Tsum | Review: Ayşegul Savas – White on White

A rich novel about identity, body and weakness

Ayşegül Savaş is a Turkish writer who lives and works in Paris. She writes her stories, articles and novels in English. In her first novel, walking on the ceiling, the main character meets an author in a bookstore, after which conversations arise between the two people. Savas uses the same procedure for white on whiteHer second novel. An art student of no name or gender comes to the big city to work on research on Gothic nudes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The city is also unknown. For a year, the student delves into the archives and visits cathedrals. A temporary home was found in the apartment of the professor of medieval studies and his wife Agnes, a painter. The couple lives elsewhere, but the agreement is that Agnes will occasionally spend the night in the studio above the apartment when she visits town. It soon becomes clear that Agnes will be there almost permanently.

A special relationship develops between the art student and Agnes, based on the conversations. In fact, it is more monologues by Agnes as the first person acts as a soundboard for her stories and perspectives. We know why students choose the city as their base: historical research, the proximity of libraries, archives, and cathedrals. After all, the student wants to bridge a gap: there are no studies of medieval iconography of the naked body. So you should try to “look at the naked human figure with the look of a medieval man”. This task is very difficult:

There was no obvious field of study where it crept into the consciousness of others, historically or not. This was a difficult task as untangling your mind, exposing each layer of your thoughts with all their biases and doubts.

The reader learns very little about the student. This person’s identity consists of listening and observing. Perhaps the student is unknown so that Agnes can take center stage. Because Agnes has a lot to say and by telling her she is gradually showing off her nudity. She talks about her views on art, her childhood, her school years, her marriage, and her children. Her work is about achieving silence and letting go of heaviness to a “pure state of mind”. Her latest work consists of paintings composed of different shades of white and evokes this emptiness and that pure mental state. The figures in her paintings come from the same medieval period as the nudes from Student Research. In this way academic and technical research is created in parallel. Anyway, Agnes’ art also tells us something about her relationship with the world. Perhaps what is not shown is the most important:

Is this not true of all arts, I asked him, whose strength lies in absence, in the deliberate choice of what was hidden, as shown in what was shown?

Agnes also has a lot to say about her life. It soon becomes clear that she is looking, that she is in constant doubt, that she is worried and that she is simply not doing well. Of course, it is also important how she relates to her body. This relationship is felt through her stories of sex, desire, motherhood, and adultery. How is her relationship with her children? Why is she staying in the studio so much instead of living with her husband? Is “uncovering” her consciousness as difficult a task as checking a medieval listener’s gaze?

white on white Written in plain language, yet it explores the most complex issues of life and art. Therefore, the book is distant and involved at the same time. Ayşegül Savaş has written a brain book in which work is kept to a minimum but in which ideas are given the lead. All this is similar to walking on the ceiling: Her first novel also conceals a vast wealth of ideas in stylistically simplicity. And this aspect of her work is precisely so amazing. The story is told from afar, almost quietly, but the explosion of philosophical ideas makes the novel very rich. What exactly is self? Can the self exist in relation to the other? Is someone only if someone else makes an image, builds? How could such a construction fundamentally change if others attacked it? And does a person or art also consist of what is not expressed in words, which is left out? Is the study of nudes perhaps also a study of the fragility of life itself, and the fragility of Agnes in particular? Moreover, it is remarkable that the novel appears to be based on a classic dualism: good and evil, sinful and virtuous, intellectual and material. In this context, the student is referring to the medieval concept of the skin as a covering covering the secret and the inner life. But what is the meaning of this thin blanket? By extension, what is the significance of the physical and its relationship to the inner life, the psyche, and the weak?

white on white Written in choppy prose, it is a fascinating novel that raises important questions. Savas has once again succeeded in writing a wonderful and very rich novel that will resonate for a long time to come. The nice thing is that a little is so unmistakable that each reader can focus on it, and thus can interpret the novel in a different way.

Chris Felter

Isegol Savas – white on white† Translated from the English by William Hoogendoorn. Kivinar, Hevidorp. 160 pages 20 euros.

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