How to regulate time

How well do readers really understand The Time Regulation Institute? In this piece Armağan Ekici examines the new English translation of Tanpınar’s novel, together with its new introduction and the author’s criticism of modernisation...

16 Mart 2016 17:00

There are two common interpretations of Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute : The first is that the novel is a critique of modernity and modernisation; the second that the main theme of the book is Turkey’s move from alaturca time to alafranga, or European time, in other words from time regulated by the call to prayer to Greenwich Mean Time. These two interpretations are heavily underscored in the specially commissioned introduction by Pankaj Mishra to the new English translation (published by Penguin at the end of 2013), and given an exaggerated emphasis in the accompanying blurbs and publicity. Although there is some truth to these interpretations, I believe a careful reader will see that they are not the novel’s main concerns. In this article I first examine the issues of “time regulation” and Tanpınar’s “critique of modernisation.” With this in mind I then analyse the back-cover and introduction of the new English translation, before finally trying to draw attention to what I believe is an overlooked aspect of the book and of the central issues of the novel.

A short history of “Time Regulation”

Let’s begin with the change to European time. In my opinion, the crux of the issue is that in the years when “time regulation” was an issue, this concern was not particular to Turkey, but was being addressed by the entire world. So by the time Tanpınar was writing his novel, this issue had long been dealt with and the use of standard time was already widespread.

Today, the majority of us live surrounded by timepieces that set themselves automatically via satellite communication and the Internet. I am of the generation for whom the most reliable way to set a clock was the time signal given by the radio and television-- and we would diligently set our clocks at the beep. Setting a watch to the exact second was the quintessential boy’s pursuit. We would adjust our Casio watches to the hour and then, fingers poised over the watch’s button, wait for the radio signal. The traces of this habit from my childhood remain with me; when the radio gives the time signal I take great satisfaction in seeing the clocks around me change in time with the signal. Previous generations before the era of radio time had telegraph time, time balls mounted in the most visible parts of the city, church bells, or the call to prayer.

Before the precision of mechanical watches, we measured time by following the sun. What we call “clockwise” is in fact the direction in which the shadow on a sundial moves in the northern hemisphere. The moment at which the sun can most easily and accurately be measured is midday. This is the moment of each day when the sun is directly overhead – due south in the northern hemisphere – and when shadows are at their shortest. Sunrise and sunset are not as reliable as midday; they can change depending on altitude, geographical formations on the horizon, and the refraction of light in the atmosphere. Between two middays passes a full “solar day” of 24 hours (the time between two between two sunrises or two sunsets, on the other hand, changes by a few minutes every day). The most reliable time reference for any city was, therefore, the moment at which the sun was directly overhead in that city. Thus each city had its own time, so that 11:36 in one particular city it could be 11:42 in a city nearby. Observatories, along with churches in the Christian world and time-setting workshops in the Muslim world, carried out the duty of setting the time for their city, providing the time to the local vicinity by following the sun and other celestial bodies. Today, when we refer to GMT or Greenwich Mean Time, we are speaking of a measurement which sets 12:00 to be the average annual time at which the sun as seen from the Greenwich Observatory is at its apex.

Over time, and with the increase of travel and the development of communications, there grew a need for each city to use a centrally-determined standard time as well as its own time. Seamen were able to calculate their latitude by looking at the sun, but when travelling east-west they were unable to calculate their longitude, since the local midday changed as they moved. It was finally discovered that the way to calculate longitude was for seamen to take with them the time of their place of departure; the difference between midday local time and midday central (standard) time gave them their longitude. To make a successful calculation, there was a need for timepieces whose accuracy would not be affected by long journeys over rough seas. Before the development of instant electronic communication, the only way to be in accord with central time from a remote location was to carry a good timepiece.

The expansion of railroads in the 1800s brought the need for a common time, first on a national then on an international level, to synchronize train schedules. These years also gave birth to the possibility of instant communication- first with the telegraph and then through radio waves—enabling cities to establish a common time. As one might expect the British Empire first observed London/Greenwich time, the French the Paris meridian and the Russians followed Moscow time (still today the bronze “Arago” medallions set into the pavements of Paris remind us of the Paris meridian that passed through the Paris Observatory). In 1884, an International Meridian Conference aimed to determine a prime meridian for international use. Participants in the conference, which included the Ottoman Empire, unanimously voted for the use of the Greenwich meridian, and following the conference, states began to implement this decision. In 1911 France changed to Greenwich Mean Time. In 1915, a time ball was installed on the tower of Istanbul’s Bahriye Hospital taking its signal at midday by connecting to Paris by telegraph. A “time ball” is a large metal ball, located in a prominent place, that drops at the moment of the time signal. In Ulysses, set in 1904, Bloom refers to Dublin Ballast Office's time ball and to the difference in time between cities.

Thanks to these developments, during the reign of Abdülhamit, the deployment of alaturca (by which time was set to 12:00 at sunset, meaning that time needed to be adjusted forwards or backwards by a few minutes every day) came to its gradual end. Working hours in public institutions and railways changed to European time. Clock towers, which were becoming widespread at the end of the Ottoman period, showed European time. The 1926 law on time regulation legalised the existing situation (for anyone interested in the subject, Reading Clocks, Alla Turca, by Avner Wishnitzer published in July 2015, looks at the Ottoman move from alaturca to European time, making use of Turkish archival sources).

At the end of empire, the Istanbul time ball, referred to above, was moved to the Galata Tower, in what reads like a miniature Time Regulation Institute saga in its own right. A scan of contemporary Cumhuriyet ("The Republican") newspaper articles tells the tale. The decision to re-deploy the ball was taken in 1928. In February 1930 we read: “Time ball about to be installed; repairs to be completed in a few days.”  March 1930: “Time ball placed on the Galata Tower yesterday goes into operation.”  October 1930: “Time ball to be operational within a month. An electrical signaling system is being installed between the Galata tower and the Kandilli observatory. A siren will be placed at the entrance to the tunnel; when the ball drops at twelve o’clock the siren will sound.”  November 1930: “Due to the need to employ some officials for the task, the operation of the time ball has been postponed until the beginning of the year.”  November 1930: “From now on we will no longer call promises that come to nothing a ‘serpent’s tale’, we will simply say ‘time ball’!”  September 1931: “The time ball that was placed on the Galata tower months ago is still out of operation... The municipality enquired about the operation of the time ball in a written memorandum to the Observatory.”  August 1933: “The time ball siren has gone out to tender.”  September 1933: “Final adjustment of the time ball now complete.”  8 November 1933: “Time ball goes into operation.”  9 November 1933: “The time ball did not function yesterday due to a setback. We called Fatin Bey, director of the Observatory, to ask the reason for this...”  December 1933: “Since some people set the time when the siren begins, and others when the siren ends, there is still a difference in times.”  March 1934: “The time ball on Galata tower is broken. For this reason the midday siren has not sounded for a few days.”

The chronological clues in The Time Regulation Institute, suggest the period in which the Institute operated corresponds to the mid-1940s to mid-1950s; in other words the book’s “now” corresponds to around 1954, the year in which the book was serialised. As the tale of the time ball above indicates, confusion about “common time” took place in the 1930s, before radio became widespread. By 1954, however, the time signal had been broadcast on the radio for almost twenty years, and the speaking clock, through which a time signal service was provided over the telephone, was long established. The reminder of the existence of the speaking clock provides one of the key moments in the book when the pointlessness of the Institute is found out by the bureaucracy:

When we returned to my office, the head of the delegation refused my offer of a libation, but headed straight to the phone to dial 0135 to get the time. Once he had his answer he looked first at the clock on the wall and then at me.

“When it’s that easy, what’s the point of an institute?”

This was more or less the same question I had been asking Halit Ayarcı since the day the institute was established. And every time I asked, he gave me the same grave and reasoned reply, which, if not entirely convincing, succeeded in silencing me.

In order for today’s reader to grasp the pointlessness of the Time Regulation Institute fully in same way as a reader of 1954, they should– given our current familiarity with mobile phones, that changed our behaviour in the 2000s and affected our lives in the same unexpected way- imagine a novel published in 2015 entitled The Mobile Phone Charging Institute.

With The Time Regulation Institute, Tanpınar is not making fun of Turkey’s move to European time, but of something else entirely: he is satirising the fact that, amid all of the developments in industry and bureaucracy and all the rhetoric of economic productivity, even a nonsensical institution that serves no real purpose can manage to survive for years. When the book was serialised in 1954, the pointlessness of the Time Regulation Institute would have been obvious to readers who received the national time signal every day from the radio; as we tend to confuse the periods in question, we therefore also misinterpret the book’s emphasis.

The move from alaturca time to European time was truly a change in language, psychology, and in the meaning of time itself. The break in the relationship between daytime and the “after hours” was a transformation that went hand in hand with a move towards a standardised, more uniform, and pecuniary approach to time, and away from the rhythms of life that corresponded to the natural movements of the sun and organised around evening prayers. However, this transformation was well and truly complete by the time we reach the period in which The Time Regulation Institute is set. If you pay close attention you will notice that the sole mention in the book of the change from alaturca time comes when İrdal is talking about his father’s pocket watch, “a strange contraption equipped with a compass, a hand that showed the direction of Mecca and a calendar, and which told all manner of time, both alaturca and alafranga, time that was present and time that was not.”

Criticism of modernisation

To continue the above line of thought, there is no doubt that the book does indeed include a criticism of modernity and modernisation; in particular, one of the main themes of the book is an idea of work that goes directly against contemporary understandings of labour and success and against the modern world’s superficial claims of “science, rationality, realism, economic productivity.” The institute, whose entire rhetoric is one of saving time, was established on the basis of something completely unnecessary—a good example of which is that the institute’s managers play table tennis in the institute to kill time. A discussion between Hayri İrdal and Halit Ayarcı on “realism” crystallises into one of the most striking analysis of what reality means in this new world.

Tanpınar’s humour here bears parallels with Jacques Tati’s mockery of modernity. Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, a bemused and blundering character, is unable to comprehend modern workplaces, glass and metal buildings, elevators and modern furniture, using them for completely different purposes as the mood takes him. In his confusion, however, he brightens up the cold façade of modernity. Take, for example, the scene from Tati’s Playtime where, unable to sit still, the American businessman constantly fiddles with his bag, his hair, and so on. In The Time Regulation Institute we see Tanpınar making this exact same joke with Dr Ramiz and his bag.

On the subject of Dr Ramiz, note that one of the most cutting pieces of satire in Tanpınar’s book is directed at the science of psychoanalysis: Dr Ramiz, who begins with the aim of saving the world through psychoanalysis, sends everyone – himself included – to sleep while reading old Ottoman dream interpretations– before making his exit from the book.

In the 60 years that have passed since the book was written, the issues Tanpınar mocked have, in many aspects, grown deeper and more numerous. Whole sectors, whose sole purpose is to squeeze every gnat’s blood drop of profit in ever more assiduous ways, hang on for dear life to their follies, and thus produce an immense waste that we struggle to calculate and comprehend. They drag the whole world into crisis and make the lives of millions miserable. Then we discuss day in and day out the harm our decisions cause the world through levels of rubbish, excessive consumption and waste that we, as “rational”, economic and modern individuals and companies create (After humanity worked for years to calculate the exact time of midday, the mean summertime midday was suddenly changed to 13:00 with the introduction of Daylight Saving Time, thus nullifying centuries of work on time regulation, in what itself seems to be a folly worthy of Tanpınar’s Time Regulation Institute- and that has been accepted by the multitudes despite having no obvious purpose.)

However, this is not the whole story. Through Hulot’s complete bemusement, Jacques Tati implies that, in fact, the old houses, postmen, bicycles and fashion were better and more practical. At the end of Playtime, Hulot goes to the opening of a posh, new, ultra-modern restaurant, where he causes everything to be thrown into disarray, transforming the cold muted colours of the film into warm bright shades, so that the staid patrons begin to enjoy themselves. But in Tanpınar’s novel, the old world receives its own share of the same mockery: Seyit Lûtfullah who searches for treasure while believing that he is in touch with guardian spirits, the Ottoman pasha who tries to retrieve his lost fortune through the alchemical experiments of Aristidi Efendi, Hayri İrdal, who, when telling Van Humbert their lie about Ahmet Zamanî, escapes disgrace thanks to due to his “Sufi-like attitude and detached– or, rather, indulgent– personality”, the regulars at the coffeehouse in the middle section of the book, and patrons of the Spiritualist Society are no less foolish or misguided than Halit Ayarcı. Berna Moran makes this point in an essay on Tanpınar when he writes there are only two characters in the book who are in no way tainted by deceit or errancy– Muvakkit Nuri Efendi (İrdal’s master and man of the old era) and Ahmet (İrdal’s son and child of the Republic)– and that their shared characteristic is a conscientious and disciplined approach to their work and profession. Seeing the book merely as a criticism of modernisation is therefore to overlook the fact that it is with the same cutting satire that Tanpınar comments on both the world that was and his own era.

At this point I believe we should look at what the book really discusses, rather than seeing in Tanpınar what we want to see, recognize that Tanpınar made fun of almost everybody, particularly himself, and drew up a catalogue of the collective follies of human effort, A start is to recall what Kundera had to say on the art of the novel, echoing Cervantes:

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but this grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless. (The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Perennial Classics: 2003, p.18).

Back cover and introduction of the Penguin edition

Unfortunately, through the additional texts to the novel, Penguin’s English translation of The Time Regulation Institute presents us with these two interpretations– the issue of alafranga-alaturca time and the criticism of modernity– in a crudely caricaturised, and with increasingly laughable arguments. The book’s back-cover copy states that the Institute was established “for the purpose of changing all the clocks in Turkey to Western time”, from which we understand that the whoever wrote this had not given the book a very careful reading. The two-paragraph text features other mistakes of a similar kind: at the beginning it is stated that this is the “first-ever English translation” of the book, Seyit Lûtfullah is described as a “television mystic”, and it is claimed that Hayri İrdal’s life is “recounted in sessions with his psychoanalyst”. In truth, this edition is the second English translation of the book; events in the book happen long before the appearance of television and televangelists; and Hayri İrdal tells his life story not through sessions with his psychoanalyst but, of course, through a book that he has supposedly written himself. Let’s say that, interestingly and unfortunately, these points were overlooked; it is clear that while this book was being prepared for publication, this back-cover copy was written without even consulting the two people who we are certain have read the book – the translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

And then there is the introduction to the book by Pankaj Mishra. Here, things get even more interesting; but to ensure fairness first I will summarise the author’s argument:  

Mishra sees the modernisation efforts of Eastern societies (Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, India) as change imposed through violence against society at the hands of powerful leaders (according to Mishra, Eastern societies had no linear understanding of time before these leaders). However, these foreign seeds did not sprout in these lands, and gave only the most uncertain of results; Mishra tells us that Turkey, for example, turned “to a moderate Islamism after decades of a secular dictatorship”. Mishra also states that in A Mind at Peace, rather than demonstrating a desire for modernisation and Kemalism, Tanpınar looks at the old values of Istanbul with that notorious “melancholy” (hüzün) and that his teacher, Yahya Kemal, wrote in “traditional Persian aruz rhythm instead of the newly invented Turkish one.” According to Mishra, however much the Kemalists “tried to enlist Turkish authors into the national task of creating new role models and educating a loyal and intelligent citizenry”, Tanpınar, with the techniques of modernist literature and the spirit of Baudelaire’s flaneur, rejects such efforts in A Mind at Peace, instead seeking an alternative synthesis of the old and new.

Stating that the situation worsens in The Time Regulation Institute, Mishra says that by then the world had changed so much that the “synthesis” of old and new that Tanpınar sought in Huzur was no longer possible; that “the onward-and-upward narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything”; and that “the spiritual resources of modernism seem meagre compared to the great and irreversible material changes – industrialization, mechanization, demographic shifts, middle-class consumerism, and rapid communications – introduced by Turkey’s Kemalist elite”.

According to Mishra, in order to understand Tanpınar’s satirical intentions, we have to know that in 1926 Atatürk passed a law that introduced the use of the Western time and calendar. Before this, claims Mishra, for many people in Turkey it was enough to hear the call of the muezzin to understand the time; Atatürk, however, ordered the erection of clock towers throughout the country. Those who continued to follow the old time were severely punished. Atatürk’s clock towers “cheaply propagandized the virtues of regularity, constancy, punctuality, and precision”, while dividing life into Western-style compartments boosted economic productivity and gave time a monetary value. Mishra says that the watch given to Hayri İrdal as a circumcision gift from his uncle is a sign that İrdal has been dispelled from the pre-modern Garden of Eden, where such issues were of no concern.

Mishra claims that Tanpınar uses İrdal “to take aim at many aspects of Kemalist Turkey”; he sees the story of Ahmet Zamanî, for example, as an example of the dishonesty of the Kemalist state, and of its “tinkering with the old temporal order”. In conclusion, according to Mishra, the novel describes “the obscure sufferings of people in less ‘developed’ societies – those who, uprooted from their old ways of being, must languish eternally in the waiting room of history.”

These are the opinions and facts put forward by Mishra. The Penguin edition was published with this preface in 2013, and judging by the fact that Mishra wrote again, word for word, about the issue of “Atatürk’s clock towers and severe punishments” in an article for the Guardian in February 2015, it would appear that during this interval he never questioned what he had written and nobody told him that this was not, in fact, how things were; nobody told him that the clock towers were erected not in the Republican period but in the late Ottoman period; nobody explained the true history of the move to central (standard) time that I outlined above; and he himself did not feel the need to learn the truth. Similarly, the quest to return to pure Turkish, to the rhythms of Turkish was a debate that began well before the foundation of the Republic, and that found direct parallels in Ireland and Greece; the centuries-old syllabic verse was evidently not invented by the Kemalist state.

It is clear that Mishra needs to make a slightly more careful reading of history and remember that, far from being disconnected from time and hours, the Muslim and Indian world were the very societies that established astronomy and mathematics over the course of centuries; more importantly still he should recognise that the world’s centuries-long industrialisation, centralisation and move towards interconnectedness was not caused by the single-mindedness of a few authoritarian leaders. To be sure, there may be some in Turkey who would take great pride in the idea that “industrialisation, mechanisation, industrialization, mechanization, demographic shifts, middle-class consumerism, and rapid communications” were down to the personal efforts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was not only the desire of the leaders and the public in Eastern societies to develop and catch up with the times that led to these developments; Western societies also had a significant role to play. Central capital and the centre itself also wanted, guided, and invested in these changes; all of these (railroads, standardisation, factories) were necessary for the continued accumulation of capital, for new markets to be opened for this capital, and for the continuation of profit. Modernisation came about not because of the sudden and short-term single-mindedness of a few leaders, but due to changes that took place over centuries with the participation of millions of people. As for Turkey’s modernisation, it was a transformation that began many years before Atatürk’s birth and continued for many years after his death.

Having been a student during the period of the 1980 military coup I, like many others of my generation, grew tired of hearing first Kemalist propaganda and then, in the political debates of the 2000s, anti-Kemalist propaganda. Throughout the preface Mishra reiterates again and again the evils of Kemalism, a situation that reminds me of one of the many translations of that infamous passage in Le Petit Prince about “a Turkish dictator…”, in which the Islamist translator gets carried away, going into great detail about the clothing reform.

Summarising the 90-year history of the Republic of Turkey as “moderate Islamism succeeding decades of a secular dictatorship” is one perspective that can be, and most certainly is, expressed; but when this perspective is expressed in a text introducing one of the most important books of the Turkish language to the English readership, the author should also point out that there are tens of millions who have a very different, indeed entirely opposite, interpretation of what is happening in Turkey.

Above, I tried to explain that the book is a satire not of the concepts that Mishra dislikes (modernisation, Westernisation, Kemalism, etc.) but of the state of humanity in general. The futility of attempting to make of Tanpınar an anti-Kemalist hero is, I believe, obvious even to a careful reader of this book who has read nothing else by Tanpınar. Anyone who sets out to write an introduction to Tanpınar should also be aware of the political views that he clearly expressed in his diaries, letters and essays; they should know that he was a lifelong supporter of the Kemalist CHP (People’s Republican Party); and should recognise that, of all Atatürk’s reforms, Tanpınar’s only criticism was of the language reform, while he repeatedly stated that he saw all other efforts towards modernisation and industrialisation as the only solution.

But let’s return to the subject of the watch given to İrdal as a circumcision gift by his uncle. According to Mishra, after receiving this watch İrdal becomes “a citizen of modern Turkey, expected to do his bit as an individual producer and consumer to boost its collective power.” However, if we continue reading a little further in the book after the quote Mishra gives, we learn that this watch is the catalyst for İrdal’s passion for time that would last his entire life and that “it may well have been this passion that led me to the door of true freedom. The fact that Mishra then presents clocks and time regulation as a change imposed on society by Atatürk, and states that more accurate time regulation had not been possible in the earlier Ottoman period reveals the exact page upon which page Mishra gave up reading the very book for which he is writing an introduction. Mishra must have given up reading this 394-page book on page 21. For had he continued he would have read this:

Everyone knows that in former times our lives revolved around the clock. According to what I learned from Nuri Efendi, the best customers of Europe’s clockmakers were always Muslims, and some of the most pious Muslims were to be found in our country. The clock dictated all manner of worship: the five daily prayers, as well as meals during the holy month of Ramadan, the evening iftar and morning sahur. A clock offered the most reliable path to God, and our forefathers regulated their lives with this in mind.

Time-setting workshops could be found almost everywhere. Even a man with the most pressing business would come to a sudden halt before the office window to pull out a pocket watch befitting his wealth and age – of gold, silver, or enamel, with or without chains, as plump as a pin cushion or a baby turtle, or flat and thin – and, praying that this moment would be auspicious for him and his children, would utter a bismillah in the name of God and reset the timepiece before bringing it to his ear, as if to hear the triumphant tidings that had been promised him in both the near and distant future. To listen to a watch was to listen to the waters that ran from the ablutionary fountains in the mosque courtyards; it was the sound of an infinite and eternal faith, a sound like no other that reverberated in this world or the one beyond. Its ticking set the pace of the day, defined its myriad tasks, and led the listener down immaculate pathways, bringing him ever closer to the dream of eternal bliss.

I wrote about the translation problems in the book in another article, and as I said there, despite the hundreds of mistranslations, I believe that this English version could be saved by a long stint at a desk, going over the text sentence by sentence. On the other hand, it is absolutely essential to save this book from being turned into a caricature of the political beliefs of writers of the introduction and back-cover copy who have not even read the book, and whose writings contain glaring factual errors on the subject about which they are writing.

There are incredibly ironic parallels (that could even be spotted by a preface writer should they bother to read the book) between the book’s content and the fact that Tanpınar’s great novel is finally presented to the English readership in such a way; for example this book, with such an introduction on top of the numerous translation problems, reminds me of the ornate but fake Mübarek that appears in the final chapters of the book. In my article on the translation I tried to illustrate this point with quotes from the book.

So what is this book about?

I don’t want to repeat my above summary of the author’s carnivalesque perspective in which he laughs at everyone, particularly himself, or of his irony, in the vein of Cervantes, that shows the world in all its chaos. As I round up this piece, there are some specific points to which I want to draw your attention.

Look at the language and jokes of Hayri İrdal, as well as his helplessness in face of the world, love of comfort and unproductiveness; and also pay attention to how the things İrdal says when talking about himself hint to us that truth has many layers and that what he means by sincerity is very different than we think. At the very beginning of the book, İrdal sets the stage as follows:

(...) I ensconced myself in my armchair and began trying to imagine my life, sifting through all the things I would soon record – things that needed to be changed or embellished or omitted altogether. In short, I have tried to arrange the events of my life into some semblance of order, bearing in mind the many strict rules of what we might call sincere writing: these are never as indispensable as when one is composing a memoir.

For above all else, I, Hayri İrdal, have always argued for absolute sincerity. Why write at all if you cannot say honestly what you mean? A sincerity of this order – disinterested and unconditional – by its nature requires close scrutiny and constant filtering. You must agree that it would be unthinkable to describe things as they are. If you are to avoid leaving a sentence arrested in midthought, you must plan ahead, choosing only those points that will resonate with the readers’ sentiments. For sincerity is not the work of one man alone.

Compare this language to the sense of humour in Tanpınar’s letters, where he continuously makes fun of himself even as he takes delight in sharing the gossip but not so much that he is distracted from his purpose. Compare it as well  to the constant self-recrimination and self-criticism that we see in his diaries. You will see that the voice and mindset of İrdal are in fact those of Tanpınar himself. (Of course I am not the first to put forward this idea; for example, in her article Osmanlı’da Zaman-Mekân Kavrayışının Değişimi [Changing Perceptions of Time and Space in the Ottoman Era], Işıl Uçman Altınışık also sees İrdal as a kind of Tanpınar). This is the only of Tanpınar’s novels to be written in the first person; and such an argument also explains the contradiction of how, despite his claims to understand nothing of literature or the art of reading and writing, İrdal can be the “author” of such a wonderfully constructed text.

While writing of İrdal’s intellect and life, Tanpınar hones in on the subject whose many facet preoccupied him all his life, that of worldly success, and his deep sense of personal failure. In my opinion, this theme is the main psychological focus and the backbone of the entire book. In our world, there are those like Halit Ayarcı who, may have gone completely astray, but still succeed thanks to their charisma, energy and connections. Even their ability to look at things with the “realism of a man of today” may be simply be a view through the wrong end of the binoculars, they still,  despite their foolishness, turn all they touch into gold. On the other hand, those who truly know their craft, who look at the true face of people and events and see things for how they really are, but who are not enterprising, who enjoy their comfort, who are mild-mannered and unambitious, and who look at life and events from the outside, in other words the Ahmet Hamdis (and Hayri İrdals) of this world, have no chance of success and are swept aside. In the book, Tanpınar carries out a feat of mental agility by giving İrdal, who follows Halit Ayarcı to become involved in an institute of whose purpose he is not truly convinced, the financial and spiritual successes that Tanpınar was either unable to achieve himself or that he let slip. By giving İrdal the chance to live in a villa with servants and win the hearts of the women he loves, Tanpınar penned an alternative history for the issues with which he struggled in his own life. Reading between the lines of the letter that Tanpınar considered but later decided against adding to the book, we can see signs of his struggle with these themes. In order to fully understand this aspect of the book, I maintain that İrdal’s story should be read alongside Tanpınar’s diaries and letters.

Translated by Kate Ferguson.
Read the article in Turkish.