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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.

In many ways, Strangers on a Train is a much more satisfying work than Crime and Punishment. In broad strokes, both detail the guilt-wracked protagonists after each committed murder.  Guy Haines was browbeaten into committing murder, which seemed a questionable plot point. But what struck me as eminently believable was the way in which Guy’s mind grew distraught, even as his life continued apace.

I think it seems in vogue to write about murder as if any one of us can commit it. From my reading, Highsmith took the opposite thesis. People who kill are a little bit off. Charles Bruno is the son of a rich  man; he’s indolent and insolent. He is a little bit too close to his mother, and he probably harbors homosexual tendencies (it’s not weird now, but in the 50’s, it was). He certainly has a strong sense of the fantastical. He feels that Guy is the only person who can understand him and that they can escape together and recount their crime.
Guy and Bruno meet on a train. They talk, and Bruno senses some hint of tension in Guy. Guy has a wife whom he wishes to divorce – the very reason for the train trip – and Bruno has a father who apparently is an ogre. Bruno suggests what is the perfect crime, and has become a detective genre cliche. Bruno would kill Miriam, Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and Guy would kill Bruno’s father. The perfect crime, as the killers would have no obvious links to the victims, amounting to a random murder. Guy is disturbed and appalled by Bruno; I think he senses something is off-kilter about Bruno. Needless to say, Bruno is crazy, and decides to force matters and kills Miriam. Part of this might be because Bruno hates women. He says he hates his father because the father is an adulterer. But it turns out that Bruno’s mom gives as good as she gets, having her own stable of men to toy with. As another hint as to the fact that Bruno lives in his own head, he tells Guy that his mother is an example of the purity of women. Other evidence to show that Bruno is mentally unstable is that Bruno cannot leave Guy alone. He needs to drop hints to the detective who is following him. He involves himself in Guy’s life. In other words, establishing the connections that make it much easier to to link the two men.

What was interesting to me is how Highsmith handled Guy’s eventual descent into his own madness and commits murder. It is as if the motive is for Guy to shut Bruno up. Not necessarily to avoid being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, or that he wished to indulge in an animal behavior, but to kill so that Bruno would stop bothering him. Guy is portrayed as a depressed individual. He can’t take joy in his success. He is divorcing Miriam because she cheated on him, often. There is the element that Guy feels ill-used and played for a fool. He can’t be happy with his new girlfriend. He cannot confide in her, certainly not the murder but also very few other things.  It doesn’t take too much to disrupt Guy’s life, because he is already on the edge. He couldn’t be happy with his life before the murder, and he lets guilt take over after the murder. That is the one thing Guy can do extremely well – play martyr.

But I thought the best part of the novel was in how it slowly developed that others began to notice Guy’s odd behavior. It was a neat trick to portray it subtly, where others begin to see that something is not quite right with Guy. This is true especially in how Guy’s fiance notices that Guy goes from depression to something wilder.

In similar fashion, Highsmith’s short stories, in the collection The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, show that she has little sympathy for humankind. Although there is a collection of character sketches that paint women in a terrible light (Little Tales of Misogyny),  in truth, no one came off looking too sympathetic. That’s not true; the collection opens up with a number of stories about animals that commit murder. Highsmith portrays these murderers as eminently justified. Everyone else is selfish, ugly, and dark. We see murder committed in cold blood, as an afterthought, for the joy of it, and from negligence and indifference. It’s impressive that, to my eyes, the stories are distinctive enough such that they don’t seem repetitive.

My favorite story is “The Romantic”. It is about a secretary who gets stood up on a date. Eventually, she starts going on made-up dates, where she sits and enjoys her time at a bar. She imagines the men she is waiting for. Knowing that these men will never show up, she feels liberated and happy.  She comes to realize that she very much prefers these pretend dates. So much so that when she is asked to go out on a date, she stands her date up. Her imagination gives her more satisfaction then men (and perhaps even other companions.) While it isn’t quite the slamming of the door in Ibsen’s “The Doll House”, I think it is a strong statement to make: Fuck them; I don’t need them.

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