I am a scientist, and as such, I generalize my observations into models of “How things work”. In short, people like me try to place our results – hopefully, they are technically sound – into the context of existing models and our colleagues’ findings, thereby adding to our knowledge.

Nothing high-handed; this is the “industry” of academia. I do not mean this as a good or bad thing; it is what it is. Businesses make profit; they are judged by that. No amount of integration into a community or charity giving matters if the company can’t make payroll or pay rent.

Rightly or wrongly, the academic model has a shorthand for “knowledge” or scholarship – scientific articles.  While our accomplishments are not as clear cut as “profit”,  under the publish or perish model, it does provide a convenient metric – quantification – as to our productivity. Anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit will seek to respond to this incentive in the best way she knows how.

So what does all this have to do with a recently released translation of a turn of the 20th-century, piece of Turkish literature?

Well, let’s get this out of the way: the novel is fantastic. What makes Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute so appealing is how recognizable the characters and situations are. The hallmark of a classic is that we can see ourselves in the characters, find parallels in their circumstances, and resonance.

This novel is rife with those happy contrasts.

The first thought I had, and this is to bring it back to my reference to my day job, is that, science works by taking a fair number of observations and distilling from it a generalizable fact. In fiction, it works not just backwards but also flipped around.

The author’s work is singular. It has a specific plot, lively characters, with perhaps a dash of history. Despite its uniqueness, good works tend to sell – think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Its heroine is memorable, and I – along with a great many others – couldn’t get enough of her. But by no means is that book a classic.

What separates classic literature from a run-of-the-mill good book is resonance. Despite the peculiar circumstances, I find myself drawing parallels between events and people in the great books and my own life. The Time Regulation Institute is such a book.

The joy in encountering a great book is that I so enjoy thinking about it, even as I interrupt my reading so I can get things done. For the record, I am male, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to the USA with my family when I was 7. I consider myself essentially a Westerner. Let’s just say that this point was brought home to me when my parents and I had chats, sometime after college, about how I am simply too individualistic for their tastes. Imagine my surprise (well, I just hadn’t thought about it) when I finally realized that, although I probably rated as a “good” American boy, I was found wanting in many departments if looked through lens of Chinese culture.

So I am aware of tension between a First World/developed world view and a more traditionalist one. All this is to say that, of course I understand I might be talking out of my ass when I talk about literature and art, let alone of non USA provenance. With that said, my essays on literature has always been opinion.  To me, great literature has resonance because, once we go beyond cultural details, social mores, and vernacular, deep down they speak to the great similarities between the author and reader. The only thing I can hope for when I write these essays on novel appreciation is that such play, or re-mixing, or interpretation does not mangle or warp the author’s intent too much.

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There are multiple layers to Tanpinar’s work. It is an absurdist comedy. It is commentary on the clash of the modern and the traditional (and dare I say a clash of civilizations?) It is a satire on bureaucracy. It is a trenchant observation on cultural inertia. It decries the inhumanity of the modern. It is a comedy. It is a drama. (For a proper critical take, please check out Martin Riker’s review in the NYT Book Review.)

I think it is fair to say that the book is recognizable to a modern audience, and that the themes have relevance.

The book is structured in a way that reminds me of the very tension it seeks to highlight. Our hero, Hayri Irdal, is flotsam, barely able to make ends meet. He and his family suffers indignities because they rely on the good graces of others. For a bit more than half the book, we have Hayri’s reminiscence of his life before heading the Time Regulation Institute. We might as well be sitting in a coffeehouse and listening to Hayri, because he takes his time. The pace is indicative of life where there really is not much else going on, and the only thing that matters is to converse and build relationships through trading stories. The rise of the Time Regulation and its dismantling occurs rapidly in the denouement.

A surprising amount does happen around Hayri. I am not sure how much he is supposed to represent the group of Turkish men who grew up at the transition of Turkey into the modern world, but one can’t help but see Hayri as part of a class of men who are poor, without prospects and about to be tossed aside because they cannot meet the ever accelerating and wild pace of modern life. In the end, I do not think Tanpanir is saying there is much different between the modern and traditional man. The same pressures of finding work, keeping a home, and getting enough to eat are eternal.

What does change is his fit into the social order.

I would say that Hayri’s problems and stasis are caused mainly by the people surrounding him. While everyone knows each other’s business, no one helps. There’s a bit of the malicious  that marks dramas about the provincial. Although Hayri did not not excel at his studies or in his apprenticeship to a watch repairman, he seemed to be in the same circumstance as a fair number of males. It does not help that strong personalities around Hayri have dominated and bullied him about.

Absurd events happen to him: a rich aunt dies and his father inherits her legacy… only to lose it all when she wakes up as she’s being buried. Hayri despairs and is powerless to change his fate. Of course he wants more, but he has no prospects to reinvent himself. At one point, we see his pride rise after being accused of hiding riches and stealing from his father-in-law. Hayri hadn’t, of course, but a series of misunderstandings and malice led his brothers-in-law to assume that there was a large inheritance. His outburst against an accuser gets him sent to  see a psychoanalyst.

Hayri, for all his lack of ambition and poverty, he seems free with his time. He is fully embedded into society, and while his spirit is relentless crushed by those around him (everyone is a frenemy, and his second wife is more concerned with her own life). Mostly, he wanders, sits in coffeehouses, and generally lounges about with other men who seem complain a lot about having no jobs. Nevermind that his wife is stuck at home with their daughter. Ermine, Hayri’s first wife, seems nothing more than a device to show that Hayri has something good in his life – and a psychic refuge against the world.

There are a number of details of Turkish life – both in its Ottoman and modern incarnation – that Tanpinar takes time to spoof. Psychoanalysis is seen as black comedy, where craziness is defined by someone who looks to interpreting dreams for diagnosis and treatment. Bureaucracy grinds excruciatingly slowly. Justice works on a personal level, such as the more relatives you have in the courts, the better off you’ll be. Being embedded into society means that there is little privacy – gossip is the main business of family and friends. Again, it’s not too much different from what one might find in a drama about small-town America.

And the modern Turk, represented by Hilat Ayarci, is a whirlwind of activity, where it isn’t clear if, once he has stopped, he was any better off than before. Where Hayri has a fatalistic worldview, which may have hindered his advancement through life, Hilat represents the proclivity of modern man to simply redefine problems and reinvent himself. In fact, there are no problems, only opportunities. None is more clear than a simple conversation between Hilat and Hayri, where Hilat promises to actualize Hayri’s sister-in-law’s singing career. To be frank, the girl has no talent, but Hilat simply spins is around so that she occupies a unique niche in the world of Turkish songstresses.

Needless to say, she is a success.

And these schemes only become more outlandish, like a whole housing development built on air. The Time Regulation Institute is only the epitome of Hilat’s ability to instantiate thoughts. The whole premise is absurd. The Institute exists to force Turks to keep time – to recover “lost seconds”. Hayri also publishes a biography of a non-existent patron of time – Ahmet the Timely. In reality, it seems the institute exists to keep Hayri and his extended family and friends (even he was surprised at how many relatives he had) in jobs. In the end, the dream crumbles. About the last service Hilat does for Hayri is to build a department precisely to wind-down the Time Regulation Institute.

Modernity, it seems, is running in place on a treadmill.

Probably the more interesting themes in the novel do deal with time. Hayri’s day expands to fill the time; the Time Regulation Institute seeks to divide time into allotments. Even if time cannot be controlled, it can be neatened up, so to speak. The concern with productivity and how time can be lost is a huge contrast between the modern and traditional. Hayri mentions that, despite being raised in poverty, he was happy because his time was his own. In some ways, that is all he would have had. The modern need to account for every second amounts to a judgment: you have a defect in personality if you waste that second.

I read a recent Joe Posnanski essay that emphasizes the Old World and New World differences in time perception and usage. Americans, it seems, have a hard time with leaving quantities alone. As soon as a metric is devised, we immediately rank and judge, having found some way to validate our opinions. As Posnanski describes, this concern with time and faux precision has more to do with an American’s inability to deal with the sense of a thing. A hard number – or a firm line in the sand – allows for even more subjective contortions so that our actions fall on the correct side of the line.

Posnanski’s example as an American football game. The details aren’t important, but it involves time running out on the last play of the game. The success of that play will determine who wins the contest. The play failed, but wait – there were penalties. The type of penalty is important, because it will either grant an advantage to a subsequent play or force the players to redo the play. Since the clock read zero, it would have been better for the failed team be awarded a second try; there can be no subsequent play, as there is no more time. Obviously, that essay wouldn’t have been written if the play were redone. To compound this drama of semantics – the wrong penalty was called.

In contrast, with soccer, time seems to flow more freely, embodied by the concept of injury time. Time continually runs down, but the firm end of the game will not happen until some remediation has occurred for the dead time during the game. And generally, the game will not stop during a play with potential for a team to score. That last American football play would probably have been allowed to continue and develop properly, had it been a soccer game.

In the case of soccer, players and the game are the master and time is subservient. Posnanski had a beautiful line about how soccer is generally officiated in a “literary” way, where the enjoyment, flow, beautify and “sense” of the game is more important. Of course, soccer also has ties, which says something else about the sensibilities of sports fans in the USA and outside of it.

But I think there is a difference in how time is viewed. Either people worry immensely about time, efficiency, and its usage or they don’t. It probably falls across a developed/undeveloped country divide – basically places without factories.

Another telling metaphor is in Hayri’s work at a watch repairman’s shop. Hayri did have skill in diagnosing broken watches, but alas he does not have the steady hands need to correct defects. There is an obvious parallel in how Hayri can only fix time, not create it.

I think a fair number of Tanpinar’s points, although they sound like tropes to modern ears, were forward thinking in his time (the novel was first published in 1962.) I think his most indicting criticism of modernity is that it is without substance, or at the least, considers only progression without attending to the emotional needs of the people who, by definition, are then traditional and backwards looking.

In this sense, I think perhaps this novel is more tragedy than farce or comedy. In the end, I can’t say that there is a difference to the type of life that Hayri would lead in Ottoman or in modern Turkey. In either world, he would remain destitute, surrounded by men like himself, and without prospects. The only difference is that the modern world is inscrutable to him. However well-intentioned and whimsical Hilat is, there is the sense that he is all words. Through force of personality, perhaps everyone will ignore the underlying reality. In the traditional world, Hayri at least recognizes the people and setting around him. It is as apparent to him as the innards of a watch, with every gear and spring in its place.

Disclaimer: City of Lost Dreams is pretty much in my wheel house. The book has a neuroscientist traipsing through Vienna and Prague, alchemy, Beethoven, and fantastical elements. Me: my doctorate is in olfaction neurophysiology, I spent a year studying biochemistry in Germany and my favorite city from that time happens to be Vienna, and I love Romantic era piano pieces (I took up piano in high school because I wanted to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.)

So yes, you might say I identify with Sarah Weston, the heroine of the novel – minus the fantastical elements. I don’t know any 400 year old dwarves.

All that aside, the book is a fun romp through modern day Prague and Vienna. Sarah Weston is in Prague to help her friend Pollina, who suffers from a terminal illness. She travels to Vienna in a quest to find her a cure, which might as well be the alchemical  Philospher’s Stone. Barring that, the Golden Fleece might do. Long dead saints reappear and people who can help Sarah and Pollina go missing or are killed.

The great thing about the book are the characters. Frankly, the females run the show; aside from Sarah, there’s her rival in love and a mysterious dark lady who seems to be thwarting Sarah’s attempt to help Pollina. All three are quite fascinating in their own right; all of them are at turns lusty, saucy, and introspective. The three have surprisingly realistic motives and are all sympathetic. Make no mistake, though, this story is a quest story and needs only be exciting and breezy, which it is.

No one asked, but if I had to peg the level of writing, it is fine. The language does not detract from the story, and I find various scenes memorable. For an example of a good novel, I would suggest Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo, a piece of lushly written historical fiction that weaves a compelling cast of characters around real events, with just the faintest breath of magic.

I mention this because, of course I read a fair amount of fun, genre novels. We only ask that they be well made, even if they are essentially disposable entertainment. But I like it when authors are ambitious and interjects moments of observation and clarity that makes the book memorable.

In City of Lost Dreams, the scene I most enjoyed is one with Max and Pollina. Max is the once and future love interest of Sarah. Pollina is a precocious musical prodigy. She knows she is dying and is rushing to finish her magnum opus before she does. During a brief interlude, she comes upon Max drinking brandy. She asks for a taste, because sick people in stories are always being told to have a swig, to warm up. Max casually dismisses her out of hand, as an adult to a child, by simply saying that she isn’t that sick. But she is. A beat passes as he reconsiders, realizing that of course she knows she’s dying, and what’s the harm, really? So he gives her a snifter and shows her how to go about tasting brandy. These little beats and moments in the story really make the story come alive. Timing and pacing matters as much as the language.

The authors, Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, who write under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte, have created a wonderfully vibrant world, and I eagerly await another tour through it with Sarah and her friends.

Disclaimer: I was given an advanced copy – and no other compensation –  by Penguin Group for the essay.

Some interesting essays from around the web:

On the graying of photography. Not literal aging (well, somewhat), but more like a generational clash. But nothing we haven’t read about before about progress or changes in cultural viewpoints, especially vis-à-vis ebook vs paper book debates.

Success in science is dominated by finding statistically significant differences, and the need for positive results – coupled with the metric of publications – makes us all put on rose colored glasses. In this case, it might mean using weak statistics (original paper in PNAS) without regard as to whether it makes sense.

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