Turkey | 2017, 2018, 2021
Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and The London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English Literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
When oceans overtake the world, and all living souls perish, a chest will appear on a valley that was once Tuscany. The unsuspecting survivor of the global catastrophe will pore over its contents: a trail of documents titled SANTA MADDALENA REPORTS.
Centuries will have divided their time and ours. They will have no word for serenity or swooning. Survival will dictate their lives. But these newfound narratives of authors making literary breakthroughs in an Edenic environment will amaze these survivors.
Their knowledge of our world—that modern life circa 2022 comprised little more than stooped millennials fondling their smartphones, logging onto meta-verses, showing off their NFTs to avatars of friends—will vanish. In its place, they’ll see, in written form, depictions of a lost country, its greatest novelist, his gentlemanly demeanor, his powerful fictions, some written in the Edenic environment of the said Tuscan house. They’ll see, among these SANTA MADDALENA REPORTS, stories about bats and cats, handsome Afghan tribesmen, and the upper story of a medieval signal tower. They’ll learn of a stone table, which refuses to let go of authors who worked on it, reappearing in dreams. They’ll see, in these fragments of gratitude, a list of dogs, some immortalized in iambic pentameter, others sketched in throwaway sentences. They’ll hear the cadences of a baronessa’s conversation, the warmth of her character that was molded, once upon a time, in the carefree life of a Bosporus mansion.
Returning to Santa Maddalena for the third time this year, I imagined these future observers eyeing the fortnight I spent in Donnini—laughing, getting drunk, swimming, matchmaking, sightseeing, swooning—with Beatrice, Pol, Nicole, Maggie, Henry, and Emma. Those imaginary people from the future may be heartened to learn that this life was once possible, that writing well, reading well, eating well was enough to live well, and may feel grateful to SANTA MADDALENA REPORTS, seeing that this way of life has not entirely vanished.
This year I came to Santa Maddalena in high spirits: ready for work, thirsty for isolation and with a spiral-bound notebook. I arrived on October 1, a breezy day. So much has changed from when I left it the previous summer. Santa Maddalena was dark, Gothic, windy.
The Turkish Room became my home for a month. I spent the first morning reading, and I enjoyed the proximity to the library. The Turkish Room is the dream of every recluse.
I had the privilege of working at Grisha’s studio, which was empty, silent and filled with light when I entered it on my first afternoon. I realized it was the heart of Santa Maddalena. A coffer filled with half-century old issues of The New York Review of Books amused me. On the couch, Giulietta and Paride snored heavily. A robin arrived one afternoon and soon flew away. I wrote thirty-thousand words in three weeks.
In the dining room, writers flocked around the fireplace. Conversation warmed anxious minds. The evening news was troubling: a journalist dismembered in an Istanbul consulate, knife crime in London, a Holocaust survivor and ten others massacred in a Pittsburgh synagogue. In the background, pieces of wood fell with a thud in the fireplace. The world was too much with us.
But life soon settled into a gentle rhythm. From eight in the morning until lunch at one thirty, much writing was done with minimal conversation.
I missed the Tower, its rooms and colors, but I resisted the urge to visit. Instead I lived between Grisha’s paragraphs, relishing the descriptions of the Tower in Anecdotage.
In 2017, Santa Maddalena helped me distinguish the vital from the trivial, and come into my own. In 2018, it served a functional purpose. There were no fireflies, no swimming in the pool and no festival trips to Florence. There was only writing, the sole consolation.
IN THE GARDEN OF TIME
One day during my first week at Santa Maddalena, I woke up in the middle of the night to birdsong. My sleep, interrupted by the piercing sounds of nature, gave way to a dream that I started having half-awake. There, I imagined my room, on the second story of the Tower, transform into a garden. According to the strange logic of the dream, I had fallen asleep in this garden’s impenetrable darkness, and had been left outside the structures of ordinary existence, surrounded by shadows of numberless trees.
Now, I could hear birds singing from all directions a tune that might have been designed to wake me up. For a moment, all those portraits of Ottoman Sultans and their imperial edicts hung on my room’s walls, had disappeared. It was as if, after a long wait, the moment had arrived. The moment — of what?
I felt unprotected, precarious and yet maddeningly alive in that dream, thrown into the naked bosom of existence. At the Tower, I had found myself in that privileged position where all those distinctions between interiority and exteriority, sleep and wakefulness, fiction and reality, were subtly removed before my eyes. In the silent surroundings of this stone building, nothing particularly interesting was going on —a deer walked into the night, a lizard climbed upstairs, a melancholy blind dog howled a distant cry and the wind turned trees into instruments— but in the world of the mind, only interesting things were allowed to happen. In the dark of the night, I suddenly remembered why I was here, on this earth, and how I had imagined my role in it all those years ago, when I had decided to devote my life to writing.
To Donnini I had travelled as a heartbroken, sad man who had lost his way in life. In Istanbul, where I live, I used to start crying in the middle of a telephone conversation. I was restless and would change places constantly throughout the day. I felt purposeless, a man who had forgotten who he was, what he lived for, why the world was worth waking up to every morning. When I got off the train at Sant’Ellero with a small, gray luggage next to me, I was also carrying an odd weight, the burden of a sad season. An unsurpassable feeling that this was my last year on earth, that I had reached the end of things, was bothering me for the past months.
Hours after Andrew Greer brought me to the Tower, I found myself looking out of the window of my room and listening to that curious sound — of what? In the following mornings, I would get up from my bed at seven in the morning and rush downstairs, my bare feet touching the cold stone steps, and I would open the door and head outside, craving — for what? When the night fell and fireflies surrounded the stone table at the garden, I was ecstatic to finally see, in that stark darkness — what?
Was it the presentness of the present time? Beatrice, I suspect, had curated this feeling very carefully and meticulously. She had sculpted this moment—a moment in my life and that of the world, a moment that always felt for me in those six weeks as the moment. Many authors before me must have experienced this feeling of the presentness of the present time at the Tower, its naked openness to possibilities of writing and to the potentials of imagination. At the Tower, all clocks are set to that moment, to the cold and beautiful nakedness of the present time which one wants to fill by forging words and paragraphs.
Now, hearing birdsong from outside the window of my Istanbul apartment only a few hundred meters away from the Pera mansion of Beatrice’s parents, that moment comes back to me, albeit in the form of a recollection. It has passed, the moment, as it had for many writers staying at Santa Maddalena before me. But I am an optimist, have been one even when I used to feel before coming to the Tower that there was nothing more to live for. Yes, the moment that has passed was merely the prologue to a future of moments, of minutes and hours and days of creativity, curated by the baronessa, that inimitable sculptor of time.