On our recent travels to the Czech Republic, we had a long layover in the Turkish city of Istanbul. But not so long that we could go outside and explore the city although I would have definitely loved to. Some day in the future perhaps, but in the meanwhile I was happy to immerse myself in some Turkish literature instead with Tezer Özlü’s Cold Nights of Childhood.
In the early pages of Cold Nights of Childhood, our unnamed narrator is toying with the idea of suicide (“Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself”). She is unclear why, but to the reader, her reasons are not entirely obscure. She longs to escape the stifling environment of her home, a conservative society ruled by patriarchal norms. Her father is driven by nationalistic and monetary fervor constantly espousing success and the call of duty to the nation. Her brother enjoys freedom in the house in a way she does not, and he uses that power to his advantage. These thoughts of ending her life suddenly transform into action, and our narrator consumes a bunch of pills wishing for death but wakes up in a psychiatric unit instead. She’s very young then and admits to this incident being her last suicide attempt, and yet it marks the beginning of a series of fear-inducing stints at psychiatric wards in the subsequent years.
Cold Nights of Childhood, then, is an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s quest for independence, freedom, sex and love, as well as her struggles with mental illness told in a writing style that is cinematic and impressionistic without conforming to the rigid structures of conventional storytelling. Originally published in 1980, the novella is filled with autobiographical elements as indicated in the introduction by Ayşegül Savaş and the translator’s note by Maureen Freely.
At barely 70 pages and set between 1950 and 1970, the novella is divided into four chapters and begins with a flavour of our narrator’s childhood and school years in the Turkish town of Fatih. We get an idea of her conservative upbringing, the lack of love between her parents (“what binds them together are their weighty petit bourgeois responsibilities”), soul-crushing daily family routines, and her deep yearning to break free, to travel to big cities and faraway lands. Evenings are spent with a friend reading Russian classics (“how very much these novels resonate with our own world”), while schooling years are spent in a lycee run by nuns whose mysterious workings are beyond our narrator’s grasp.
Later, the novella begins focusing on our narrator’s years in Istanbul and Ankara, and abroad in Europe’s great capital cities (Berlin and Paris). We learn of her string of lovers, her unsuccessful marriages, and above all her incarceration in mental asylums. This predominantly forms the essence of the book, and yet the narrative is not as linear as it seems.
Timelines blur as do places that often merge into one another like colours in a watercolour painting. For instance, in the third chapter titled “The Leo Ferre Concert”, in one moment our narrator is residing in an artist’s residence in Berlin, a house with high ceilings, wide wooden stairs, huge rooms filled with paintings, rich furniture and thousands of books, and in the next moment we find her in a grim hospital room minimally furnished with a dismal wardrobe, iron bedstead and a night table. The time shifts also come without warning. For instance, in the first chapter where our narrator dwells on her childhood, we learn of her grandmother Bunni, ancient in every sense, both in terms of thoughts and deeds, and her untiring attempts at running the daily household, and then we come across a sentence that describes Bunni’s funeral attended by our narrator with her young child.
Cold Nights of Childhood is also remarkable for its frank depiction of sex, not in terms of describing the act itself but the joyful experience of it. Flitting between a stream of lovers, our narrator is uninhibited when talking about the pleasures of sex, and freely expresses the wild desire that gnaws at her. We also get a glimpse of her freethinking personality when she muses on the nature of relationships.
Why can’t we find our way out of all this? Why do we rush into marriage and relationships, without first becoming friends? Is this what people in their early twenties should be doing? Do we have to sign the marriage register in order to have sex? Or live alone, longing for sex and masturbating? Do men have to find sexual excitement not in actual women but in their images? Must the first woman they know carnally be in a brothel? Must husbands and wives regard each other’s bodies as property? It contradicts our physical make-up entirely, all this. From earliest childhood, they stop us from being ourselves, from loving others, from caressing them. They twist us. Rob us.
Some of those fleeting relationships culminate in marriage, but married life proves unsatisfying. In fact, the reason she marries one of her husbands is because of his promise to not subject her again to the frightening yet eerily familiar experience of psychiatric wards, the loss of freedom and sense of self that it entails. All she asks of him if she falls ill is “to stay at home with my books and my records and a few of my favourite things, drinking tea.” The husband, unsurprisingly, breaks that promise.
Interspersed throughout the text are our narrator’s struggles with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder (“The illness that begins with such joy soon falls into a dark abyss”), and the dehumanising effects of electroshock treatments. She internally resists but is also outwardly aware of the futility of doing so. The isolation of being shut up in a space of utter silence with occasional voices floating in, when just a few steps away from the hospital, the noisy, outside world carries on unabashedly is wonderfully conveyed. This resistance to a kind of torturous imprisonment is also a cry for life, to witness its joys, to fight for individuality, freedom, and the wonder of brand new experiences.
In addition to the main themes above, the novella is also about the clash between conservative ideals and a more progressive, liberal way of thinking as seen in the striking contrast between our narrator’s childhood and life in her twenties. Turkey’s political turmoil and its impact, while not the central focus of the novella, nevertheless remains on the fringes, filtering into the lives of our narrator’s friends and family.
Cold Nights of Childhood reverberates with striking sensory images, atmospheric descriptive passages that evoke the finer things in life as well as a sense of sadness and melancholia – rooms full of books, cafes spilling onto pavements, the languid summers and the blue-green Mediterranean, the streets of Paris gleaming wet with rain, penthouse apartments with paintings on the walls, melancholic Bach violin concertos.
In these great European cities, friends don’t drop by unexpected. When their day’s work is done, when they’ve left their cafes and restaurants, they have the habit of immersing themselves in deep solitude.
A lot of the descriptions also focus on interior spaces, particularly pieces of furniture that define and distinguish one setting from another. There’s a vivid sense of place specifically when it comes to Turkey – the green waters of the Bosphorus, a Turkish village where the sand is golden with sunlight, Istanbul’s bohemian enclaves, yalis (water mansions) lining the shore, lively meyhanes (taverns) where students gather to discuss art and politics.
Our narrator’s wasted years in psychiatric wards pretty much mirror the five years that Tezer Özlü spent in a psychiatric hospital for bipolar disorder. While helpless in an environment that greatly restricted her freedom, at least when it came to writing Cold Nights of Childhood, Özlü fiercely resisted being tied down by the norms of established narratives. This is why when I began reading the book, I found the first couple of pages a tad disorienting but then I nicely settled into its rhythm. Written in a spare, lucid style, the novella is an amalgam of thoughts and impressions where boundaries with regard to timelines and settings do not exist and where occasional instances of dreams blending with reality reflecting our narrator’s drug-induced stupor crop up.
Moody, evocative, teeming with rich visuals and a palpable Jean Rhys vibe, Cold Nights of Childhood is a beautifully penned novella that I’m glad to have discovered. Very much recommended!