Auerbach in Istanbul

By Kaya GençJanuary 12, 2014

Auerbach in Istanbul

IN 2003, the Palestinian-American scholar, activist, and literary critic Edward Said wrote a lengthy introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s magisterial study of the representation of reality in Western literature. The book was conceived and written in Istanbul during the war years and published in Switzerland in 1946. The first English edition of Mimesis, by Willard Trask, came out 60 years ago, in 1953.

Said’s introduction to the Princeton edition of Mimesis reflects not only his admiration for the scholar but also Auerbach’s influence on him. Widely acknowledged as a founder of the discipline of comparative literature, Auerbach, a Jew, fled the Nazis and lived in Turkey (and later in the United States). Like Dante, the great poet about whom he had written an influential book while living in Germany, Auerbach tasted “the salty bread of exile” and used the literary tradition of Europe to surpass the boundaries imposed on the continent’s culture by the madness that was National Socialism. Said, the leading scholar of comparative literature of his time, had penned the introduction in New York, thousands of miles away from his native Palestine, while fighting against the cancer that, only three months after Princeton published the new edition of Mimesis in July 2003, claimed his life.

In his 23-page introduction to the book, Said writes that Mimesis has “the manifest gravity of the Important Book.” It thus resembles Said’s own magisterial book, Orientalism, whose historical scope is only slightly less ambitious than that of Mimesis. For my generation of literature undergraduates in Turkey, both books were very influential, although our admiration hadn’t blinded us to an eccentric aspect of Mimesis: it has no footnotes. Not one, in more than 500 pages of scholarly, dense criticism. But why? In the brief, four-page long epilogue of Mimesis Auerbach offers an explanation:

The book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered and that I occasionally assert something which modern research has disproved or modified. I trust that these probable errors include none which affect the core of my argument. The lack of technical literature and periodicals may also serve to explain that my book has no notes. Aside from the texts, I quote comparatively little, and that little it was easy to include in the body of the book. On the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialised library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.

In other words, Istanbul had made the writing of Mimesis possible precisely by way of making life very difficult for the scholar who penned it. Auerbach desperately needed a good library and managed to write Mimesis without one.


One sunny day in October I stood outside Arslanlı Konak (“The Mansion with Lions”), a large building in Istanbul’s Bebek quarter where Auerbach lived during the 11 years he spent in the city. The flats in the building are carefully hidden from the adjacent restaurants and shops; the mansion is guarded by security cameras and a large statute of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish republic, who looks in the direction of Bosporus. Istanbul’s seagulls regularly flock on the large hands and shiny head of the statue, whose shadow falls on Auerbach’s former lodgings.

More than half a century after the German academic left the neighborhood in 1947 for a stint at Pennsylvania State University, Bebek remains an isolated quarter in the globalized city Istanbul has become in the course of the last decade. Home to the city’s rich elite, who spend their time in luxurious cafés, it is more than an hour’s bus ride away from Istanbul University, where Auerbach taught at the university’s language institute.

Having been forced to flee his academic position in the University of Marburg in 1935 after the Nazis came to power, Auerbach started leading a comfortable life in Istanbul in 1936. On the face of it, the bread of exile that Istanbul offered to Auerbach was delicious. The newly founded republic treated foreign academics generously. While Turkish professors were paid less than 200 liras a month (an amount equal to the monthly pay of Turkish parliamentarians), foreign scholars received almost four times that. Minister of education Reşit Galip boasted about their treatment in what now looks like an act of condescending benevolence. By allowing Jewish scholars into the country, Turks were taking revenge on the Europeans, he said. Turks had made the mistake of “not stopping Byzantine scholars to flee Istanbul for Italy 500 years ago, when they had besieged Istanbul.” In Italy, Byzantine scholars had kick-started the Renaissance; now Jewish scholars like Auerbach and Leo Spitzer were expected to achieve a similar feat in Istanbul.

During his time in Turkey, Auerbach watched the country’s attitude toward Europe — a mixture of resentment and awe — with interest. On the one hand his host country wanted to be Europeanized with help from scholars like himself and his Jewish colleagues; on the other hand it wanted its population to remain pure and “Turkic,” with no relationship to either the regressive Arabs or the decadent Europeans.

In 1937, a year after his arrival, Auerbach wrote a letter to his fellow writer Walter Benjamin, in which he described the Turkish regime as “fanatic” in its nationalistic rewriting of tradition. This was a subject he found interesting for obvious reasons: one of the qualities that defined the Nazis was their reinvention of tradition in the service of a nationalist mythology. Although the Turkish administration always kept its distance from the Nazis, their cultural reform programs featured some alarming tendencies. “The traditions of the existing Islamic culture are being rejected here,” Auerbach informed Benjamin. “Instead the regime is establishing a connection with an imaginary Turkishness; they are engaged in a European-minded attempt at modernization and are using this to attack Europe, which they are both in awe of and resent, with its own weapons.” This resulted, according to Auerbach, in “an extreme nationalism and damage to the country’s historical national character.”

As a Dante scholar (his influential book on the poet was entitled Poet of the Secular World), Auerbach was fascinated by the fact that an author could choose to write works in a popular, instead of courtly, language as Dante did (his Commedia in popular Italian instead of courtly Latin). In Turkey, the government’s linguistic revolution replaced Ottoman script with a Latin one, while removing all foreign words from the language in order to make it purely Turkish. This seemed like a fascinating, albeit worrying, experiment to Auerbach. “The old script is being removed, Arabic words are being thrown out and are replaced by Turkish words or ones derived partly from European languages,” he wrote. “This is the way with which the regime struggles against religiosity; Islamic culture is looked down upon as an Arabic-rooted alienation.”


Standing in front of the Arslanlı Konak I tried picturing the great scholar as he took a tram from Bebek to Laleli, where Istanbul University’s literature faculty is located. I had taken a tram myself for many years, while doing my PhD at the university’s English literature department during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Auerbach’s rides were essentially different from mine, though. Not only did he see a very different city and use a different tram (Bebek-Laleli tramline is no more), but he was an alien in the city. His embrace of Istanbul was as complicated as the government’s embrace of Europe: he loved the view of the Bosporus while disliking the city’s Westernized quarters, particularly the Pera neighborhood, which he thought was “an imitation of the 19th-century European city.” I tried to imagine his complicated feelings about Europe as he watched it, from his exile, falling apart.

Auerbach’s Mimesis, which is partly a reaction to the disintegration of Europe, is based on close readings of Western classics from Homer’s Odyssey to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Although Auerbach never loses sight of his basic aesthetic arguments, the book has a somewhat fragmented nature, due largely to conditions in which it had been written. While writing the book, he frequented a library located in the Dominican monastery near Galata Tower, a cylindrical stone tower in Beyoğlu. He made use of the monastery’s hundreds of volumes of Latin and Greek texts, important to his chronicle of Western literary art. Writing in the Haaretz last year, Benny Ziffer described a visit to the monastery and mentioned a letter sent by Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the papal nuncio to Istanbul in the second World War, which allowed “the Jewish professor Erich Auerbach to use the library in the St. Peter and St. Paul Monastery to his heart’s content.” The cardinal’s interference had been immensely helpful. Nazis and imperfect libraries might have tried to hold him back, but with the help of Roncalli, who later became pope John XXIII, Auerbach forged ahead.


Although well treated by the university administration, Auerbach soon realized how bitter the bread of exile could taste. Like many other Jewish scholars, he was being followed in the city by German authorities, who urged the Ankara government to adopt the policies of the Third Reich. As they increased their influence in universities and in the Turkish press, also worrying was the so-called “Turancı” militants, who supported the Nazi’s fight against the Soviet occupation of previously Ottoman territories. In their journals, like Ergenekon, they bullied scholars and writers like Pertev Boratav and Sabahattin Ali, who opposed a “Turkic” interpretation of Anatolian history, instead pointing to its essentially multicultural texture.

At Istanbul University, Auerbach had to work alongside the German scholar Henning Brinkmann, an outspoken supporter of the Nazi regime. When Auerbach opposed Brinkmann’s appointment as the university’s first chair of the German literature department, some Turkish scholars accused him, and not Brinkmann, of being a racist. The conflict came at a time when Nazi officers frequented Istanbul’s German high school and other Germanic institutions, including university departments. At Ankara University, German scholars supportive of the Nazi regime were calling the shots; the striking difference between the Nazi-dominated Ankara University and the Jewish-controlled Istanbul University had attracted the attention, and anger, of German officials in Istanbul.

Auerbach left an amazing heritage for the city: his assistants and students dominated the field of literary studies for the remainder of the 20th century. Minâ Urgan, one of Auerbach’s closest colleagues, left the Foreign Literatures department after Auerbach’s departure in 1947 and became the country’s leading scholar of English literature. (She was one of my idols when I was in high school.) But despite this influence and positive legacy, Gerhard Fricke, a Nazi Germanist whose anti-Semitism was even stronger than Brinkmann’s (he was among the speakers at the infamous book-burning ritual in Göttingen in 1933), was appointed to Istanbul University shortly after Auerbach’s departure.


In October 2010 the Istanbul-based German scholar Martin Vialon published Yabanın Tuzlu Ekmeği (“The Bitter Bread of Exile”), which brings together the articles Auerbach published in small academic journals in Turkey, copies of which Vialon meticulously located in Istanbul’s secondhand bookshops.

Auerbach’s presence in the Turkish language presents us with strange ironies. Vialon’s book (to which I owe much of the material in this essay) is available only in Turkish; the articles in the book were originally written in German and then translated into Turkish by Auerbach’s assistants. But since the Turkish of the 1930s is almost incomprehensible today, those translated pieces needed to be translated a second time into modern Turkish. And it points to a second irony: Mimesis, although conceived and written in Istanbul, remains unavailable to Turkish readers. There was news of a planned Turkish translation in 2010, the year in which Istanbul became a European Capital of Culture. The cultural committee responsible for the event organized a conference on Mimesis, but the translation project was somehow shelved.

How sad, then, that Mimesis remains out of reach for Turkish readers, unless they can read Auerbach in English. (The Princeton edition is a common item in Istanbul’s foreign language bookshops.) My generation was lucky enough to have read Orientalism in Turkish; hopefully the next one will read Mimesis, too. But for now Willard Trask’s English translation of Mimesis, the volume Said celebrated in one of the last pieces he wrote before his death, must suffice for the inhabitants of a city that once hosted one of the greatest of literary exiles.


Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and The London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s "best works of journalism in 2014" list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English Literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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