An idle attempt to write in English
Elif Batuman’s first autofiction novel The Idiot (2017) follows Selin’s first year in a prestigious university. Selin reads novels, watches films, studies linguistics, learns new languages, goes on a blithe journey in Europe starting with a cultural tourism in France followed by couple of weeks in Hungarian villages where she teaches English. She is going to be an author, for sure. We’re following the rather incidental days of a teen collecting information about the daily life and the cultural texts, mostly to be organized and rewritten in the future.
Biri ve Diğerleri (1987) is one of many films written and directed by Tunç Başaran that almost takes place in a single place, a bar/restaurant, where its protagonist (Aytaç Arman), a lonely man who is longing for a potentially imaginary or a lost lover, desperately glides across the bar counter. He starts drinking on the stool while it’s getting dark and rainy in the city, while the first customers are arriving to the bar. Those are middle class people coming from different segments of the society passing over while he is trying to deepen the conversation with an impressive and mysterious woman whom he just met. Every once in a while, there are some flashbacks about the fictive lover in a metaphorical and dreamy space that cuts into the streaming night. (The film is actually on YouTube, for now.)
Since the German language is well known with its repertoire of words denoting highly specific emotions and situations, I was curious whether there was a word that means something like: “the sparkle one feels when they notice something that not many people are aware of, something like a scarce linkage”. I felt something like that while I was reading The Idiot and pulling out the film Biri ve Diğerleri from one of its ordinary pages. The first quote from The Idiot:
“At the Pompidou Center we saw an exhibit based on Georges Bataille’s concept of “the formless.” There was a Turkish film festival in the cinema downstairs. Svetlana and I ran into the screening room just as the lights were going down. The movie was in Turkish with French subtitles, so we could both understand, by different means. The whole action took place in a bar, with only two characters—the bartender and a man with an annoying smile fixed on his face. Sometimes, the man would dream about a woman, who would appear through a mist, dressed in pink. The rest of the time the man just talked to the bartender about God, wine, and love. Periodically, he asked if somebody called Mahmut Bey had arrived yet. The bartender always said no.
Near the end, the bartender asked who Mahmut Bey was. “Mahmut Bey is . . . coldness,” said the man, through his annoying smile. “Mahmut Bey is wetness. Mahmut Bey is friendlessness, winelessness.”
It was a truly terrible movie. Still, we were glad we had seen it, because of Mahmut Bey. We thought of him often after that.”
Jean Fautrier, I’m Falling in Love, 1957
(Taken from ‘Formless: A User’s Guide’ by Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind E. Krauss, 1997)
Both Batuman’s novel and the film she mentions follow characters that I felt intimate with at times. What is shared in both works is some kind of interest in others’ lives, sometimes fictional as in books and films and in other times the lives of the other characters in the story. I was surprised when I noticed a connection in The Idiot that sends the reader to Biri ve Diğerleri, even though the author doesn’t mention the name of the film, unlike several other cultural texts that are noted with their names throughout the book. This reference marked one of my discontents about Batuman’s novel, that is the superficial and negative transfer of some texts that are not Batuman’s primary field, i.e. Russian Literature.
By now, we can follow that many allusions to the events and to the encounters in the book are based on the notes that Batuman took back in the days when she was a student with preparatory intentions about building a novel. Life as an ingredient to fiction. With a short search, I found that Bataille’s exhibition “The Formless”, originally “L’informe”, took place in 1996 at Centre Georges Pompidou. Artforum has an interview and Monoskop has a slow-loading full user guide about it. I wasn’t able to get any info about the Turkish Film Festival.
The first muddle I had was about the distortion of the memory in the novel. I don’t know how wittingly it was written but there are obvious distortions. While “[t]he whole action took place in a bar” is almost true if we keep out the dream sequences, “with only two characters” is plainly wrong since the film is full of memorable side characters such as the tapster, the outsider looking for “Mahmut Bey”, the cloakroom attendant, the actor performing pieces from Cyrano de Bergerac, the bankers, the teen lovers, the mafia, the workers in the kitchen and many others. It’s a film that tries to fulfill the emptiness one has in his soul with stories from all the others.
In the film, the main story revolves around the protagonist’s discussions with the tapster and the women while the camera captures some vignettes about other people’s lives. It’s not the protagonist who asks about Mahmut Bey but it’s an outsider, probably a homeless man. He tries to get in to the restaurant to warm up and maybe have some free drinks. After a couple of tries, the checker at the cloakroom wakes to his intention and lets him in with a tenderheartedness. The outsider hides under the coats of the visitors. The savior offers a drink and some food to the poor man. They have a symbolic and a bit weird conversation as follows:
– Please tell me, who is this Mahmut Bey?
– Which Mahmut Bey? (waits a bit) Mahmut Bey is coldness, Mahmut Bey is wetness, Mahmut Bey is loneliness, Mahmut Bey is lack of alcohol, lack of friends, lack of money. Mahmut Bey is me. My name is Mahmut.
– My name is Mahmut as well. Cheers!
Batuman/protagonist successfully recalls some part of it. She’s uninterested about the second half which makes sense since, as noted earlier, she finds it terrible. There are two more allusions to Mahmut Bey throughout the book but honestly I can’t understand their context and read those as floating signifiers:
“The modern-day sundial swung and creaked, drawn by the magnetism of the Earth. Mahmut Bey was pulling it with his long friendless arm.”
“O Mahmut Bey, you must know that I am always still expecting you, even now, after so many years.”
When I first noticed this reference, which is probably the only reference to a text from Turkey in the whole book, I felt that it may hint at some hypothesis but after trying to come up with one, I figured out that it doesn’t. A momentary lapse of imaginary connection. However, I’ll take note of other cultural texts that are mentioned a bit superficially in the novel, that shows how the protagonist talks about the works that does not affect her and how she finds a witty way to criticize or ignore those works:
I thought maybe Against Nature would be a book about someone who viewed things the way I did—someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity. I was wrong; it was more a book about interior decoration.
I spent nine hours of it shivering, wrapped in the Gogolian coat, through a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust. At some point I thought I had grown a lump in my thigh, but it turned out to be a tangerine
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Because I wanted to understand Ivan better, I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The very first thing in the book was a hat-related anecdote about the absurdity of Communist rule. Apparently the Communists had erased some guy from a photograph, but they had forgotten to erase his hat. I thought for hours about this hat. I knew it was connected somehow with the hat on the Lenin monument in Hungary. But how? It just seemed to sit there: this surplus hat.