JUNE 25, 2019
“FOR THE PERFECT flâneur,” Baudelaire writes in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,”
it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite […] To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.
Perhaps that’s the central difference between the flâneur and the flâneuse, a literary and historical figure that has been circulating a lot in popular culture since the publication of Lauren Elkin’s 2017 study of female wanderers, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. From the largest metropolis to the most rural outpost, municipal architecture is part of an infrastructure designed to exclude women from power: cities aren’t built for women. Statues and street names honor presidents and generals in cities where women can’t safely walk alone at night. We are always a little out of place, never fully citizens of anywhere.
In Ayşegül Savaş’s lyrical debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, all the characters seem defined by their relationship to the city and the way in which they move through it. For the narrator, Nunu, and her mother, Nejla, this movement is explicitly gendered. Growing up in an industrial Turkish town, Nejla wished to become a man, as she later recounts to her daughter, and imagined the freedom of mobility that she would enjoy. She could be just like Akif amca, her trusted family friend, who “could take his walking stick and leave, without having to account for his departure.” Instead, she settled into the roles expected of her: she married a failed poet and had a child. As an adult in Istanbul, Nejla sticks to habitual paths, making routine stops at the same restaurants and shops every day and never wandering too far from her own neighborhood.
In her own childhood, Nunu feels trapped by these patterns and her increasingly tense relationship with her mother. To cope, she constructs a model city — complete with benches, lampposts, and townspeople — out of scraps of old newspaper. Savaş writes: “The city twisted and turned around itself, with courtyards and dead ends that I alone could see from my godly vantage point but that were invisible to the people walking its streets.”
When her adolescent life feels out of control, the paper city gives Nunu dominion over space and time. Within this fantasy world, she lives in a walled-off garden at a safe distance from prying relatives. In a secret cabin nearby, her father, who committed suicide several years earlier, is still alive, unknown to everyone but her.
As an adult, Nunu seems to enjoy much of the freedom and autonomy that her mother never gained. In flashes, both forward and backward, Savaş weaves together the threads of Nunu’s life: her childhood in Turkey before her father’s death and the hushed tones afterward; her university years in London with her friend Molly and her boyfriend, Luke; and her time in Paris after Nejla’s death. She manages to escape the neighborhood where she grew up, but even in the most cosmopolitan of cities, Nunu is always something of an outsider. She either watches people from a distance or embellishes her life story to impress teachers and friends. It’s as though she’s constantly trying to recreate the paper city of her youth by watching from a “godly vantage point” and manipulating those around her. Still, Nunu remains likable, even strangely relatable, which is a testament to Savaş’s skill as a writer. She taps into the reader’s deep-seated desire just to be liked, to have the respect of those whom they admire.
It’s in Paris that Nunu initially seems at her most vulnerable. Still grieving the loss of her mother, she moves to the city on a student visa — though she never attends class. When invited to social functions, she avoids other students because she doesn’t know how to navigate group dynamics. Relegated to the margins of Parisian life, Nunu roams the labyrinthine streets of her neighborhood with no social connection or purpose.
By chance, she sees a notice for a public reading by one of her favorite writers, whose identity throughout the book is truncated to a solitary “M.” She has read and reread his poetic novels set in Istanbul in part because they’re written from an outsider’s uncomplicated and superficial perspective: “[W]here insight was spared, where tragedy occurred in parentheses, and moments of great joy were subdued.” The two become unlikely but instant friends. As in her previous relationships, however, Nunu keeps some things hidden. She never tells M. that she has read his novels, and almost everything she does tell him is a lie. In an effort to impress him, she passes herself off as a fellow writer and is surprised by how easily he takes her into his confidence: “I was grateful to him for including me so swiftly into his community of writers, and all the sensitivities of his profession of which I was mostly unaware.”
M. becomes her companion and interlocutor on their shared wanderings of cafés and boulevards, and she delves further into the city than she’s ever dared to go alone. Their relationship has drawn comparisons to those in other recent novels, such as Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not for the nature of their connection, which is never sexual or problematic, but because their conversations frequently turn to what it means to be a writer. Nunu recalls, “‘Sometimes,’ M. wrote to me, ‘I can barely tell apart my sorrow from my joy when I’m writing.’ Immediately, I recognized the statement as a truth.”
She recognizes the pain and pleasure of creating worlds and controlling events because it’s so similar to her own experience of obsessively building and rebuilding the paper city. And Savaş makes this comparison explicit when she describes the way M. constructs his fiction: “[He] named streets one by one in his novels, listed trees, shops, and foods, building an entire world with the patience of a miniaturist.”
Of course, this is also Savaş’s writing style, and, by extension, Nunu’s way of narrating the past. Her walks with M. are cartographic in detail. Savaş writes, “We crossed the bridge to the island, mostly empty except for a few tourists in front of an ice-cream shop, then the Pont de la Tournelle to the Left Bank, standing for a moment to look at Notre-Dame glowing with a strange light through the mist.”
Readers who have been to Paris may recognize the famous Berthillon ice cream shop, and they will certainly know the glow of Notre-Dame at night. (In the aftermath of the devastating fire, Savaş’s frequent references to the cathedral take on another, albeit unintentional, layer of loss in a novel heavily marked by grief.) In fact, Nunu’s walks with M. are so detailed that readers could follow the directions like a roadmap. Savaş, who grew up in Turkey and Denmark and now teaches at the Sorbonne, describes neighborhoods, street names, cafés, gardens, and all the minutiae of Paris with the intimate meticulousness of someone who has spent a good deal of time walking those paths herself, though, in the same way that M. describes Istanbul, her keen observations are colored by being a temporary resident.
The geographic specificity lends a sense of realism to a novel that’s largely about artifice, but readers shouldn’t necessarily expect realism from Savaş. Instead, Walking on the Ceiling seems to owe much to Mrs. Dalloway, another novel whose fluid chronology favors form over plot. In Woolf’s novel, the characters push against the boundaries of their secluded urban lives. Elizabeth Dalloway rides the omnibus further down the Strand than she’s ever ventured before, and even Clarissa, in a moment of defiance, decides to buy the flowers herself while exploring the streets of Westminster. The novels share a similar pacing and an eye for seemingly inconsequential details while important events succumb to a general fogginess. Even Nunu’s relationship with M. is left largely undefined. Like Woolf, Savaş focuses more on interiority, and the novel’s modernist sensibility fits Nunu’s flânerie perfectly.
As with any novel about writers, it is almost impossible to ignore the meta-narrative about writing or resist the urge to conflate author and character. If Nunu is an unreliable narrator, then of course so is Savaş, who draws us into a story that we can never quite believe but always implicitly trust. With godly precision, she has constructed a paper city out of the pages of her novel, and we happily follow her toward every courtyard and dead end.
Lori Brister holds a PhD in English literature and frequently writes about travel literature and visual culture. She is also the website manager and graphic designer at Politics and Prose Independent Bookstore in Washington, DC. You can find more information at www.loribrister.com.