Tanpınar was a poet, novelist, and critic who worked as a professor of Ottoman and Turkish literature at Istanbul University. Though he was known in his lifetime as a major poet, renowned scholar, and prolific essayist, he was not recognized as a major fiction writer until a decade after his death. It was in the context of the growing interest in the 19th- and early 20th-century Ottoman past that Tanpinar’s fiction was rediscovered and given new meaning. His subject matter has become relevant to contemporary interests and his aesthetic complexity (including a dense Perso-Arabic vocabulary) is no longer objectionable. Today, he is considered to be an icon of Turkish literature and is an influence on many contemporary Turkish novelists, foremost among them Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.
A Mind at Peace first appeared in serial in the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. The novel is part of a multi-volume roman fleuve that includes the untranslated novels, Song in Mahur and Waiting in the Wings. It is set in Istanbul on the eve of World War II (1939) and captures the anxieties of a cosmopolitan family challenged by the difficulties of the early Republic, which was founded after the partition of the Ottoman Empire in 1920-23. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Republic of Turkey experienced a fifteen-year “westernizing” cultural revolution that attempted to distance it as much as possible from its Ottoman-Islamic past by transforming everything from the alphabet to the legal system, from education to the clothes people wore. Access to the past was restricted for the sake of developing a future-oriented “new” society. Writers like Tanpınar lived through this transition and knew how to read and write in both the “old” Ottoman script and the “new” Latin Turkish; in short, they were familiar with two mentalities and the Ottoman legacies from Mevlevi Sufism to art and architecture weighed heavily upon them.
In Tanpınar’s ironic vision, however, the promise of “modernization” gives way to anxiety. What is certain about this new world is not progress, but fragmentation and destabilization. In A Mind at Peace, rapid social change is masterfully gauged through the way it registers in the psyches of Tanpınar’s Istanbulite characters. He seems to be asking, “How does a Muslim society on the periphery of Europe balance tradition and modernity?”
The novel is orchestrated into four parts named after the four main characters: “İhsan,” “Nuran,” “Suad,” and “Mümtaz”. At a young age, after his parents die during the Allied occupations of Ottoman territories after World War I, Mümtaz, goes to live with his much older cousin İhsan, an intellectual and history teacher at Galatasaray, the famous French lyceum in Istanbul. Their relationship is one of mentor and student. İhsan is a role model who has now fallen seriously ill, upsetting the spirit of the entire family.
Parallel to the relationship between Mümtaz and İhsan is the love affair between Mümtaz and Nuran, the woman who has recently left him. Mümtaz is devastated by İhsan’s sickness, by the fact that Nuran has recently made up with her ex-husband, and by the impending second world war. The fourth major character, and the darkest of them, is Suad, an admirer of Nuran who ultimately commits suicide in Mümtaz’s apartment, destroying Mümtaz’s relationship with Nuran. Psychologically, socially, nationally, and internationally, the developments in the novel are always pregnant with permanent change and uncertainty. Both the vital importance and the fragility of these relationships are highlighted through lyrical passages of modernist and symbolist prose. The influence of writers such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky can be felt in the text.
Part I (“İhsan”) and Part IV (“Mümtaz”) frame the novel and represent a tense and melancholy twenty-four-hour period culminating in the announcement that World War II has begun in Europe. Part II (“Nuran”) and Part III (“Suad”) narrate the events of the preceding year. Part II delves into the halcyon relationship between Mümtaz and his beloved Nuran through the intertwining of aspects of Ottoman Turkish classical music, folk songs, theater, and the natural beauty of the Bosphorus. Part III is brooding in tone as it relates the dampening and growing sorrow surrounding this idyllic romance, through the complications presented by Suad. Part IV takes up the themes of the East/West “problematic” and issues of identity, focusing on the realization by those in Mümtaz’s circle that he is on the verge of mental and emotional collapse.
A Mind at Peace is a novel about its opposite, tension and anxiety, and the challenges posed by war and self-destruction to relationships and aesthetics; all the while, Tanpınar contemplates the mystery, irony, and persistence of the observing eye and hybrid consciousness.
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar is an author of modernist transfigurations. Revelations of the Turkish soul on the threshold of political and cultural change inflect his prose, and mark his language and aesthetics. A Mind at Peace, among other things, is the Turkish national anti-epic. It is a bildungsroman that doesn’t lead to maturity and the wisdom of experience, but to a spectrum of vulnerabilities from psychic instability to sacrifices of identity and history.
Tanpınar represents the modernism of countries like Turkey that have experienced concentrated periods of reform and revolution, or even, countries with a history of colonization. His narrative point-of-view moves between a more traditional narrator and the poetic voice of an aesthete. His prose, in style and structure, is thereby a faithful narrative representation of the fraught cultural transition from the Ottoman Empire to the mid-century Turkish Republic.
In A Mind at Peace, Tanpınar writes through a number of themes and tropes including the divided self, the melodic makam, the Ottoman legacy, the Sufi theme, material culture (objects and memory), and the unrequited mystic romance (of lover and beloved). Entering a vast symbolist world (of light and illumination, season and clime, lover and beloved, alchemy and transfiguration, Istanbul and the Bosphorus, etc.), the reader is never made to forget that he is accessing a world through the perspective of a voyeur, a flâneur, an ironist, a tourist of one’s native city, an aesthete, and one who has learned to see life from the outside through a self-Orientalizing gaze.
Tanpınar treats language as an object around which memory coalesces. For lest it be forgotten, Tanpınar’s Turkish audience alone represents a readership estranged from its own immediate cultural heritage and history.