Review: Aysegül Savas’ novel “White on White” on art and self

On the bookshelf

White on white

By Ayşegül Savaş
Head of river: 192 pages, $ 26

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Ayşegül Savaş’s second novel is difficult to read, “White on whiteWithout thinking of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Both writers employ narrators who appear deceptively submissive, listening as other characters unroll or paint swathes of their lives in vivid detail. Often anonymous, these protagonists become receptacles for the experiences of others.

“I think everyone is wondering about her self-structure and why she was built that way,” Cusk said in one. maintenance 2020 with the Paris Review, “but I think actually feeling trapped in self pain or self trauma, or self fixity, is different, and I think that’s what I felt. most of my life. ” The limits of identity are just as heavy in Savaş’s work; they are the essential building blocks of dramatic tension.

“White on white” takes place in an unnamed European city, where an unnamed doctoral student in art history rents an apartment while she works on her thesis, studying “Gothic nude sculptures of the 12th and 13th centuries”. The narrator fills her days with research but also spends a lot of time describing the light and the weather and the ambience of the city, as well as her apartment, where she appreciates the “sparse aesthetic”. There was nothing out of place, nothing that drew attention to itself in its restrained elegance.

She feels the same for one of her owners, Agnès, a painter who moves into the studio above the apartment. During more and more frequent visits, Agnès regales her in the Cuskian way with stories about her marriage to a professor of medieval studies, her adult children, her former au pair, her parents, her cousin, her art. Agnes tells him that she is working on “white paintings of the human figure, with expressions both serene and demented, like those we see on figures from the medieval period, whose naturalism amazed her” . The two are therefore interested in the same period, but in different ways; that of the narrator is academic, that of Agnes imaginative.

Again like Cusk, who called his most recent novel, “Second Place,” an attempt to write a painting, Savaş is alert to the traps of the eye. The narrator draws parallels between the play of subtly contrasting tones around her and her mutable and mobile feelings towards Agnès. Nothing is permanent, not even a painting on the shelf that becomes a minor fixation. She remarks that “the tree in the photo seemed more twisted every day.” And just as the appearance of the tree changes, so does the narrator’s understanding of Agnes.

The experience of sharing space with this woman old enough to be his mother, more and more agitated by her presence, begins to become claustrophobic, all-consuming.

Agnès praises her for listening: “It wasn’t often,” she continues, “that we could present ourselves to others, like a self-portrait. Most often, we have taken portraits of the people around us, guessing their features from occasional glimpses. This foreshadows the disintegration of their relationship; Soon Agnes will berate her for not being such a good conversationalist after all. Telling stories of her failed marriage and past friendships, the woman upstairs demonstrates a habit of looking for mirror images of herself in other people – or for muses who earn little in return. .

Before Agnes enters her life, the narrator struggles with the difficulty of understanding the medieval perception of the naked body. But during her year with Agnes, she comes across a series of letters from a pilgrim that clarifies her argument: judgment against fallen bodies.

It is therefore a subject which was not – as others had argued – always taboo at the time. This discovery spills over into her life, as ideas from the archives unfold in her apartment. Agnes’ personal life and story become a performance the narrator has tickets for in the front row – just like us. The charismatic woman who seems to reveal everything turns out to be quite another thing: a person who has “learned to display her femininity and charm, and to allude to them through concealment.” Agnès did not expose herself so much as she did a female exhibition.

It’s only when Agnes undresses this character – in a calculated and tense final scene reminiscent of the imbroglio in the recent play “Bad friend of art”- that the narrator can see it. Which is not the same as being able to explain it: “It was the face of an animal, I thought, a creature without human expression, but all the more alive with a sense that I could not. not decipher. ” Agnes also distorts and obscures the narrator, in a particularly cruel and permanent way.

Is it better to interpret art or to do it? What is the most constructive act, which is the most potentially destructive? Although “White on White” can sometimes suffer from too much control, Savaş’s understated style is a statement in itself, minimalist on the surface but more textured than you first see. Through it, the author questions the validity of the self, whether it is dressed or allegedly exposed. No matter how much you keep hidden or share with the world, there is no control over what another person will do with it. Humans will likely use the information for their own benefit, in the service of their own twisted judgments. Who knows it better than an artist?

Filgate is writer and editor of the anthology “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About”.


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