“Exquisitely Curated Lives”: On Ayşegül Savaş’s “White on White”

December 28, 2021   •   By Kaya Genç

White on White

Ayşegül Savaş

TURKISH NOVELIST Ayşegül Savaş has a gift for creating likenesses of life bathed in light. Her calming, serene prose delights in the visible. Here is the opening of White on White, Savaş’s alluring new novel: “Mornings, the apartment expanded with light. Light flitted across the walls and curtains, streaked the wooden floorboards, lay dappled on the sheets, as if a luminous brush had left its mark upon my awakening.” The unnamed narrator wields that luminous brush to paint their surrounding world.

We know next to nothing about them except for three facts. They’re writing a graduate thesis in an unnamed city. Having received a year-long fellowship, they plan to travel “to several cathedrals in the region central to my proposed study.” An ad for an apartment in the news bulletin of the art history department where they’re enrolled has solved their accommodation problem. White on White is the story of the year they spend there.

“Any personal items, if they’d once been there, had been cleared for my arrival,” muses the PhD candidate, and their apartment’s architecture serves as a metonym for this sparsely furnished novel. “There were no clothes, jewelry, photographs. On the dressing table beneath a mirror stood a green ceramic bowl; in the hallway, the dark, rounded arms of the coatrack were bare.” Yet in the midst of this bareness, everything is “marked with life, rich and varied.” Sparsity gives the place its character. The curated minimalism of these opening pages strives for vitality without clutter, which is an admirable but tricky objective for wordsmiths. There is always the risk of ornamentalism. Some passages in Savaş’s early chapters reminded me of the experience of browsing Architectural Digest, of observing beauty at a remove.

Pascal, who owns the apartment, is a medieval studies professor. Initially, he seems like the nexus of Savaş’s tale. Though he is physically absent (he lives in a prestigious university town some hours away), Pascal’s work on medieval nude sculpture haunts the narrator while they pilgrimage to nearby cathedrals. Their earlier studies, we learn, had tackled sculptures of mourners. But their thesis supervisor warns against abandoning mourners for nudes. “If I wanted to study attitudes towards nakedness, she said, I would be better off focusing my attention on all the ways that the body was hidden from sight rather than revealed.” Undeterred, they obsess over medieval nudes, and their enthusiasm to research an ambiguous topic doesn’t diminish.

Why that half-cooked research topic, and why this dreamy-eyed narrator? Savaş, I think, wants us to inhabit a searching gaze well versed in analyzing artifacts. Her narrator has a gift for exercising empathy, at one point acknowledging that their greatest challenge is “one of consciousness: to view the naked human form as medievals did.” If they succeed, so will the novel.

Their plan is to create “an inventory of nudity in medieval texts” for several months while visiting surrounding towns and seeing relevant sculptures. The first third of this slim novel is an intriguing contrast between the narrator’s cursory presence and the cool precision with which Savaş details their strolls. Yet neither their pensive thesis nor their opaque musings have much going for them. “I didn’t quite believe my argument that nudity served as an iconography of the soul,” they confess early on. Instead, it now seems to them that “the flesh didn’t signify nakedness at all, but was rather a sly cloak that concealed an inner — truly naked — meaning.” Nearing the novel’s middle sections, I began to wonder where this meandering story’s heart lay.

Then Pascal’s wife shows up. Her name is Agnes. She is a talker. And our narrator is a listener. Slowly things fall into place and the story comes to life. Agnes is the beating heart of this Künstlerroman, her struggle to excise the superfluous from her art and private life driving the narrative. “[S]he would rather live in cold austerity than in sentimental clutter,” we learn, and watch Agnes working on a group of white-on-white paintings that gives the book its title. Like her Marie Kondo flat, these works celebrate sparsity. One painting the student catches a glimpse of on its easel is “entirely white. The color was made up of different textures and shades — flat, round, cold, and warm; tinted blue or yellow, with lighter and darker shades.” In the middle of this whiteness is a head too faint to grasp in its entirety. The shape gives the viewer a sense of “seeing it behind a rapidly shifting mist.”

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White on White follows a path paved by British Canadian author Rachel Cusk. The novelist-protagonist of Cusk’s 2014 novel, Outline, Faye, processes heartbreak through a cycle of 10 conversations; in two subsequent novels, Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018), Faye’s impersonal yet penetrating gaze shows what can be accomplished in fiction with a narrator who takes up only a liminal space in the plot. A more recent example of this technique is Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies (2021), whose aloof narrator is similarly detached from the dramas unfolding around her, which has led some reviewers to compare Kitamura’s style to Cusk’s. (Kitamura, in turn, has said she “fell in love” with Savaş’s writing when she read her 2019 novel, Walking on the Ceiling.)

While tackling loss, these quietly passionate characters find parallels in the stories of others — patterns of situations that evoke a particular emotion. As they come to terms with personal tragedies via muted observation, they find themselves drawn to talkers who use them as soundboards. This method distinguishes Cusk’s, Kitamura’s, and Savaş’s novels from the piercingly self-scrutinizing first-person narratives of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante.

Savaş, who received an MFA from the University of San Francisco and now lives in France, uses the same sort of listener’s point of view here. In Walking on the Ceiling, her debut novel, the outline of Savaş’s melancholy narrator Nunu emerged as she wandered in Paris with a listless male novelist. That stylistically more daring novel had a puzzle-like structure made up of 72 non-chronological chapters, some one sentence long, that weaved Nunu’s portrait by zigzagging in time and space. White on White is a neater, more linear book. It has two moving parts: Agnes and her stories, and postcard-like descriptions of her listener’s wanderings. Interweaving these two layers via counterpoint is the challenge to which Savaş rises.

Architecturally, too, White on White is divided. Agnes stays in the upstairs studio to which the narrator, who sleeps downstairs, does not have a key. While visiting the city to meet with her gallerist, Agnes promises the student to be careful to keep out of their way. But soon the divisions diminish, and Agnes ends up filling their days; like a block of color that suddenly enlivens a white canvas, she vitalizes their austere existence.

Initially, the attraction she inspires in the student is purely cerebral. The narrator comes upon a brochure of one of Agnes’s exhibitions in a drawer, and wonders “whether it could have been left there for me.” Then they notice likenesses between the apartment and its owner: “The more time I spent in the apartment, the more I admired its sparse aesthetic. There was nothing out of place, nothing that called attention to itself in its restrained elegance.” Over the course of several meetings conducted in cafés, bars, film theaters, and city avenues, the duo consider each other. About Agnes, the student proclaims: “Her presence was magnetic.” While ordering a beverage, she utters “every word with textbook correctness.” Even Agnes’s coffee-drinking habits merit attention:

When the coffees arrived, she pinched the packet of sugar and shook it, then tore the tip and slid its contents onto her spoon, gradually pouring the granules into her cup and mixing slowly. I realized I’d done the same myself, slowly emptying the packet into my cup, even though I drank my coffee black.

Later, when they run into each other on the street, Agnes looks “striking, in a green felt cape that flowed down to her waist.” While the artist ripples her fingers in the air to tell a story, the student makes a mental note of her accessories: “The gray stone ring shifted around on her thin finger.” Elsewhere, we catch a glimpse of Agnes standing in front of her apartment, “wrapped in a dark blue shawl that swallowed her thin shoulders, twisting and folding luxuriously around her torso.”

With her zen demeanor, Agnes has forged a praxis the student recognizes as an imitable way of seeing. Perhaps they, too, can observe like Agnes, distill life down by removing the superfluous, and extract its deeper truths. Of Agnes’s method, they write:

The process was like digging deeper inside a single moment […] Within every state of silence, there was another, finer one. The more she grew attuned to it, the more she found places to explore within. Eating became slower, and walking, too. So much happened in the simplest acts that they were feasts to observe.

Over a few dozen pages, we encounter Agnes’s youth as chronicled from an art historian’s perspective. “Regarding Agnes’s work, the tutors all agreed that her earlier style had been too simple, lacking sophistication,” but soon her “straightforward” paintings, “full of unrestrained emotion,” find their admirers. A fellow student acknowledges how she “saw things more clearly […] with nothing twisted or hidden.” They’ve all been fooled, however, for in reality “Agnes’s only wish was to twist and complicate, to hide firmly from sight the person she’d been.” Punctuating these conversations are Agnes’s confessions of her various concealments beneath her canvases: her successful layering of self under veneers of articulation is a cautionary tale, something she warns her young friend to absolutely avoid.

Savaş portrays Agnes’s frustrations over childbearing with deftness and flair. As her protagonist comes to understand why Agnes had children in the first place, we do, too: “[S]he was likely experiencing a crisis, and searching to fix it in roundabout ways.” But motherhood had come at the cost of a reluctance to articulate — which, in the case of an artist, is problematic. One scene shows Agnes coming across photographs of dishes she had cooked “on her daughter’s social media pages, with a line or two about the mother-daughter bond. She didn’t know how to point out the insincerity to her daughter, who was part of a generation of educated women that paid rapt attention to the things that gave them pleasure and turned them into rituals for display.” Agnes’s piercing gaze notices such details tirelessly. “These women,” she says of her daughter’s generation, “were indignant about any criticism regarding their exquisitely curated lives.”

Perhaps thanks to this underlying vein of muted criticism, Agnes’s similarly troubled friendships incrementally collapse. But not her bond with the student. Though Agnes appreciates the audience (“in any case […] you’re an excellent listener”), she can sometimes be snappy about the non-responsiveness. “I tell you these stories,” she complains, “and I can’t tell whether you want to hear them.” Later, Agnes notes how she keeps “talking and talking […] and I don’t know what you’re thinking.” I wonder if some readers will feel similarly. In their defense, the student says this sounds “simply like a generational difference.” But is it? “‘It’s difficult to tell,’ Agnes said, ‘whether you are exceedingly polite or willfully blind.’”

As his marriage falls into peril, a partial portrait of Pascal emerges. The aloof, uncaring husband’s biggest fault is a blatant blindness toward Agnes’s parenting:

When speaking of the toll of motherhood, women pointed to the time that was taken from them and never quite given back. But what was lost was also the capacity for selfishness and single-mindedness. Agnes wanted Pascal to share in this loss, for the two of them to let go of their work and to pick it back up in time, after they’d come to terms with the shock of what had happened to them.

Instead of sharing the loss, Pascal finds a new lover. For the student, his betrayal clarifies the order of things. While morphing from Agnes’s listener into her protector, they mature into an adult prepared to defend their independence from patriarchy’s protean assaults.

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Savaş allows flavors of the mundane to coat her characters. “Streets were filled with dried leaves of late summer, entangled with garbage, all of it drifting slowly like the long afternoons,” the student observes. Walking “the hushed narrow streets” of the city’s northern neighborhood, they see “the softly lit windows of stone buildings. Everything was deliberate, angled in a stern confinement, revealing only whatever was pleasing to the eye.” One morning, as they sit in the living room, “[t]he city hummed mildly outside.” Another description, of late November, resembles a postcard: “Mornings were damp, the mist hanging low, as if the city had been struck by a slow forgetting.”

The case history of Agnes and Pascal’s collapsing marriage and the student’s extended musings on nudes culminate in an unsettling denouement. Agnes, now abandoned but also liberated, becomes a white figure on a white background. With this chronicle, the student makes her struggles discernible, learning how the sparse beauties of the visible world can hide as much as they reveal. The fruit of all their listening is a sense of moral mission: between generations, the risks of conformity and the dangers of being gaslighted need to be passed down like a torch. As in medieval art where “[t]he skin itself was seen as a blanket, stretched to cover a secret inner life,” modern life misleads with its skin of calming appearances. One needs to listen deeply and artfully to notice the injustices hiding beneath.

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Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.