Lucy and Todd

Orhan Pamuk — A Strangeness in My Mind

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on October 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm

The title for Orhan Pamuk’s novel comes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, continuing with the famous ‘A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.’ It’s somewhat grandly subtitled ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.’

Boza is one of those mild old alcoholic drinks fast disappearing from the world – seems everyone wants to get blootered and go clubbing. For many years sold by street vendors, now it is made in factories and offered in supermarkets, one of many changes observed and lamented by Mevlut in the course of his life. Not because there’s anything wrong with factory-made boza, but because the disappearance of the street vendors and their cries is one more historical impoverishment in the life of a city which is, if anything, an embodiment of history.

Pamuk attempts to place us in a recognizably ‘big’ novel: Mevlut is a poetic, painterly icon as much as he is the protagonist, crying his “booozaaa” like a Papageno. He continually reminds his customers, most of whom are getting on and appreciate the old ways, that it’s the voice, the emotion of the boza seller that matters. Boza is woven into the fabric of the book, along with corruption, Kurds, Anatolia, Kemal Ataturk, cigarettes, the wares of other street hawkers, political posters, electrical power thieves and capitalists little and large. This is a city where the brand of cigarette you smoke lets everyone know exactly what government department you work in; the way you cut your moustache advertises your politics.

Mevlut is a plain person, possessed of the calm of the honest. He watches life slowly pass, even as oppressive governments, coups and earthquakes try to dent his existence, and the neurotic excesses of globalism swallow up his family and friends. He remains an extremely hard-working small businessman, selling at various times not just boza, but yogurt, chickpeas, chicken and rice, and ice cream in summer. He has a profound fear of dogs, which becomes an amusing leitmotif in the life of a peddler. When still a schoolboy, he takes to selling lottery prizes with an edgy pal called Ferhat, who becomes a Communist, and later, a government inspector too upright for his own good. Mevlut tries all his life to steer clear of the deep ideological pits of Turkish life – in this he mostly succeeds, too. There’s a funny side and a grim political one to each development in his existence.

Things start to get interesting when he’s tricked into marrying. At a wedding, he and his cousin Suleyman become infatuated with the same girl. Mevlut’s not sure of her name (of course he can’t ask her) and Suleyman fools Mevlut into writing letters to the girl’s sister. These billets doux are based on some mouldering guides to writing love letters, and the sister falls for them. Again with Suleyman’s help, the pair elope. When Mevlut realizes he’s now in possession of the girl he didn’t want, an extraordinary thing happens: he decides to love his bride as determinedly as he goes out to sell his goods. She returns his passion and they live extraordinarily happily, much more so than other couples in the story. They even make love through Ramadan.

This is where this novel succeeds, in examining compassionately and thoroughly the bad state of affairs between men and women in the western/nonwestern place that Turkey is. Girls and women literally cannot be apprehended; they are completely mysterious, alien beings. They are, in fact, only barely tolerated. This of course leads to trouble: when Mevlut is young, all he can do is masturbate to an extent worthy of Alexander Portnoy. He can barely imagine or even guess at women. He also develops a serious stalking habit.

Hadji, one of the grosser depressing businessmen in the book, puts it this way: “There are two kinds of love in our land. The first kind is when you fall in love with someone because you don’t know them at all. In fact, most couples would never fall in love if they got to know each other even a little bit before getting married. This is why our Blessed Prophet Muhammad did not think it was appropriate for there to be any contact between the boy and the girl before marriage. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that, when they have a whole life to share between them, and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.” So part of the purpose of A Strangeness in My Mind is to argue that this kind of union can work, perhaps almost as often as not.

However, one isn’t always convinced that Pahmuk himself is blameless on this. For every stab he takes at the enormous, sad gulf between men and women in Turkey, he relishes icky characterizations of women by men (another effect of having no contact with them, of course). 1961 Opels “looked like spiteful women whose mouths had turned to stone in the middle of an evil cackle.” Women are allowed to grouse about men, a little, but the effect isn’t the same.

One delight in reading this is to encounter, to a slight extent, the Turkish alphabet, a charming and useful thing. The novel unfolds chronologically, but in order to vary this Pamuk resorts to an odd formula. There are occasional breaks in the narrative in which the major characters quibble with minor aspects of the action. It’s very hard to tell how these utterances are meant. Could they be notes on the novel in Pamuk’s own pocket? A scolding of himself? Is the reader being addressed? Why aren’t these the springboards for real digressions? Most of the time it’s no surprise to learn what we do when these characters take us aside. Too often for comfort, promising figures appear who don’t amount to much, and at times it can all feel less like a novel than a lecture.

In the end, Mevlut stubbornly sells his stuff, loses a wife, gains another, tries to live honourably and, on balance, succeeds in these things. He’s lived infinitesimally against the background of Istanbul, which you might have expected to be more frightening and interruptive than it appears here. Pamuk’s novel only attempts occasionally to convey the essential life of the place.

Is Mevlut anything other than a nostalgic? Valuable old things everywhere are disappearing; any resident of the UK will readily identify with his feelings of loss. This isn’t Ulysses, or even Gone with the Wind, yet its fighting weight is about the same: I had to tear my proof copy in half in order to read it without hurting myself. You wonder in the end why this huge stage, containing lots of Asia and most of the twentieth century, had to be claimed just in order to relate a little life.


(This review first appeared in The Herald, Sept. 26, 2015)

Atelier Accolades

In accolades on February 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm

LEILA ABOULELA (author of Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards, and other novels, radio plays, and short stories): (from published interviews)  “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” –  Mslexia  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine

NANCY GAFFIELD (author of Tokaido Road, CB Editions, London – winner of 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.

NEIL BUTLER (author of The Roost, Thirsty Books, Edinburgh, 2011):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.

AARON SIMON:  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent. With their prodding and encouragement, I was actually able to finish writing a novel and–even more amazingly–start legitimately rewriting huge swaths of text.

JAMES WRIGHT:  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.

EMMA GLASS:  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.

CHRIS BENNETT:  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.

NIK WILLIAMS:  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.

KYLIE GRANT (Winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.

RUPERT SMITH (Winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize at the University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.

EDDIE GIBBONS (whose latest poetry collection, What They Say About You, was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards, Poetry Section):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.

KRISTEN LOWMAN:  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.


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