Posts Tagged ‘Erdağ Göknar’

Au revoir, novelist Neil Gordon (1958-2017), who wrote about the purity of conviction, the reality of engagement

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The writer Neil Gordon has died, after a long battle with cancer on May 19 in New York City.

My acquaintance with him was slight, but memorable. We had a conversation over coffee in Paris, when I was a visiting writer at the American University of Paris, during Neil’s term as dean there.

But I knew another side of him. By one of those odd coincidences that are considered far-fetched when we read them in Dickens, Neil turned out to be the brother-in-law of a longstanding friend, the writer Eren Göknar. Neil was married to Eren’s sister, Esin Göknar, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, who had cared for him during his final illness. His brother-in-law, Erdağ Göknara translator of Orhan Pamuk, was a recent fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Neil was born in South Africa in 1958. His family emigrated two years later to escape the apartheid government. “His mother, Sheila Gordon, was also a writer, and his father Harley Gordon was a dedicated physician who cared for the underserved all his life,” Eren told me. “Sheila wrote a delightful book about Neil called Monster in the Mailbox, about his waiting and waiting for the monster he bought through a newspaper ad. Remember the ads for X-ray vision glasses in the back of comic books in the ’60s?”

GordonHe was primarily a historical and political novelist. He published four novels, one set in the history of the Holocaust and the state of Israel; (Sacrifice of Isaac) the second about Israel, America, and the arms trade (The Gunrunner’s Daughter); the third about the radical Left in America during the War in Vietnam (The Company You Keep), which was made into a 2012 film with Robert Redford and Shia LaBoeuf. The fourth about the story of the American Left, from the Spanish Civikl War to Occupy Wall Street (You’re a Big Girl Now).

He worked for many years at The New York Review of Books and was the founding Literary Editor of The Boston Review. He spent three years in Paris serving as dean, vice President, and professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris, where I met him. He returned to the U.S. and taught at the New School.

He wrote: “My courses, whether writing or literature classes, like my novels, focus on the intersection between individuals and the political history that surrounds them; on the representation of lived political and historical experience in fiction; on the mechanics of the sympathetic imagination; as well as on the forms of the literary, political, and cultural essay.”

He has a PhD in French literature from Yale, but he had his academic roots in Michigan, where he took his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and bagged two Hopwood Writing Awards along the way (like Humble Moi), and also met his future wife, Asin.

In 1994, he became the first literary editor of the Boston Review. A couple links to his work there: an essay on John Fante and a moving autobiographical reflection, “The Last Time I Saw Yaakov.”

From Joshua Cohen‘s eloquent tribute, over at the Boston Review:

Neil wrote four very fine novels (Sacrifice of Isaac remains my favorite), all thrillers mixing strong narratives, deeply-researched history, and serious political ambition. Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldy engagement. Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter (as it had distanced his young German friend Yaakov). So you will not be surprised to hear that Neil’s voice always sounded a little anxious.

Until our final phone conversation in February of this year. Neil was dying of cancer: his medical options had run out and while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he knew that he did not have much more time. What I heard this time was not anxiety but calm gratitude, all focused on the people—largely the people in his family—who had helped to enable him to have such a good life. He was free from worries about purity and survival and filled instead with an affirming sense of acceptance and an unambivalent love. Neil told me that he was, finally and deeply, happy.

He will be missed by many, but most of all his wife Esin, his daughter and son Leila and Jake Gordon, both born in New York City, a sister Philippa, a brother David, and nieces Sophie, Eve, Anne, Leyna and Dillon Lightman.

Çapuling in Istanbul: Elif Batuman takes a break from her novel to report (updated with her photo from the park)

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Elif’s photo from the barricades (figuratively speaking).

Events are outpacing our ability to describe them, so I thought I’d better not let more time roll by before I wrote about Elif Batuman‘s account of what’s happening in Istanbul, where the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is battling protesters. The report captures the moment, but that moment is already several days old: writing in the New Yorker, here, she says “over the course of the week, Occupy Gezi transformed from what felt like a festival, with yoga, barbecues, and concerts, into what feels like a war, with barricades, plastic bullets, and gas attacks.”


Anti-tear gas gear in Istanbul: swimming goggles and Guy Fawkes masks.

The scene last Friday:

Thinking the demonstration was winding down, I went back home and tried to work on my novel. The demonstration wasn’t winding down. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were flooding the streets. I texted the photographer Carolyn Drake, a friend and colleague. We covered our mouths with scarves and set out to meet each other. I started walking up Siraselviler, the street that connects Cihangir, where I live, to Taksim Square. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans, some of them quite inventive. …

I got as far as the German Hospital, where the crowd became too dense to penetrate. Carolyn meanwhile was stuck at the northern edge of the park. I never did meet her, though she’s been sending me the pictures she snaps from her cell phone. During the twenty minutes I spent standing in front of the hospital, two ambulances came careening in from Taksim. The crowds climbed up on walls to let the ambulances by, almost drowning out the sirens with their chants: “To your health, Tayyip!” Later, everyone started jumping up and down, chanting “Jump! Jump! Jump or you’re a fascist!” I, too, hopped up and down a little, to signal my disapproval of fascism. I tried to strike up conversation with a demonstrator, a young woman in her twenties with a surgical mask around her neck, but I could see I was interrupting her tweeting. In fact, I realized that almost every person there was either typing on a phone or recording the scene on a tablet.

This is the image that will stay with me: ” At midnight, the street where I live was gas bombed. Demonstrators in gas masks and goggles marched below the windows, cheering ‘Spray! Spray! Let us see you spray!’ Pepper gas poured through the open windows and immediately filled my seventh-floor apartment. Around one, a tremendous racket broke out as people all over the city started beating on cymbals, pots, pans, and metal street signs; I saw one man looking around in vain for a stick, and then cheerfully starting to bang his head against a metal storefront shutter.”

Our reporter in Istanbul, taking a break from her novel.

Novel interrupted: Our reporter in Istanbul

She concludes, “On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing ‘Bella, Ciao’ on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.”

But that was already a few days ago.

I text messaged my Turkish friend, Eren Göknar, for her take on Elif’s article, and an update:  “I’m getting posts from friends of relatives showing people bloodied up by tear gas canisters thrown at them. There was a cell phone shot of Ankara police helmuts with their IDs taped up so they wouldn’t be identified. The violence to peaceful protestors is shocking. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the links with the ‘I am çapuling’ rap, but it’s hysterical. The protesters are playing on Erdogan’s accusation that they are mainly ‘looters’ or Çapuls in Turkish, or fringe elements of society.

“Frankly, I’m relieved to see ordinary Turks standing up to the prime minister, who has gone way too far by injecting his own morality into the mainstream. The alcohol prohibition is minor compared to the jailing of journalists and suppression of free speech, of course.” She reports that her father told her that restaurants get around the alcohol ban by having code words for “Raki” on the menu – “just like during Prohibition times here.”

“But to see young teens arrested for posting Twitter comments really underscores his lack of concern for freedom of speech, to say the least. Hopefully, these protests will put an end to his administration, because he’s not good for Turkey in the long run. He can’t run the country like a Saudi Arabian fiefdom, Turks are too independent. The protesters represent the other half of voters who want a say in urban planning, consideration for the environment, and Turkey’s secular history. I also doubt that he got his votes without buying them in some way. I heard tales of his giving gifts to poor villagers to vote for him. These protesters are saying they’re willing to tolerate others’ religious views, but they want full participation in a true democracy–and separation of government and religion. The Gezi Park bulldozing was even more symbolic because this is where wreaths were often laid at the statue of Ataturk during national holidays – and he said he wanted to build a mosque there. Kind of ironic, considering Ataturk wanted to separate religion from the government. Erdogan’s votes don’t give him an excuse to rule autocratically, it just isn’t going to fly.”

I could use a little Raki myself about now.

ErdagGoknarPostscript: Eren’s bro Erdağ Göknar of Duke University has an article here:  “This is not the outcome Prime Minister Erdoğan expected when he dismissed a handful of protestors in an Istanbul park just days before with his usual swagger. ‘I decided. It will be done,’ he quipped about the construction of a replica Ottoman barracks and mall in Gezi Park. Then, in telling irony, he left the country in chaos for a four-day ‘friendship’ trip to Arab Spring countries.  One of the signs that greeted Erdoğan in Morocco read, ‘We don’t want criminals visiting our country.’ This is a far cry from his reception fresh off the Arab Spring two years ago, when he was welcomed as a hero.”

Postscript on 6/6:  We’ve updated with Elif’s photo from the park, tweeted a few minutes ago.  Could I post it?  I asked.  “Absolutely!” she tweeted back.