‘A classic’ Alan Bennett says, ‘is a book that everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have’. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s A Mind at Peace, a long, stream-of-consciousness narrative about the upper middle classes languishing by the shores of the Bosphorus, getting entangled in futile love affairs, contributing a sense of unease rather than progressive zeal to the early republican Zeitgeist, has long been seen as such a classic. The book was long hailed as a psychodrama, with less discussion of its criticism of the republic’s failure to instate a new set of workable social relations to replace the old one. With the declassification, as it were, of the Turkey’s Ottoman and early republican intellectual and literary history in the last twenty years, Time Regulation Institute, with its much more open criticism of the early republican era, started to replace A Mind at Peace as the Tanpınar classic that no one dare admit they haven’t read.
The interest in Tanpınar (1901–1962) seems, at least partly, to have been generated in the international world of letters by Orhan Pamuk repeatedly naming him as an influence, an international popularity that then trickles back to Turkey. One is tempted, maybe unfairly, to ask, if this renewed interest in Tanpınar is not similar to the renewed interest in Ottoman paraphernalia at home and abroad. Today, more than fifty years after his death, Tanpınar is still regarded as the author who, having lived both through the Ottoman and Republican eras, has expressed, almost comprehensively, the effects of Europeanisation on the Turkish psyche. I first became aware of him as a writer to be reckoned with in the noughties, when I read a reference to him in a book by a Turkish sociologist, from what one may call the enlightened, secular, ruling classes. The reference was an eye opener because until then I had only heard of Tanpınar from the mouths of moustachioed men who tended to lament the irrevocably Westernised state of Turkish culture. The period that he wrote in, the 1940s through to the 1960s, was a time of consolidation of the values of the new republic, which were, on the face of it, brought in from Europe. It was a period that was not amenable to Ottoman nostalgia or to looking towards the past, as Tanpınar tended to do now and then. The only legitimate direction was forward, the future, where great things were waiting for the Turkish nation set free from its Ottoman shackles.