Either/Or by Elif Batuman review – adventures in literature and life

The further chronicles of a Turkish-American student in the 1990s showcase a wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice

Should one spend one’s brief time on Earth guided by hedonism and pleasure, or by morality and responsibility? The second instalment of Elif Batuman’s chronicle of Selin, a student of Russian literature at Harvard in the 1990s whose biography corresponds fairly closely to the writer’s own, takes as its title Søren Kierkegaard’s first book, which suggests that one must choose whether to live according to ethical or aesthetic principles. For Selin, now in her sophomore year and with an unsatisfactory, perplexing quasi-relationship with mathematics student Ivan apparently behind her, the real issue seems not so much how to make a choice between two starkly opposed systems, but how to start living at all.

Kierkegaard is not Selin’s only template: as in Batuman’s preceding novel, The Idiot, and her nonfiction book, The Possessed, works of literature exist, variously, as vast mansions in which to wander, marvelling at the ingenuity and beauty of the fixtures and fittings; unexpectedly capricious haunted houses, in which mirrored doors open on to dead-end corridors and distorted reflections; and, occasionally and disappointingly, arid thought experiments, destined to trap the reader in repetitive and unyielding arguments.

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