of Istanbul affect the narrator’s first days at Harvard?
- What are the classes she takes?
- What are the professors like? What do they think of her?
- What observations does the narrator make of her peers?
- List the ways she moves from innocence to experience.
- What are her failures? Her successes? What is she good at? What can’t she do?
- What is Nina in Siberia? Why is this significant?
- What makes her smart? What makes her an 18 yer old?
- What are the differences between the narrator and those around her?
Now You Try
Elif Batuman in her short story “Constructed Worlds” writes what it is like to be Turkish from Istanbul and new in her first year at Harvard. She does not know about email, is not versed in and has to deal with new rules about admission to courses and encountering professors. Write a piece about when you are new to a school, a summer program, or an activity. The key to this piece is being from “another world” where you are not familiar with even the vocabulary of the new experience. You are learning a new lexicon. You are learning new rules. You are learning new customs The people, both peers and adults, and the way they behave are foreign to you. Batuman remains neutral in tone and observations, but it is from her perspective and detailed observations where the humor and satire arise. Your piece does not have to be funny but it does need to have detail.
In the student model that follows, a much younger and more naive Canadian, goes off to boarding school with preconceptions about the experience from reading about British boys boarding schools from such classic books sources as The Boy’s Own Paper.
Consider the following:
- Brainstorming is important here
- This new world does not have to be a school
- The affect of having a neutral tone
- Possible challenges
- First encounter with peer
- First impression of teachers
- First reactions to each class
- New in technology
- Books you hadn’t read
- Customs of new school
- Terms of new school ie “language” of place
- Clothes/Habits/MusicPopular culture
- Embarrassment over parents
- Opinions of people at new place
- Portraits of adults in charge (teachers/coaches)
- A particular friend, i.e. Svetlana
- Courses/ activities/ setting/ sports/ games/ activities/ meals
- What you expected/ dreamt about/ goals aspirations
- What you knew about the summer before, a month before
- Interesting beginning and ending Batuman’s beginning: “I’d never heard of … until I went to , met, saw…)
- List as much as you can about what was unfair
My Own Paper
The summer of 1956, hot, languid and comfortable, moved slowly towards fall. I lay in a hammock, gently swaying, the heavy Boys’ Own Paper Annual propped heavily on my chest. Discovered in the church rummage sale, this relic from 1914 provided me with a glimpse of what boarding school life might be like.The stories I read were both a half century out of date and set on a different continent, but I felt that things might not have changed too much. The Pluckiest Boy in the Lower Fifth described dorm raids, midnight feasts, and heroic sporting activities where boys forged a “fierce loyalty,” becoming “fast friends.” My thoughts shifted to reality and the presence of a trunk that would soon accompany me to my boarding school. It was filling with items carefully described on the official clothing list. I had watched my mother and Aunt sew on name tapes.
“Can he possibly need a dozen handkerchiefs? What is the matter with Kleenex?”
My first days at my new school passed quickly. Any quiet thoughts of home were abruptly quashed by the pressing present where I stumbled upon and against the new and unexpected. Homework was “prep,” games were “crease,” a “bisque” was permission to walk to a small nearby store to buy candy or “tuck” on a Saturday afternoon. At least a dozen of these words soon became second nature.
“I have to get off the phone mum. It’s time for crease. I might be able to call again after prep if I’m not “on colour.” Parents soon learned the lingo as well.
I arrived in grade 10 or “fifth form,” to take my place among boys who had been living together for years with their pecking order established. Where would I fit? I imagined that these boys, who knew what to expect from each other, and for whom the appropriate expressions and actions of the clique came as second nature, would delight in my discomfort. In fact, they probably thought very little about me. I had simply to endure the trials imposed on the group of new students, who were for the most part three years younger than I was, and certainly not six foot five. I made friends, began to know the idiosyncrasies of my assorted teachers and settled, more or less, into a new way of life. There were bullies, but with careful planning and luck they could often be avoided. I was unable to dodge the special treatment new students received.
An organized routine for “newboys,” as we were called, formed an inescapable tradition both humiliating and relentless. Designed to make us feel as insignificant as possible, this practice amounted to a sanctioned hazing that lasted the entire first year. I felt ridiculous lining up to be inspected by prefects before every meal of the year. These inspectors were specially selected boys close to my own age, some of whom sat in classes with me or played on the same sports team.
“The Rules” for newboys had to be followed to the letter. A long list described places we were not permitted to go, such as the center stairs climbing three stories of the building called School House. Instead we must use the staircases at either end of the building. Certain common rooms, certain convenient paths over the grounds, and in general, most places that were either handy or comfortable were “out of bounds” to newboys. Rules dictated the dress code. We wore grey flannels, jackets and ties, with nothing permitted in our jacket pockets. Our shoes, which could only be lace-up black oxfords, must shine brilliantly. A wire contraption with springs called a “spiffy” must be sprung under our tie to keep the collar from looking rumpled. I have never seen one of these gadgets since, but we had to have it in place regardless of how starched our collars might be. The list went on and on. I stood, little second formers rigid on either side of me, for a five-minute inspection before every breakfast, lunch and supper. Motionless, our eyes had to be focused on a picture rail across the hallway.
There were so many petty rules to keep track of that it was almost inevitable that I transgressed in some way. The punishment was to be “sent in” to see the prefects in their special room. Once again you lined up, waiting your turn outside their door while the knowing school traffic passed by, smirking. Inside the room, and standing at attention, you stated what you had done wrong and then received your punishment. For one offense you got “a week of shoes.” This meant you had to shine a prefect’s shoes each day for a week. For two offenses, say a slip of paper in your side pocket and a failure to offer bread at dinner to a prefect before helping yourself to a slice, you were put on “the rack.” This was bad, though not quite as bad as it might sound. There was a rack in the prefects’ room where they could put any foot wear that needed cleaning. This could include cadet boots and grossly muddy football boots. Cadet uniforms were hung above the rack and one was responsible for shining all the brass buttons and flashes. Shining became a way of life, since I had my own to do along with whatever turned up on this rack during the week. Three offenses in one week were easily dealt with. You bent over and were caned by a prefect wielding a whippy length of willow – two strokes for each offense. This was painful, but mostly humiliating. At least there was no shining involved… until the next infraction. This went on relentlessly for the entire year.
The prefects ran this newboy “business,” a tradition like fagging in Tom Brown’s School Days. And yes, there were Flashman-like prefects who were overzealous in their pursuit of newboy harassment. But for the most part this inconvenient and tiresome aspect of the school eventually became part of an inconvenient and tiresome way of life. I grew used to it along with an assortment of school masters.
The art teacher, Mr. Mould, “instructed” us in the copying of actual art works. I learned how to square off a Renoir print and then copy each small section of the grid to a squared-off larger piece of paper. This was a rather time-consuming task and I don’t recall ever applying any paint. Mr. Mould also nominally looked after the library. I say nominally since he relied on boys to do any work that needed to be done with books. I became a student librarian to escape from the rough and tumble of the jungle that was school life. The library provided a quiet escape in a separate building where I could, for brief moments, daydream, read or even study. I doubt if the school had a mission statement in those days, but if it had it might have read as follows: “The school strives to crush and destroy any burgeoning indications of humanity, artistic expression or imagination, while fostering the combined characteristics of an imagined 18th century English boarding school with those of a Spartan training camp.” This translated into cold showers, extensive bullying, difficult and painful sporting activities, rote memorization of Latin, beatings and largely inedible meals. Thinking back on that mission statement, I realize it is amazing that there was a library at all.
One wet afternoon after sports, I was engaged in cataloguing some newly arrived books. Mr. Mould sat, bristling moustache alert, while the rest of him relaxed in typical fashion. With his feet up on his desk, he read the newspaper. I watched a wobbly ash grow on his cigarette before it fell onto his old Etonian tie. With a start he let go of the paper with one hand while burying his chin in his neck to focus on the whisking away of ash. After an impatient flail he resettled the newspaper with much flapping.
The box of books before me was part of a donation from an oldboy, recently called to account by the headmaster in the sky. I wondered what it might be like showing up there. Here on earth I chose the library as an unlikely place for the bullies to congregate.
The main criterion for school masters seemed to be the possession of an English accent. I presumed these were desperate men who, having failed in some way in their island home, had emigrated to Canada to start fresh. Often they had also failed in their adopted country and thus defaulted into school teaching as a last resort. I imagine Mr. Mould was once again starting fresh. He was proficient at smoking and newspaper reading, but never to my knowledge demonstrated anything beyond these skills.
With his back to me, Mr. Mould was now plugging in an immersion heater while juggling a cup of water and a tea bag. Such was his focus on smoking, tea-making and the newspaper that it was easy to pretend to be hard at work while actually reading a novel in this pleasant retreat from the world.
“How are you getting on, Coleman?”
I tried to make my voice breezy and casual. “Oh, just fine, sir.”
Mr. Mould looked up for a moment. I let him get on with his tea. Someone making a fresh start likely needed the benefit of a little caffeine stimulation. It was time to return to the jungle and I looked back at him as I opened the door to leave. He was lighting another cigarette and had his feet back up on the desk.
Mr. Mould had probably strolled directly from The Boys’ Own Paper.
Mr. Sneath taught chemistry and biology. I thought both subjects promised a fascinating adventure. I entered the basement lab where a stuffed Canada Goose perched beside a mahogany and glass cabinet containing a balance. There were bottles of colored liquids, Bunsen burners and a chart of the skeletal system. An enormous sectioned eye was displayed on the wall beside my seat. Mr. Sneath talked about cells and what was inside them. I learned about the nucleus, and how plant cells differed from animal cells. And all the while I sat amongst the trappings of science: microscopes, flasks, a collection of pinned butterflies, a sink where a rubber hose connected to a faucet that rose in an arching curve. After French and algebra I returned to the same classroom for chemistry class. I took my seat and looked around once again. This was my sort of place I decided.
“You feel superior don’t you.” It was not a question, it was a statement. Mr. Sneath seemed to be looking directly at me. I swiveled my head to see who this superior person might be. He spoke again. “I am speaking to you Coleman. I noticed you looking about the room earlier with your smile, and you are doing it again. You think you are above this I think”
I was tongue-tied. With a burning face and pulsing ears, I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times. How should I respond? Faces turned toward me. I suffered in silence.
My introduction to science improved, and Mr. Sneath and I came to know each other better. After a week or two I walked into his classroom with something that might even pass for confidence.
A month passed. I almost accepted this sort of life as an approximation of normality.
My housemaster, the Reverend Harold Forster, taught Latin, ran the choir and was the school chaplain. “Harry,” as we referred to him behind his back, welcomed me on my first day with a firm handshake. He might have stepped from the pages of The Boys Own Paper with his English accent, his rippling blond hair, and his black academic gown. Humming a hymn tune, he moved swiftly along the halls, head back, gown billowing, a pile of exercise books under one arm. He sprang off his toes at each step and smiled a lot. Leaving for crease in his tennis whites, clutching what he called his tennis “bat” and a string bag of balls, he didn’t look dangerous, but I soon learned that he was. He liked to beat older boys with a cane. The younger boys went over his knee to be spanked with his hand. All the masters caned from time to time, but only Harry was addicted to it. Harry caned boys every day.
I was unprepared for this aspect of boarding school Life.
On certain Friday evenings we didn’t have regular prep. Club meetings took place. Gilbert and Sullivan rehearsals soon filled this time for me, but early in October I had yet to join a club. I reported to the “prep” classroom after supper to find only five boys instead of twenty. We worked in silence as usual, the prefect on duty seated at the front of the room. From time to time, Harry looked in the doorway for a moment before creeping away to check one of the other classrooms. I rather enjoyed geometry problems and worked a few before taking out The Boy Mechanic, a favorite book.
I escaped from school to an imaginary workshop at home. There, tools and materials came together with uninterrupted quiet time to create a comforting retreat. In my mind I followed the instructions and plans for the construction of a clinker-built dinghy, or imagined what it might be like to use a lathe to turn the barrel of a 17th century model cannon. Doing anything during prep that was not part of a class assignment was strictly forbidden, but I decided this was an irregular evening with the club members gone. We were permitted to write letters home or read novels on Sunday evenings. I imagined this might be like a Sunday evening.
A throat cleared just over my shoulder bringing me abruptly back from the workshop. Harry had entered the room quietly and now gazed down at the plans for a model ship’s cannon.
“Who is this for, Coleman?” As usual, Harry kept his hands clasped behind his back, while rocking up and down on the balls of his feet. These feet were small and tucked into tight-fitting brown suede shoes. Something fluttered in my rib cage as if a small bird wanted to leave.
“Um, it’s for me, I guess, sir.”
“I mean Coleman, is this part of an assigned prep?” Harry was making sure. The activity in my chest built. There were several birds now.
“No sir,” I faltered, “I am just reading it for myself.”
“I see,” Harry said, and he walked silently out of the room on his careful, small suede feet.
Surely the prep rules didn’t apply with most of the house off at club meetings? The birds in my chest settled for a moment before once again seeking freedom as my panic built. Black and blue bottoms traversed by red-scabbed lateral cut marks were commonplace in the communal showers we took after crease. Harry caned someone nearly every day. Sometimes he would cane a whole dorm for talking after lights out. Staring blindly at the French vocabulary list replacing the retired Boy Mechanic, I worried that my state of anxiety might show. Why hadn’t I gone to a club meeting? Promises to God and whoever else might be listening sprang into my thoughts. I would be perfect forever after; I would work and work; I would never again waste time; I would be kind to the unfortunate; I would… I couldn’t think of what else to promise. Glancing to the side I noticed that Stokes-Rees was staring at me, grinning foolishly. He was enjoying my predicament. How could he be allowed to gloat? He was such an idiot. But wait, I didn’t mean that. I was going to be charitable and good, now and forever. Stokes-Reese was probably good at something. Yes, I had heard that he could ski really well. Just deliver me from the cane. Skiing? Stokes-Rees? In my anxiety was I actually going nuts?
The Boys Own Paper had not mentioned this.
Each night before bed we had milk, crackers and prayers. We waited for Harry in an open area in front of the wide staircase that linked the second and third floors of School House. Boys laughed and chatted. I bit into a saltine and tried to chew, but my dry mouth made it difficult to swallow. I had to wash it down with some of the unpleasant room temperature milk. Harry appeared from his rooms and mounted the stairs where he rose up and down on those brown suede feet. He held up his prayer book and began to read. I heard only a humming in my ears as I studied the remains of a boil on Johnson 2’s neck. It was inches from me, livid and swollen. The prayers finished, Harry snapped closed the prayer book.
“I would like the choir to meet for a half hour rehearsal before lunch tomorrow. Good night boys.”
He started down the steps. I had escaped. All that worry had been for nothing. Relief was tentatively rearing its head and getting ready to burst into song. Thank you God, thank you, thank… Harry had paused.
“Oh, and Coleman, I would like to see you in my office.” I followed him in a haze; the birds were back, a rushing sound in my ears.
The Boys Own Paper had said nothing about fear and humiliation at boarding school.
That meeting didn’t end well. There was no escape. However, I survived and even gained a few points in her eyes of my peers. I had met Harry and lived to brag about it.
“Yeah, I got six with the stair rod; not much fun, but I didn’t say a word. He tried his best.”
So I was initiated into the world of those who had been beaten by The Reverend Harry Forster. It was not a select group. Most boys belonged. He was the chaplain, someone to whom, in theory, one might have gone with a troubling problem; he was someone who might have provided a refuge and spoken kind words, or given advice in the often-hostile world of a boys’ boarding school. Instead he was simply part of the brutal fabric of school life, a life woven from a lack of privacy, cold showers, painful games, pointless rote memorizations, cruel bullies, and homesickness. And all of this hovered over my life beside the constant dread that something worse still lurked around every corner.
The Boys Own Paper, perhaps read in a candle-lit dorm during the first world war, was intended as a respite from this life, rather than as a description of it.