Beckett in Istanbul

(Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 2017)


Scott Sherman

I first met Selçuk Altun in a graveyard. During a walking tour last year in Istanbul, where I have lived for two years, a professor from California mentioned that “one of Turkey’s best writers, and a character,” was among us. The elegantly dressed, slightly stooping man in his sixties standing behind me seemed ill at ease, so I didn’t approach him until our group had finished its tour of the historic Haydarpasa Cemetery.

“Are you the writer?” I finally asked. Altun, whom I hadn’t heard of before, gazed at me with genuine interest through his large eyeglasses. From a plastic bag, he produced an English translation of his novel The Sultan of Byzantium, which had a recommendation by John Ashbery on the cover: “Altun’s prose has a dreamlike urgency”. He signed the book and gave it to me. Istanbul is full of surprises, and this was one of them: in New York City, where I lived for decades, authors aren’t so readily generous with their books. We fell easily into book chat and Altun mentioned his favourite writers: Beckett, Bernhard, Marias. I told him about a book I had written on the controversy over renovation plans at the New York Public Library and said I would appreciate tips about libraries and bookshops in Istanbul. I didn’t expect to hear from him but after two days an email arrived. “Good morning! I have ordered a copy of your book.” Two weeks later, he wrote again: he had finished reading it, and hoped that I would inscribe it for him. We agreed to meet.

When I made inquiries about Altun, a young Turkish critic called him “enigmatic”, which didn’t help. He had been vice-chairman of one of Turkey’s largest banks, Yapi Kredi, but was now retired. “My goal was to write a book by the age of 50”, he told an interviewer in 2009. “Before that, I knew I needed to read, so I read some 4,000 books before I sat down to write.” The royalties from his books now subsidize a scholarship fund for university literature students.

For our rendezvous, I chose a café with cavernous rooms and an arts-oriented clientele. “For Selçuk, a new friend”, I wrote inside his copy of my book. I had made a number of friends in Istanbul, but none with whom I could discuss literary matters. The conversation was amiable but awkward; Altun seemed on edge. I wondered, for a fleeting moment, if he had something other than friendship in mind, though I could not pinpoint what that might be. After forty minutes, he excused himself; his driver was waiting for him.

His novels, three of which have been translated into English – Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, Many and Many a Year Ago and, most recently, The Sultan of Byzantium (2012) – are elegant black comedies about Turkey’s socio-political arrangements, as well as being melancholy love letters to Istanbul. In tone and pacing, his debt to detective fiction is apparent, but I found a dense constellation of allusions and influences. If a friendship did take flight, there would be much to discuss – not just about literature. Altun writes a literary column for the independent newspaper Cumhuriyet, whose staff members have lately been subject to arrest and prosecution.

By the time we met again, in early June, Istanbul had endured several bombings and the mood in the city was grim. We talked briefly about the continuing security threats, and Altun said that he was determined to remain optimistic about both Istanbul and Turkey. He quoted Nazim Hikmet: “This hell, this heaven, this country is ours”, then added: “We have to be patient”. It seemed unwise that day to linger over the Turkish political situation, so I asked about the writers he admired. He cited Bernhard and the English writer Gabriel Josipovici. I hadn’t read anything by either. The conversation lacked electricity and Altun’s edginess remained; my hopes for a friendship receded.

Over the next few months, however, he would contact me from time to time. “Can we meet for a coffee this week?” He always paid the bill, brushing aside protests. He had brought me two gifts: Bernhard’s The Loser and Josipovici’s Infinity: The story of a moment, neither of them easily available in Turkey. He had something else for me: the Spring 2012 issue of The Beckett Circle: Newsletter of the Samuel Beckett Society, which contained a letter Altun had written about Waiting for Godot. Altun cited Beckett’s remark to Peter Woodthorpe, who played Estragon in the British première of Godot, about the meaning of the play: “It is all symbiosis, Peter.” For Altun, “symbiosis” was “the magic word”. The detective-novel writer in him stirred. His letter, written in English, continued: [qu] I automatically visualized the two main and zigzagging characters of the play, Estragon and Vladimir . . . And I thought: I found who GODOT was! It was the symbiosis of GOD and (Idi)OT. Hence, GODOT would never come; because he was already on stage. Estragon and Vladimir were GODOT. They were not waiting for any one. Secondly, by noticing the nick names of Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi), one would be led to cute clues in form of references to (G0)d and I(di)ot . . . . Has anyone else previously asserted GODOT is the symbiosis of GOD and (Idi)OT? [qu]

It wasn’t clear why he had given me this, but a few days later, he clarified matters. “If you decide to do a piece covering my theory re Godot, Iam sure it will attract attention in the English-language media. I can provide you a copy of Godot, and a relevant file of correspondence. May I propose the following? I would like to pay you properly for your time to be spent in this project, and secondly make another bonus payment if it is published in a decent periodical or newspaper.”

This left me with a strange feeling: had I fallen into a trap he been preparing for months? I have earned a modest living in journalism but have never worked under an arrangement akin to patronage. I found myself re-reading Godot, however, and in early December I went to Altun’s office in a stately old building off Taksim Square to see what textual evidence he could muster. I found an attractive place filled with books and art: a painting by the young Orhan Pamuk, and a signed photograph of Bernhard. “I paid a fortune for that”, he said. The remark illuminated our respective stations in life: I inhabit Grub Street, while he is at ease in the world’s most expensive hotels and has his own driver.

Nevertheless, he was eager to show me emails he had exchanged with leading Beckett scholars in 2011. Relevant passages had been underlined in pencil. From Jean-Michel Rabate, the former president of the Beckett Society: “You have a point, and I like your interpretation”. From Dan Gunn, co-editor of the four-volume Beckett correspondence: “I have not read your theory before, and I certainly think it is plausible”. David Lloyd of the University of California wrote: “Your theory seems to me very plausible, though as we know, Beckett did tend to set all kinds of traps or lures for the reader”. Altun gave me print-outs to take home. He was awkward as always, but rather more affectionate than usual.

In the weeks that followed, as I reflected on Turkey’s difficult year, which in the meantime became more difficult, certain passages from Godot stayed with me. “The tears of the world are a constant quantity”, says Pozzo; and “Worn out, this whip”. Vladmir’s declaration, “I get used to the muck as I go along”, encapsulates the numbness many Turks feel in the face of terrorism and instability. I asked Altun if Beckett had any special relevance in today’s Turkey. “Beckett was a master of the absurd” was all he would say. “A lot of developments in this country could be categorized as absurd since long ago.” Has anyone else asserted that Godot is the “symbiosis” of God and (Idi)ot? I’ve been thinking about it.