In 1954 Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar began publishing installments of one of the world’s greatest novels in desperate need of editorial intervention. Tanpinar’s novel, The Time Regulation Institute, tells the story of a fictional bureaucratic body in charge of regulating time across Turkey. Written in the form of a memoir by one of the Institute’s leading members, Hayri Irdal, the novel is part confessional, part historical document, part psychoanalytic exercise. His entire family history and life story and even a sort of disarmingly candid self-reflection are laid out for his readers. What’s missing, perhaps, was revision by a hand worthy of the author.
In Tanpinar’s writing, you can find the brushstrokes of Italy’s greatest psychological writers like Pirandello and Svevo. Hayri Irdal has the temperament of an Italian bureaucrat looking back on his life with that rare strain of irony and slapdash wisdom that makes us laugh at things that aren’t even necessarily that funny. In one scene Hayri Irdal expounds on the way physical objects absorb the personas of their owners, and how, having once worn a suit by one of his bosses, he was suddenly afflicted with an incurable passion for the boss’s wife. The recursive and incessant unpacking of thoughts, the collected but still near-manic storytelling resembles Dostoyevsky. Tanpinar’s work was steeped in these masterpieces, and the translation by Alexander Dawe and Maureen Freely for Penguin’s 2014 edition is lyrical. Sentences and ideas cascade one over the other, tumbling into a sort of psychological disarray and perspicacity that can be dreamed up only by the mind of a great and incisive writer.
Meditating perhaps on the pivotal moment in Turkish history when the Ottoman calendar was abandoned to the Gregorian calendar—when the idea of time itself was toppled and called into question—Tanpinar often muses on time not as a concept, but as a living entity. He describes watches not as household trinkets, but as almost celestial or supernatural objects. Watches, according to Hayri Irdal, either go slow or fast based on the rhythm of the wearer’s temperament.
Time and watches are the soul of this book. Hayri Irdal describes the way he made up a historical figure in the timekeeping trade and even went so far as to write a biography of this invented historical figure. This fictitious biography, Hayri Irdal explains, became a hit and even gave legitimacy to his institute. But I also get the sense that, fictional or not, this biography was a way of telling the truth about this thing known as time, that this fake story meant a great deal to Hayri Irdal and his friends at the institute; it was their way of making their ideas known to the world. It was their way of making the world ask, perhaps for the first time, what is time, and is it alive?
Time is treated like the plot of this novel, and departing from that structuring concept was Tanpinar’s greatest error. Instead of trying to make good on his promise to treat this subject delicately, or with his usual irony, Tanpinar mocks it. Time stops being the plot and starts being treated like an idea. Later in the book, there are scenes in which men marvel at Hayri Irdal’s grandfather’s clock in a way that feels silly and childish. And you yourself begin to feel silly and childish for having taken this premise seriously, and start to suspect that Tanpinar was trying to shoehorn a cheap allegory into his book, which is immensely frustrating.
And on the subject of time, Tanpinar doesn’t start the story of the Time Regulation Institute itself until most of the way through the book. Storylines are constantly derailed, and not always in a way in which detours feel like natural extensions of an ambling narrator’s mind, but rather, in a way that introduces us to characters and storylines that do not do much for the book, nor at the very least do they often make us laugh. Worst of all, these derailments are full of acute, stunningly well-written, sometimes heartbreaking observations, as if Tanpinar had written these particular storylines with the full force of his craft and refused to junk them once the book took a different direction and rendered the storyline irrelevant.
There are also traces of impulses toward a sort of Tristram Shandy-like novel—something that calls into question the role of narrative in modern literature. Written by Laurence Sterne in the mid-18th century as a kind of absurd novel, Tristram Shandy opens on the night of the narrator’s conception, and he isn’t born until halfway through. It was an important work of English literature. But I can’t pretend that Tristram Shandy, though brilliant, is very readable, or more a work of art than it is an exercise.
Tanpinar, who died in 1962, should have considered if pulling a similar gag with a 400-page book that essentially starts halfway through and then jumps into fragments of another story near the end was worth his readers’ time.
The Time Regulation Institute could have been trimmed to 250 pages and become one of the most important works of 20th-century fiction. I suspect Tanpinar’s editor took one look at the draft and, at a loss for how to handle its genius, decided to publish as is with all the gristle still attached to the genius. This novel, in particular, is a reminder that it was thanks to Ezra Pound’s scissors that we have “The Wasteland.” Tanpinar wrote one of the greatest novels that would have been, except it wasn’t.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.