Critical Mass

What Are You Reading in Ankara?

By Michael D. Lukas

Thanks to the generosity of the American taxpayer and the Fulbright Commission, I am spending this year in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. According to my proposal, I am supposed to be teaching English and writing a novel. When I am not doing either of those things, I usually find myself on the couch reading. After nearly twenty years of school, reading what other people told me to read, the idea of planning my own personal syllabus is quite liberating, though somewhat scary.

Being in Turkey, I began the year with a heavy dose of Orhan Pamuk:My Name is Red, Snow, and Istanbul. I was in the middle of Snow (a mystery novel brimming over with culture clash, poetry, military coups, and romance) when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Because of his willingness to question nationalist historical narratives, Pamuk is not very popular in Turkey. He is especially unpopular among people who have never read him. But despite his detractors at home, Pamuk is a brilliant writer and deserves the Nobel as much as anyone, in any country.

Next, on the advice of my former professor (and NBCC finalist) Michael Collier, I decided to check out the work of former New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell. From what I had read about Maxwell, I expected his books to be competent, sentimental miniatures of the Midwest. I was wrong. The Folded Leaf blew me away. It’s a simple story of friendship tinged with homoerotic love. But he handles it with such confidence and kindness. Maxwell’s voice is unlike any other American author I have read, wise and sympathetic, painterly without being “evocative.” He reminds me of a pared down Gunter Grass or Jose Saramago trying to write like Hemingway. So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of the most moving books I have ever read, a memoir on par with Speak, Memory or Berlin Childhood around 1900. I liked Maxwell so much that, in spite of the exorbitant shipping costs, I just ordered three more of his books on Alibris.

While I wait for the Turkish postal service, I have been reading Flaubert in Egypt, a combination of travel journals and letters, translated, edited and introduced by Francis Steegmuller. I have always loved Madame Bovary, but reading his letters, I felt a strong connection to Flaubert himself, the 28-year old romantic trying to find his way in the literary world as he lounges about the Orient, reading Homer and writing letters to his mother. Now if I could only write like him.–Michael D. Lukas