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Ayşegül Savaş
Ayşegül Savaş's debut novel Walking on the Ceiling was published in April 2019 by Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, among others. She lives in Paris.

In Defense of Boris the Russki

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | January 2020 | 10 minutes (2,603 words)

Recently while running, I listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on audiobook. It was recommended to me because of my interest in suspenseful novels and books about art.

An hour into listening, I was puzzled by the book’s two-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists. Back from a run, I read that although the book had won the Pulitzer Prize, there’d been some controversy surrounding the award. Francine Prose drew attention to Tartt’s lazy clichés. James Wood described the book as a children’s story. The Paris Review, London Review of Books, and Sunday Times had similar things to say.

Several chapters later, I realized that none of the criticisms had objected to the book’s racism. After another search, I was relieved to see that one article on Salon questioned the book’s “wishful portrayal of people of color,” all of whom played the part of loving, docile servants. The writer carefully dissected these characters, revealing the “banal multicultural textbook” fantasy of an old world with its antique paintings and selfless servants, which continually looked away from real racial dynamics.

But by the end of the article, the writer had still not mentioned, in her meticulous study of racial blind spots as they applied to peripheral characters, the racism at the book’s very center, in the character of the Russian Boris who is the protagonist’s nemesis and best friend.

I’m especially surprised that this had gone entirely unnoticed in the U.S ever since the book’s publication in 2013, even though literary conversations of the past decade have often simultaneously been conversations about identity.
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The Cost of Reading

Illustration by Homestead

Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,811 words)

Two weeks after I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, I found out that she would be speaking at a literary symposium titled “Against Storytelling” at a venue some minutes from where I live.

The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment block with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in an entirely new set-up of family, home, and work.

The book is about other things, too, like cycling up a hill after a day writing at a garden shed; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair.

It is, mysteriously, about a scarcity of time and money, of trying to make ends meet. Mysteriously, because it is such a generous book, so lush and unrushed.

One of my best friends, visiting for the weekend, picked it up from the coffee table while my husband and I were preparing breakfast on Saturday morning.

“Oh my god,” she shouted from the living room, “this book is amazing!”

I guessed that she must have read the opening scene, when the narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.

“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.

“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too… It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

My friend went home on Sunday evening. She’d just been offered a new job, and would be spending the week negotiating her terms and meeting with the people at the new office. One of her reservations about the job concerned a partner who had first approached her for recruitment. Yet he didn’t have the tact, even as he sought her out, to stifle sexist comments meant as jokes. My friend wondered whether she should call him out on this during their meeting. In their offer, the firm had praised my friend’s directness.

That week, she and I messaged back and forth about the offer, as well as about all our favorite parts in The Cost of Living. She told me she’d recommended the book to her therapist.

Another friend was struck by the book’s lightness — its reluctance to belabor any sorrow, despite the sadness that runs throughout. He felt that this was a form of respect towards readers, their capacity to understand grief and hardship without dissecting it to pieces.

Yet another friend (we were all reading The Cost of Living) said that the book had lungs. Between the empty spaces of its short paragraphs, it breathed with light and transforming meaning. This friend had just read all of Levy’s work in one stretch.
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