Cold Nights of Childhood
(Transit Books, 2023)
The narrator of Tezer Özlü’s novel, Cold Nights of Childhood, is mad. We come to know this not only from the content of her writing, which recounts a suicide attempt and her subsequent institutionalization, electroshock therapy, and assault by nurses and doctors, but even more insistently from the form itself. Taking as its chief subject the inner workings of the narrator’s mind, the novel’s text is anything but linear. The narrator’s reflections jump around in time, from past to present to future, refusing to be contained. But the text has a logic, as the movement of the narrator’s mind is pushed on and on by various stimuli, one thought pointing her to another.
Cold Nights of Childhood, originally published in 1980 and now translated from Turkish into English for the first time by Maureen Freely, feels ahead of its time in many ways; Özlü can be seen as the progenitor of contemporary discussions on autofiction, particularly regarding what the novel about one individual can potentially do for others. In Cold Nights of Childhood the narrator is concerned with herself, but not in a self-centered way: “While in my mind,” she writes, “obsessions circle. Dragging me down. Always the same obsessions. People all around me. Because this is my place, surrounded by people.” We are invited to the particularity, the circularity, the madness of her mind—invited to witness these obsessions. The novel is structured in four chapters, moving from “The House” to “School and the Road Leading to It” to “The Léo Ferré Concert” to, finally, “The Aegean Again.” The larger journey of the novel is from childhood—the space of the home in the provinces—to school in the city, to the wider world in Europe, and finally back to the Aegean, on the precipice of the narrator’s return to Istanbul. Yet each event moves forward and backward constantly, our narrator troubled by the past which erupts into the present.
Notably, Cold Nights of Childhood is not terribly political, despite being written at a particularly charged moment in Turkish history before the 1980 coup d’état. This history is background for the narrator, but it never fully erupts into the novel—instead, we stay in the territory of the personal. She writes, “I was never a part of a revolutionary struggle. Not during the 12 March era, and not after it, either. All I ever wanted was to be free to think and act beyond the tedious limits set by the petit bourgeoisie.” But this does not mean the novel is unconcerned with politics. Rather it is, at its core, about the narrator’s resistance to patriarchal and nationalist structures—a resistance to such embedded logics that it drives her to insanity. The first lines of the book recount her father’s habit of waking his children up like soldiers, saying “No pussyfooting in the army! Out of bed now! On your feet!” The narrator’s embrace of the life of the mind, the pleasure of sex, and the desire of women is a direct line of resistance to this very structure.
Indeed, Cold Nights of Childhood finds its most revolutionary moment in the narrator’s own articulation of desire. In the face of repressive and misogynist society, the narrator recounts her sexual experiences from childhood to present, presenting each orgasm and tryst not with bravado or flowery metaphor, but as essential pieces of her life. Her sexuality is central to how she sees the world and moves through it. She is surrounded by those who deny her desires, like her former husband who tries insistently to control her behavior, but she radically carves space for herself in writing, in reading, in sex, and most of all, in memory. Desire is the arc of Özlü’s narrative, which constantly digresses and moves back, a circularity that has its own logic of pleasure—that of the delay.
The delays and digressions bring a sustained attention to how things dissolve: people fade into city streets, memories fade into each other, and new lovers call old lovers to mind. Özlü’s novel may be fragmented, but these pieces are not separate—they overlap. At one point, the narrator reflects that “A single moment can hold an eternity. Can be rich with events and a multiplicity of emotions. Can hold whole mountains, and thick-trunked trees with massive branches. The blue-green Mediterranean and the oceans into which it flows, and the starry sky with which those oceans merge at dawn, and all that occurs beyond the mountains, rising with the sun and exceeding it.” The sentences may be fragments, a characteristic style for Özlü, but the idea is radically connective, imagining the multiplicity and excess in every slim moment or thought.
Those who picked up Cold Nights of Childhood hoping for the Turkish equivalent of The Bell Jar will surely be satisfied. But those who can see how Özlü exceeds Plath’s narrative will recognize a more robust trajectory of the avant-garde, a writer with a keen eye for how repression writes itself the mind. Özlü’s questions exceed the boundaries of the individual, of one melancholy or mad or remembering writer. Instead, her novel brings up questions of what the novel can do, how digression and delay can bring pleasure, how reading and writing blur our senses of time.
Indeed, much like another famous stream-of-consciousness novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Cold Nights of Childhood ends with an orgasm. In bed with her lover, she describes “The warmth embracing us. The cold nights descending. And the stars those nights bring to the skies. This world that two people joined in perfect union can set atremble. This union, that gives itself over to eternity, to existence, to all those with whom we share it, now and in the ages still to come…” But the union here is not just between her and her lover. It’s the joining of the “warmth” and the “cold nights,” the peculiarities of the past and the uncertainty of the present, trailing off in one ellipsis, moving towards the future.