Wood Sprites

Wood Sprites

The 21st piece in the Polity of Literature series, written in prison, shows us the power of writing and reading to erode, if not undo, the state’s intentional injustice.

The best libraries are often tiny, as small as a single book. A library’s value is in its use. Every book that a prisoner comes by, or that a refugee carries with her, opens onto other worlds and a realm of agency—a single book can unlock an entire subjectivity, the reader’s. But can books ever give back society to an isolated person? Absent the collective group that shares or maintains a library, can the imprisoned or isolated reader find the plurality necessary for politics inside of a book? Ahmet Altan finds something crucial, and he calls them “Wood Sprites.” In this Christmas Day, 2020, instalment of the Polity of Literature we return to the book, I Will Never See the World Again, and Ahmet Altan’s delightful account of reading, “Wood Sprites.”

Ahmet Altan is still in Silivri Prison, near Istanbul, Turkey (see PoL #2, “Ahmet Altan: the Writers Paradox”). Other writers and media workers—the poet Ilhan Sami Çomak, journalist Hatice Duman, publisher Erdal Süsem, editor İshak Karakaş, and scores more—are also imprisoned in Turkey, often without due process. Expression Interrupted puts the number at 87. Worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 274 journalists imprisoned—for doing their work. In “Wood Sprites,” Altan shows us the power of writing and reading to erode, if not undo, the state’s intentional injustice.

In the struggle to stay in politics—or, having been expelled from politics, to return—what crucial resources are sequestered inside the pages of a book? “Wood Sprites” was translated into English by Yasemin Çongar and is published in the book, I Will Never See the World Again.


For months, I didn’t see a single book, I didn’t touch one.

It was forbidden to have books delivered from “outside.” The prison had a library, but for whatever reason it was closed.

I grew up in a house full of books. My childhood was spent among them. Books were the wood sprites in a forest the essence of which I couldn’t quite grasp, one that looked quite complex and boring to me. I liked the fairies’ bright charm, their air of mystery, their promising smiles more than the forest itself.

The first time I went missing I was five years old. After searching for hours, my parents found me in a bookstore that had recently opened in our neighborhood. I was sitting on the floor between two bookcases with a pile of books in front of me.

The small runes on the paper came alive and gleamed as soon as you laid eyes on them; they metamorphosed from one shape to another, transforming themselves into unknown cities, narrow streets, steep rocks, deserts and palaces. They sprinkled you with drops of magic water and you too were transformed.

You became Peter Pan, you became Le Chevalier de Pardaillan, you became Arsène Lupin, you became Sherlock Holmes, you became Ivanhoe, you became Lancelot.

I spent the years of my childhood playing with the wood sprites. I got used to having them always around me as they slept in between pages, ready to wake and start dancing as soon as I opened a book. I loved watching them even in their sleep.

One of the things I found most difficult in prison was to live in a place where there were no books.

Finally, they gave us a list of the books in the library. The list resembled a junkyard with a few jewels strewn here and there. There were many useless books but there were also books you’d never have guessed you would find in a prison.

Everything is done by petition in prison, so I immediately wrote asking to be given the books I wanted.

I didn’t hear back for a long time.

Just as I was about to give up hope, the hatch in the middle of the door opened one morning and a book fell through.

I took the book from the floor with the ecstasy of a mariner shouting, “Land ahoy!” after sailing the open seas for many months without hope.

I was reunited with the wood sprites, they who gave me such immense joy, boundless confidence and an excitement that sent shivers through my body.

It was as if life had suddenly changed; a crack from the inner depths set a continent adrift.

I wasn’t helpless, I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t lost.

I had a book in my hands.

They had given me Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.

Tolstoy, that conflicted Zeus of literature, had come to our cell.

In the most unexpected of places, I had happened on a book by a genius, one who can describe an infantry sergeant as elegantly as he would a princess; one who, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “reveals the most carefully hidden secrets of human nature” and is “able to read the minds of different people as certainly as we count the buttons on their coats.”*

It made me especially happy that the first guest in my cell was Tolstoy because this man, whom Woolf held up as an example to all writers, had been my guide to deciphering the secrets not only of people but of literature itself. Ever since I first read Tolstoy, I have sounded the depths of every statement regarding literature and writers by holding it against his image. Many a phrase and many a claim have lost their luster and dimmed in his shadow.

Tolstoy’s shadow was as great as his light, a shadow cast on eras beyond his own.

Tolstoy could capture and hold life in the palm of his hand as easily as a farmboy catches a ladybird. His majestic shadow falls on twentieth-century literature.

All the great writers of the nineteenth century intimidated the writers of the twentieth, but I think the most intimidating was Tolstoy.

Like travelers seeking an alternative route around a mountain range they believe too steep to climb, writers of the twentieth century looked for other paths so they would not be compared with Tolstoy. Very few writers dare hold life in their palms in order to reshape it.

While nineteenth-century literature told us about people’s emotions in staggering depth and revealed the most carefully hidden secrets of human nature, the literature of the twentieth century veered toward ideas.

It veered toward ideas because writing about ideas is always easier than recounting emotions and reading people’s minds.

Ideas in a novel contain grave dangers, because ideas represent the author in the novel. The more ideas there are, the more present is the author. The more present the author, the more constricted the space for characters. They cannot develop and, more importantly, they cannot gain depth.

When you look at the great classics of the nineteenth century, you see that characters come before the writer. Le Père Goriot comes before Balzac, Anna Karenina supersedes Tolstoy, Madame Bovary supersedes Flaubert, the brothers Karamazov supersede Dostoyevsky. The opposite is true in the twentieth century, where writers come before their characters.

If you look at The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, one of the most extraordinary writers in the history of literature and one who attached such importance to ideas that he said he wanted to write an autobiography of ideas, you will see that Musil takes precedence over Ulrich. The book is not Ulrich’s book, it is Musil’s book.

Similarly, Céline comes before Bardamu, Joyce before Bloom.

The major difference between the novels of these two centuries lies, I think, in the importance of the ideas and the writer within the novel.

I like to read novels in which characters’ emotions and relationships have the upper hand.

In novels, I prefer the complexity of emotions to the clarity of ideas; my beloved wood sprites become vivid with emotions, but pale when ideas dominate the text.

I believe ideas should not give birth to the novel, but that the novel should give birth to ideas.

Of course, literature is not a prescription of exact formulas, and those who assert the very opposite of what I am saying here and now, and with much more authority, may prefer another color of literature’s rainbow.

At the end of the day, we all write what we can, and then develop notions of why novels have to be written the way we write them.

Tolstoy wrote about people’s emotions because he could read people’s minds and write about how they felt.

He managed this with a miraculous sense of intuition.

I don’t know how anything but “intuition” could explain how this man who knew nothing of female sexuality was able to write Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy believed women didn’t enjoy lovemaking. Doris Lessing thought this critical delusion could be explained by the manner in which Tolstoy made love to his wife: he attacked her like a lustful bear, and when she turned him down he thought all women disliked having sex.

Yet this lustful bear created some of the most unforgettable female characters in literature.

I doubt there’s another example that can better prove that genius in literature is a result of intuition rather than ideas and knowledge.

I know that contemporary Western literature hugely underrates intuition, even to the point of treating it as “kitsch.” But when I look at Balzac, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky I cannot help but think that if they had written their novels using only their ideas and not their intuition no one would remember them today.

Taking my argument to extremes – using the infinite liberty of a man in a prison cell with no one else to debate or discuss with, no one on whom to try out his ideas – I will even go so far as to say this:

A novelist is helped not only by his intuition, but also by a certain amount of ignorance when he is giving depth to his novel.

It is perfectly possible that I am arguing this in an attempt to have my own ignorance tolerated; nonetheless, I haven’t given up my belief in the importance of ignorance to literature.

A novelist keeps the knowledge he truly needs deep down in his mind, in a secret repository not far from where his intuition resides – a repository so well hidden that even the novelist himself doesn’t know what has been accumulating there.

In order to access this hidden intuition when writing, the novelist cracks his own mind as if breaking the hard shell of an exotic fruit with the sweep of a heavy broadsword to reach the nectar at its core. He must dismantle his own being in order to reach the bedrock and attain the secret knowledge that will astonish even himself.

Once he strikes this blow against himself, the more the broadsword chafes against the ideas and information accumulated on the surface, the more difficult it will be to reach the nectar.

Surface knowledge is not much use to the novelist. He needs the truths that have seeped through life to the very bottom. With the knowledge that astonishes even himself, he writes his novel.

Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” for a reason. He came across Emma Bovary’s emotions not on the surface but in that deep-down repository. There was the knowledge he had accumulated unwittingly.

There is something animal-like in writing a novel, something that relies purely on instinct and intuition. It is indeed why that “ignorant and lustful bear” could write Anna Karenina; he could arrive at such precision only by way of a primal beastliness.

The first book that I managed to get my hands on after months without drove me crazy. I pressed the book against my chest and paced up and down the courtyard, sensing the ideas rushing into my mind and colliding with one another.

I savored the joy of possessing a book.

Only after I had calmed down a bit did I come in, sit on a plastic chair and begin to read.

The young Olenin, bored with the superficiality of Moscow, he who is so full of admiration for the natural ways of the Cossacks; the beautiful Maryanka who sits on her bed and watches with indifference as life goes by; the selfish Daddy Eroshka; the peasants who take pride in stealing; Tatars and Cossacks killing each other just for fun; jugs full of wine drunk with a cup of honey, the gardens separated by wooden fences, the scents of herbs and flowers, the neighing horses, the crowing roosters, romances, battles, the sounds of gunshot…

Truth be told, this is one of the weakest of Tolstoy’s books. The young Tolstoy was so eager to tell his readers about the different culture and the different nature he had encountered that he wrote the novel from the pieces of knowledge that sit on the surface, and in this loosely woven book the writer takes precedence over his protagonist.

The book had become not Olenin’s but Tolstoy’s book.

The novel was the victim of an excess of knowledge.

Like Pushkin in The Captain’s Daughter, Tolstoy had fallen into the trap of facts and pushed his plot and characters to the background in order to relate more of what he had seen.

Young Tolstoy’s ideas and knowledge had shaped the novel, not his intuitions.

I saw all that, but frankly I didn’t care.

I surrendered myself to the alluring mystery of the wood sprites who took me to riversides and village gardens, to battlegrounds and innocent love affairs, all the while dancing on the gleaming sentences and vivid descriptions scattered here and there in the text that foretold Tolstoy’s brilliant future.

I was reunited with books and with my sprites.

The forest had once again become a place of joy.


* Translator’s note: This quote is taken from the Times Literary Supplement.”

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish novelist and journalist imprisoned for allegedly sending "subliminal messages" while on a television talk show, an action the state describes as "knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organization.

Illustrated by

Ken Krimstein is an illustrator who published the graphic novel/biography of Hannah Arendt, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt — A Tyranny of Truth (Bloomsbury 2018).
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