What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Relation of Fact to Thought in Elif Batuman's "The Memory Kitchen" (Contra Daniel Soar)

Photo by Carolyn Drake (from Elif Batuman's "The Memory Kitchen")

Daniel Soar, in his “The paper is white” (London Review of Books, December 14, 2017), a review of Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, is critical of Batuman’s New Yorker writings. He says,

As a staff writer for the New Yorker, living for a time in Turkey, she has in recent years reported on football fandom in Istanbul, archeology in south-eastern Anatolia, transcranial direct-current stimulation in Albuquerque and an unusual kidney disease found only in the Balkans. These pieces are witty, personal, comprehensively reported (“But when I tried to get in touch with him I was told that he was unavailable, having recently been shot”), but they are also dutiful and information-heavy, with the occasional Wikipedia-like bit of background that anyone could have filled in (“In 1908, the sultan’s absolute rule was curbed by the Young Turks, who went on to encourage soccer as a means of Westernising and nationalising Turkish youth”). She has traded thoughts for facts. She doesn’t always have the room to reflect on how selective and partial those facts can be – or on whether, for example, working-class Beşiktaş fans may have a politics beyond the facts of their violence.

She has traded thoughts for facts – is this true? I don’t think so. It fails to credit the complex mental process underpinning Batuman’s factual writing. Take her wonderful “The Memory Kitchen” (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010), for example, profiling the extraordinary Turkish chef Musa Dağdeviren, whose Istanbul restaurant Çiya Sofrasi has “tapped into a powerful vein of collective food memory,” “producing the kind of Turkish cuisine that Turkey itself, racing toward the West and the future, seemed to have abandoned.”

“The Memory Kitchen” is an artfully shaped narrative comprehending, among other things, the taste of Çiya Sofrasi’s kisir (“The bitter edge of sumac and pomegranate extract, the tang of tomato paste, and the warmth of cumin, which people from the south of Turkey put in everything, recalled to me, with preternatural vividness, the kisir that my aunt used to make”); the story of Dağdeviren’s rise “from errand boy to dishwasher, from apprentice to chef, and on to head chef and master chef”; an excursion to Kandira, on the Black Sea coast, to shop for foraged herbs (“We made one round of the wild-greens sellers. Most were women, wearing bright flowered head scarves, oversized wool cardigans, and long skirts or baggy pantaloons”); lunch at a fish shop (“The shop owner brought the fish, which had been fried in cornmeal. Musa ate in moderation, but with quick, restless, almost peremptory movements”); and, most memorably, a visit to a turkey farm (“Turkeys were wandering everywhere, producing their strange ambient gurgle, under the lugubrious eye of a large German shepherd”).

Writing is selection, John McPhee says in his Draft No. 4. In Batuman’s great “The Memory Kitchen,” the selection of facts and words is brilliant. The presence of a thinking, creating mind is palpable.

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