The Story Collector, or, How Not to Write a Novel
Aysegül Savas on the Fiction Writer as Ethnographer
On Friday evenings, Sergei Sergeevich rounded us up from campus in his pickup truck and drove us to the white, wooden house at the edge of a lake. It had scalloped eaves, a porch with rocking chairs; it was straight out of a Russian tale.
Inside, the furnace would be lit. Fugi and Ella, his black Labradors, rambled around in a frenzy. We heard the sound of Sergei Sergeevich’s wife, Dieuwke, playing the cello in the study.
Sergei Sergeevich filled our glasses and put us to work—rolling out dough, folding pelmeni, catching fish from the lake. Once everything was in order, he went to the porch to smoke. If one of us followed him out, he quizzed us: Who did we like best in the group? Who did we have a crush on?
After dinner, we put the plates on the kitchen floor for the dogs to lick and went to the wood cabin behind the house. This was the banya, built by Sergei Sergeevich. If he was in a good mood, he played the accordion or guitar, passing around Russian folk songbooks. We put on the felt hats hanging on the walls, went in and out of the sauna, fell asleep on the wooden benches of the resting room, or went out to the garden to roll in the snow.
Sergei Sergeevich was my Russian professor in Middlebury, Vermont. He had a big mustache and small spectacles, a permanently stained wardrobe of thick shirts and fleece vests. He spoke languages as if he were playing with dough—stretching and folding, breaking words apart and putting them together in new combinations. He would take our class outside, right in the middle of verb conjugations, and roll himself a cigarette. Sometimes, he sent one of us to the dining hall to fetch him a glass of Mountain Dew.
He disliked most things socialist and all things insincere, and he could smell either in an instant. He knew at once whether he liked a person, a song, a poem, or a painting, and he knew even faster whether he disliked them. I wished for his discernment, to know at once what made something real, and worthy. I never took a literature class with him because I didn’t trust my judgment. I was afraid of saying something stupid and lose my standing in the banya group.
The group was made up of Bulgarian, Czech, Kazakh, and other Turkish students. Later, there were Iranians, a Hungarian, an Uzbek, Palestinian, and Latvian. It was a mythical time. In the white house, time unfolded like a story and was itself contained in stories. And with each gathering, our repertoire fattened and grew. There was the story of Fugi, the older, skinnier Lab, who was afraid of the banya because she’d been left inside one night by accident, and shrunk to half her size by the morning. There was the story of how Dieuwke and Sergei met on a flight from Europe to the U.S.; Sergei Sergeevich had performed a magic trick, involving a Queen of Spades. There were stories about all the students who’d come before us, each one with an epithet assigned by Sergei Sergeevich.
It was a special honor to be singled out by him, to be subject to his questions and jokes. Though his knowledge of literature was similar to the way he spoke languages—fluid, elastic, embodied—he wasn’t very eager to talk about it. Instead, he would suddenly become engaged in a puzzle, in a simple anecdote from our childhood or last night’s campus party. And just as suddenly, he might lose interest.“He knew at once whether he liked a person, a song, a poem, or a painting, and he knew even faster whether he disliked them.”
One evening at dinner, I asked with naïve boastfulness whether he knew that Nabokov was not just a good writer but an entomologist as well.
“Was he really?” Sergei Sergeevich said. “That’s interesting.” He disappeared to the study and came back with a poem, “On Discovering a Butterfly”, handwritten for him by Nabokov: Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep) . . .
The first time I was invited to the banya, I told Sergei Sergeevich that he was just like my grandfather. He seemed put off by this sentimental remark, and didn’t pay me much attention. What I meant was that he was like my entire family, like all the people I’d listened to from the sidelines growing up. He had the same love and irreverence for life. The same dislike of people who took themselves seriously, and the ability to parody them in a heartbeat.
My family is made up of storytellers—loud and charismatic, each with a different persona, but all in conversation with the others, like bards descending from the same lineage. They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic, with no lack of material at their disposal. This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms—like my great-grandmother’s walnut wardrobe—are nicked from brothel fires.
(Many years ago, my brother called to tell me that he’d just read a novel about our family. It was called One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
For a long time, I thought that the job of a writer was akin to that of an ethnographer. I needed to collect the best stories and write them down, with a few technical twists. Besides, I had so many at my disposal, with wild plots and characters, set in unique landscapes. It would be a shame not to put them to use, to write anything other than the riches I’d been given wholesale. And yet, there was also the nagging suspicion that these stories didn’t belong to me—they were too big, too loud—and that I didn’t belong to that lineage of charismatic storytellers.
One night at the Middlebury tavern, Sergei Sergeevich told me a story from his childhood, about a gypsy girl who’d come to his hometown as part of a circus. Each evening, the story went, the townspeople were invited to tackle a bear for a chance to win a growing pot of money. But night after night, the bear defeated its opponents. One day after school, the gypsy girl told Sergei the trick: you had to tickle the bear’s testicles to make him defenseless. The absurd story was delivered in Sergei Sergeevich’s usual manner: serious and mischievous, brushing off my disbelief.
That evening, he continued, he volunteered to wrestle the bear and defeated it; he took home the money. But the next morning, the gypsy girl came to school with bruises. Or perhaps it was that she didn’t come to school at all, and the circus left town.
I can’t be sure because I’ve written the story both ways. I’ve filled notebooks with the stories told me by Sergei Sergeevich, alongside those of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, always waiting for an opportunity to use them, with their devilish humor and clever twists. At some point, I conceded that I could not make these stories stand alone—I didn’t have the flair of the storytellers to pull it off—but I might still find a place for them in the recollections of characters, as stories within stories. But even so they remained caricaturish and out of place, because I couldn’t take the step to endow them with something of myself.
I once sent a story I’d written to Sergei Sergeevich. It was the closest I ever came to writing in his voice, and I hoped, desperately, that he would like it. He didn’t respond to my message and I never brought it up. I would pull up the story from time to time, and read it as I imagined Sergei Sergeevich might, until I could no longer bear to look at it. The characters spoke in punchlines; what I had initially thought as profound insights were nothing more than vapid sarcasm. At the end of the story, the events wrapped up cleverly in an ostentatious bow, like a gaudy present. I was mortified at the thought of Sergei Sergeevich crumpling his face in distaste as he read on the porch.“For a long time, I thought that the job of a writer was akin to that of an ethnographer. I needed to collect the best stories and write them down, with a few technical twists.”
Some years later, when I was visiting Vermont, he and I sat on the porch of the white house, after everyone had gone to sleep. Sergei Sergeevich asked if I remembered that I’d once sent him a short story.
I told him I did.
“I never read it,” he said. “You were too young, it was bound to be bad.”
He said he was too irritable, and opinionated. And he was too fond of me to allow himself this simple annoyance.
Recently, my father called me from a village in southern Turkey.
“There are people here that you must meet,” he said. “They would provide rich material for a novel.”
He gave me an outline of the characters—two brothers, years apart, with drastically different fates. He painted the landscape in large strokes. He had the whole book planned out; all I needed to do was to write it down. “It will be a story of longing and sacrifice,” he said. “And a truly Mediterranean tale. Isn’t that just the type of book you wanted to write?”
I sometimes feel that the real storytellers of my family can’t quite believe that I—timid and reserved, slow to get jokes, removed in generations and in geography—have decided to write. With benevolence and a sense of duty, they offer me plots like alms, to help me in my meagre attempts at fabrication. Each time, I’m restless to hear what I will be given, and hopeful that this time a story might finally come to save me, to release the burden of searching any deeper.
Some months ago, my husband and I spent a fortnight in northern Italy, where I started writing the first chapters of a novel about a painter. I didn’t know how, and if, the story might unravel. I waited for a transformation, when my writing would cross over to the realm of the real.
We were staying on the property of the landlord, Paola, a soft-spoken teacher with honey-colored eyes. We sat to work every morning on opposite sides of the garden, and Paola tiptoed past us on her way to work, bringing a finger to her lips to mean that she wouldn’t disturb us. In the evenings, when we returned from our walks in the surrounding hills and vineyards, we would find cherries and fresh bread on our doorstep.
One afternoon, Paola told us in a mix of French and Italian that, had it not been for the obstacle of language, she would have loved to tell me the story of the house and her family. It was a very special one, she said; it needed to be written.
Our part of the house was crammed from floor to ceiling with watercolors which, we learned, were painted by Paola’s mother. I told Paola that the novel I’d started, right there in her garden, was also about a painter. I pantomimed writing, and painting. I fluffed my hands in the form of clouds or dreams, and said that her house gave me a lot of inspiration. I was acting out the idea of a writer, of being inspired. Paola beat a fist to her chest and shook her head. “Dommage, dommage,” she said. It was such a shame she could not tell me the story of her family.
On our last day, Paola invited us in to her house and pointed at a dark oil painting at the back wall. It was of a woman, with pitch black eyes. A lace veil flowed down her parted hair, her shoulders.
“My great great great grandmother,” Paola said, fanning one hand behind her shoulder to indicate generations past. “The wife of the painter Veronese.”
“You are Veronese’s granddaughter?” I said, stupefied.
“Yes,” Paola said. It was such a shame, she repeated, that she couldn’t tell me the whole story.
She said that she still had the veil upstairs, and pointed to her bedroom.
When people offer their stories, it’s not only with the belief that a writer must surely be in search of them. It is, also, that a writer can be trusted with one’s story; that she will tell it deservingly, digging deep with empathy.
During university, I spent a semester in Russia where I read more than I’d ever read in my life—all the books I’d brought with me, ones left behind by previous students, those of my friends and of the missionary kids in town. There was Lolita, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, Arabian Nights, and many John Grisham novels. My journal was filled with observations about the town and the old woman I lived with, my notes shifting in style as my readings changed: “Slippers soggy with beetroot peel; Hair the color of rhubarb jam; River frozen black like a book spread open.” The journal was a cabinet of curiosities, filled with colorful descriptions and folkloric details, lists of icons, fairytales, and proverbs.
But it omitted the most essential part of those months—the regular annoyances and the boredom, the hours my friends and I spent watching music clips at the McDonald’s, our culture classes taught by an instructor we called Captain Obvious. None of this belonged in the journal where I chronicled my experiences in a foreign place. Nor did the details of daily life with my old host, who wanted me to sit with her every evening and tell me stories of her past. She talked about her deceased husband and the neighbors who’d lived in the building at one time. To retain my attention, she might throw in an extravagant story as well, one time about an elephant who had told its caretaker that it was very hungry. I began to spend more and more time in my room, buried in reading, to escape the assault of stories.“I was acting out the idea of a writer, of being inspired.”
I finished the very last book I had, To the Lighthouse, during a lonely train journey to Kazan. Afterwards, I sobbed. Not just for the fate Mrs. Ramsey, dead in the span of parentheses, but for myself, in that train compartment I shared with soldiers and an old grandmother at the break of day.
I decided then that I would write a novel for company. I had an image of writing and writing, of spinning tales. I would be transported from that train compartment, I thought, and from the loneliness of being myself. My book would contain everything I had collected until then, all the beautiful and strange things I alone had observed, everything I’d written in my notebook. I wrote several pages before giving up, once I realized that my collection did not amount to anything bigger than its parts. I had come so far; I had nothing to say.
Still, I kept searching for that elusive place where stories resided—stories with an arc and plot, with humanity wrapped in insight and humor, like those of the storytellers I knew. I searched for my own imagination, somewhere out there in the world, waiting to be captured and brought back to me, like Nabokov’s butterfly pinned on a board, its wings spread dead above the red label.