On Learning Turkish

I’ve never not had class on a Friday, and this was the reason why I was dressed, while my roommate, who enjoyed the luxury of spending the entire day at home, had only recently decided to change out of the sweatpants she had worn all day. We were about to walk to a friend’s apartment where we would find a party, our other roommates, more friends, and maybe one or two strangers. While she blew dry her hair, I waited on a rickety Ikea chair next to the island counter. As usual, I had a book in my hand.

At the time, what I had really wanted to read was a Patricia Highsmith novel. I had been in the mood for a smart thriller, but as luck would have it, Powell’s did not have a copy of Talented Mr. Ripley or Strangers on a Train. I picked up The Black Book instead because the blurb on the back cover promised a detective novel-like plot.

In the dim kitchen light, I tried my best to read carefully. Orhan Pamuk’s prose was dense. It was easy to breeze through the pages and still form the images written on the page, but the book also rewarded you for paying attention. The sentences were woven together with an eye for detail that felt lush. They were also long.

Take, for example, this one:

Although the radio was on from the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night, the thick-coated and not-at-all Turkish-looking china dog curled up on top of it never woke from his peaceful slumber.

The first time I read this sentence, I tripped over its syntax. The second time around, I was only half-paying attention. But then I tried again. A radio, a china dog, a peaceful slumber. I reread it one more time before running to my roommate’s room.

When she saw me at the doorway, she held out a skirt in each hand. “Peach or black?”

I pointed to the black one. “Do you know what’s really cool?” I didn’t wait for her to reply. “You can tell that this book was translated from Turkish! I just read this sentence…”

I tried to explain how the verbs in Turkish were always the last words of a sentence and how it was an agglutinative language. My professor had told our class how Turkish sentences and words could often go on forever, with clause after clause and suffix after suffix piled on top of one another. I described how reading through the short, simplified passages in my textbook was strenuous, even on the best of days, because my English-accustomed brain was not used to sifting through so many words to find the actions that drove a sentence. But that was why the sentence about the radio and the china dog was so astonishing. I had just read a string of words that managed to capture how meaning in Turkish revealed itself in peaks and glimpses, and once you understood, you felt a little silly because the message had been there all along, waiting patiently for you to put the pieces together.

The next morning, I read the translator’s afterward at the back of the book. Maureen Freely talked about devrik cümle, or a sentence “in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.” Quoting the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat, she described Turkish “as a language that can evoke a thought unfolding.” Thinking of my jumbled explanation from the night before, I admired and envied her eloquence. Continue reading “On Learning Turkish”

A Final Word on John Cheever

In an ideal world, I would have written this post as a fond farewell to the BA that I submitted late April. However, writing that thesis involved sometimes literal blood, sweat, and tears, and by the time the deadline finally rolled around, I was more than happy to wash my hands of the thing for the rest of forever and never talk about John Cheever and the New Yorker ever again. Two months later, I still have no wish to really talk about what I wrote, but I spent an entire afternoon of my spring break thinking about one particular story that eventually did not make an appearance in the final product, even though I had written a nice footnote for it.

The story in question is “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin,” which Cheever published in the New Yorker in 1963. Like all the other stories in my thesis, its protagonist is a traveler; more specifically, he is an American expatriate who has returned to New York from Paris. While he is in transit, he begins reading graffiti scrawled across the train station walls and bathrooms. And here’s where things get weird. Three of the four scribbles quote from real-life, and at times, literary works. The longest piece of “graffiti,” which spans the length of a magazine page, is an imitation of a gothic Victorian novel. Although the unnamed protagonist does not recognize the allusions of these passages, he is fascinated by it all. He shares his discoveries with his intellectual friends, only to be ridiculed. They conclude that he “had been away too long; [he] was out of touch with decency and common sense.”

At the surface, “Mene Mene” seems pretty cut-and-dry: American returns home and discovers that he does not belong. But as several academics have pointed out, Cheever was quite the experimental writer, especially given the fact that he published in the New Yorker, which was not interested in what Harold Ross called “overly impressionistic.” Impressionistic might not be quite the right word to describe why this short story is so strange. In the likely event that you never read it, here’s a short list of my observations:

  • The title is an allusion to a story from the Book of Daniel. Daniel is called upon to interpret this phrase and concludes that the Babylonian kingdom is on its way out. Indeed, that very night, the king is killed.
  • The first piece of writing comes from “Spartacus to the Gladiators,” written by Elijah Kellog for a oratory competition. You can read the speech reprinted in a local newspaper here.
  • Based on some extensive Google searching, the longest excerpt is Cheever’s creation, but it harkens to Adam and Eve and the fall of man.
  • The third passage comes from an essay written by Leigh Hunt in his paper, London Journal. Hunt was a Romantic writer who did a little bit of everything-poetry, literary criticism, being friends with Keats and Shelley, being destitute, etc.
  • The narrator ends by seeing a quote from John Keats’s “Bright Star.”
  • The narrator has a surprising amount of geological knowledge. When he describes the walls of the train station, he notes, “The marble was a light brown–it might have been a giallo antico, but then I noticed Paleozoic fossils beneath the high polish and guessed that the stone was a madrepore.” In the men’s bathroom, he also comments, “The wall agains were marble. This was common limestone–a silicate of calcium and magnesium, grained with some metalliferous gray ore.”
  • Generally, the narrator might be kind of crazy. He’s erudite, but prone to over-interpretation. He’s shocked by trashy paperback books. He describes the train’s warning bells “like a coronary thrombosis.” He wears yellow pointed shoes, which I’ll leave up to your imagination.

What does this all mean? And why did it get published? I’m half-convinced that John Cheever and/or the editors of the New Yorker were playing a joke on their middlebrow audience. There’s nothing quite like the irony of having a seemingly scholarly and cosmopolitan character being bewildered by bathroom grafitti that actually quotes from works that were all the rage back in the nineteenth century. Also, just as interesting as all this is that the story suggests that John Cheever knew a lot of stuff. Most of his biographies are more interested in his turbulent personal life, from his fraught relationship with his brother to his alcoholism to his sexuality, but here is a glimpse of another version of him. I wonder what I could find on his bookshelf.

Ultimately, I cut any mention of this piece because it deserved time and attention that I neither had the time nor energy to give. More importantly, I felt myself sliding into referential mania, more interested in unpacking allusions and tracking down clues rather than doing the type of in-depth literary analysis that gets you places when you’re writing an English paper. As Cheever wisely said in his Paris Review interview, “The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology…It seems to be a superficial parsing.” I will say that having this background knowledge must help though (and not to mention kind of fun), but I’ll leave it to the academics of the world to connect the dots (which may be a while because not a lot of stuff has been written about Cheever in comparison to other authors). Anyway, at the end of the day, I’m glad I bumped into “Mene Mene.” It’s a nice reminder of everything that is interesting about Cheever.

There Are No Turkeys in Paris

Actually, this is not true. But right now, it sure feels that way. Not having Halloween in Paris was just a minor inconvenience; I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. On the other hand, not having Thanksgiving hurts my heart a little. It is on my Top 5 Favorite Holidays list, and imagining carved slices of turkey smothered with rich gravy and brilliant red cranberry sauce makes me a little sad. Most of all, I’m bummed that I’ll be missing out on stuffing. Stuffing! The best food. Who knew that stale bread could be magically transformed into a culinary masterpiece?

I did try and see if I could recreate Thanksgiving in some shape and form. The grocery stores here contain all kinds of interesting things in its meat section, like rabbit (which is pretty good). Alas, no luck in finding my favorite type of poultry. I bought some vegetables and a 16-pack of yogurt instead.

Hope did come in the form of Thanksgiving, which in this context is the name of an American grocery store located in the Marais. It’s a small, one-room shop with shelves of American imports – things like Froot Loops, Aunt Jemima maple syrup, Bisquick, and Jif peanut butter. For the holiday, they were selling bags of fresh cranberries, cans of gravy, Kraft stuffing mix, and turkey basters. Essentially, there was everything but the turkey, which I could have pre-ordered if I had the funds or the means to properly cook an entire bird. I left with a box of Jiffy Cornbread mix instead and grumbled to myself about the idea of paying €10 for a jar of peanut butter. I know it’s an import, but in a month, I can buy a super sized jar for half the price at my local Shoprite.

After class, the UChicago Center was hosting a Thanksgiving reception for us students to celebrate the holiday. They promised sandwiches and “gallons of wine,” which appeared on a lovely spread in our library. The sandwiches were quite tasty and came in a dazzling variety. There was plenty of wine and tempting desserts. I picked up a chocolate-hazelnut mousse bar that was topped with actual hazelnuts. Everything was yummy, but it still didn’t really compare to my favorite Thanksgiving spread or to a whole day roasting things in ovens and boiling broths on stovetops.

Although turkeys are hard to come by in Paris, one thing isn’t. I finally did my book shopping that I’ve been putting off for a while, a surprising thing because books are my life blood and my guiding light. (And that’s only a slight exaggeration.) I first visited a Gibert Joseph to pick up a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus for my brother, who is learning French in school. Everyone needs to read an existentialist novel now and then to get some life perspective. The Stranger fits the bill for those moments when you want to read something bleak, detached, and moving all at the same time. The prices of books are fixed here in Paris, so even though Gibert Joseph is a chain, it doesn’t dominate the market in the same way that Barnes and Nobles does in the U.S. Plus, even though it was two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, there were so many people browsing around the store, and most surprising of all, actually buying titles. There were at least ten people in front of me at the register, each of them carrying at least two or three books that they’d found.

My second bookstore stop at the day was at the famous Shakespeare and Co, located next to Notre Dame. I’ve taken a quick look inside whenever I’ve been in the St. Michel area, and it’s usually packed with toursits on the weekends. However, since I visited today during the afternoon, it was actually possible to maneuver through the labyrinth of bookshelves. The books are relatively expensive, but it was wonderful just sitting in the store’s upstairs reading room and being surrounded by old volumes and people who are so excited about reading. There was a man playing the piano in the next room, which added to the cozy atmosphere. I sat down on a bench and read my Civ reading (today’s topic: Baudelaire and modernism/modernization!). I bought a store tote bag. And best of all, I finally bought a copy of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris hanging out with members of the Lost Generation.

I’m so excited to start reading. Already, the first chapter is titled “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel.” It’s unbelievable to imagine that Hemingway found a favorite café near the plaza that I just walked past on my way to the bookstore where I bought his book. There’s a circular feel to it all that makes my head spin a little. I might be walking on the same sidewalk as one of my favorite authors of all-time. Crazy! Even more exciting, I get a glimpse of how Paris was like in the 1920s, when people had money to spend, walked around slightly drunk, changed the face of art and literature, and was deeply scarred by World War I. It was one of those times where everything seemed to be okay and everything seemed to be figured out, but in reality, nothing was really truly all right and there was trouble brewing just around the corner, e.g. economic collapse, another world war, etc. Of course, Hemingway only had one perspective, but one is better than none. If I can’t have turkey, at least I have a feast of a different sort in this gorgeous city where a simple walk down a boulevard leaves me looking dazed and wonderstruck.