In this novel, art is the key to the conscience of others

WHITE ON WHITE By Aysegul Savas How well can we know the minds of others? In Aysegul Savas’ novel “White on White”, the narrator, an a...

By Aysegul Savas

How well can we know the minds of others? In Aysegul Savas’ novel “White on White”, the narrator, an anonymous graduate student, travels to a European city to study the cathedrals of neighboring towns and probe the medieval imagination. The narrator researches representations of Gothic nudes, an unusual subject, we are told; the figures who decorate the cathedrals and illuminate the manuscripts are generally dressed, their clothes rich in symbolism. But the lack of existing study is a draw. “I wanted to do research on an ambiguous subject”, says the narrator, “whose greatest challenge would be that of consciousness: to see the naked human form as the medieval did”.

Through this academic interest, Savas sets up the key theme of the novel: the knotty affair of imaginative sympathy, to discover how other perspectives could intersect – and come to influence – our own. “There was no clear course of study to enter the consciousness of others, historical or not,” recalls the narrator. “It was as difficult a task as unraveling your own mind, disentangling every layer of thought with all of its prejudices and assumptions. “

The narrator lodges in an apartment belonging to Pascal, professor of medieval studies, and Agnès, painter, who live in a town a few hours away. Contrary to the ambiguity of the narrator, whose appearance and gender are not mentioned in the text, Agnes is clearly defined: “tall and pleasantly thin”, “dressed in a crisp white shirt, opening onto an elegant frill on one side its waist. Her tenant is first in love with the charming, creative and assembled woman she seems to be, and soon the two live together. Instead of joining her husband at their usual home, Agnès decides to stay in the apartment, where she also runs a painting workshop. There, she frequently engages the narrator in exchanges on art that turn into increasingly one-sided monologues detailing the personal story of Agnes.

Savas’s novel – his second, after “Walk to the ceiling”- suggests that art reflects the spirit, that even without our knowing it, changes in the way we express ourselves reflect the condition of our souls. Agnes rejects an early series, representations of masks rendered rigidly with “formal restraint,” as an attempt to be pictorial before trusting her own taste, but finds the drawings from her college days to be “honest and alive, entirely different from his controlled paintings. “The titular white on white paint comes halfway through the novel, revealing the artist on the edge of a precipice: shapes sculpted by tiny differences in color and texture, a faint image with an aura of incompleteness, appearing in “free fall.” Art is everywhere in this book. The name Agnes brings to mind the filmmaker Varda or the painter Martin, her work reminiscent of the white paintings of Rauschenberg or Ryman. But no artist is named, and Savas s ‘refrain from making overt references.

In fact, the entire world of “White on White” is selectively described. What exists exists in crisp, clean prose. Like the narrator, the city is deliberately anonymous – it may be Paris, it may not. The geographic ambiguity shifts the narrative out of place and, similarly, scenes that might have a physical presence – like when Agnes speaks to the narrator while stretching out a canvas with a stapler – feel oddly bodiless, stripped down. But this intangibility only directs us to the real site of the novel: the deeply psychological conversations with Agnès. Savas puts all the other characters’ speech in quotes, but the narrator’s dialogue remains unquoted. During this time, the line between Agnes’ monologues, as reported by the narrator, and the narrator’s speech and thoughts become thinner and thinner.

Over time, the narrator is drawn into Agnes’ mental world, in all its turmoil, but, with a strange poise, resists providing the compassion and comfort Agnes seems so desperately seeking. The results of this thwarted intimacy inexorably bring the story to a finale that, for a book so invested in visual art, looks more surprisingly like an act of literary vengeance.

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In this novel, art is the key to the conscience of others
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