Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony

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Shortly after his return to Russia from the first international tour Tchaikovsky set to work on his Fifth Symphony, in E minor. It was written in about two months, during the summer of 1888. For some time the composer had been brooding over the possibility that his inspiration had dried up and that it was time for him to quit. He worked hard on his symphony to prove to himself that his own fears were groundless. The first performance of the work left him more despondent than ever. When he conducted it in St. Petersburg later that year, and in Prague, it fell flat. ‘It is a failure,’ he wrote to his confidante. ‘There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated idea of colour, some insincerity or fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes.’ He went on to say that his Fourth Symphony was a far better work.

It is interesting to note after many years how much of the composer’s estimate of the Fifth Symphony fell wide of the mark and how much was damningly true. The work certainly was not a failure. It became one of the most popular symphonies ever written, one of the established showpieces of every orchestra’s repertoire, and a bulwark of Tchaikovsky’s hold on the affections of the music public. It has been played until every shred of novelty is worn away, the seams show, and the dramatic surprises are gone. Every critic knows how right the composer was when he spoke of over-exaggeration, insincerity, fabrication—even the ‘something repellent’. Nevertheless the Fifth Symphony is beloved wherever orchestras foregather the world over.

The work is another laboratory specimen of the composer’s mature style–which means a mixture of his virtues and faults in unexplainable juxtaposition. It has lyric richness almost to excess; it has brilliance, variety of mood, tremendous passion. It has also the composer’s characteristic melancholia, his mood of desperate sadness. There is an orchestration of clarity, colour, and resounding power; and finally, like pieces of glass set in a diadem, there are some classic examples of bad taste.

The symphony makes a good beginning, as Tchaikovsky so often does in his first movements. This one may be a patchwork of themes instead of a logical piece of sonata construction, but has melodic interest, well sustained. The motto theme with which the work begins is radically different from the Fatum of the Fourth Symphony, being not a brassy fanfare but a soft, gloomily intoned melody for the clarinet. It runs through the entire symphony in various guises, becoming in the last movement the main declamation point of the entire work. Its use is so strongly stressed as to suggest some concrete idea behind the composer’s inspiration. Tchaikovsky never admitted the existence of such a programme, as he did in the case of the Fourth Symphony, but many commentators have supplied their own. It seems doubtful if one really existed. This phase of Tchai­kovsky’s music is apt to be confusing. He was obviously impressed with the tone-poem, programme-symphony idea, which permeated the music of the romantic era. It ruled so much of his thinking that even his most abstract works often sound as if they had a programmatic basis. His melodies, helped by his dramatic type of construction, often seem to be telling some story; it is one of their strongest characteristics. But most of the time the composer was simply imitating the tone-poem style, not actually carrying it out.

The second movement of the Fifth Symphony presents another celebrated Tchaikovsky melody. It is given at first to the solo horn and is later entwined with an obbligato by the oboe. The movement is remindful of a Chopin nocturne, extended and intensified with all the swelling passions and colours of the great orchestra. It misses being one of the supreme nocturnes, for its chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.

The third movement is marked Waltz, and for this the composer has been doubly damned. The purists have said that a waltz has no place whatever in a symphony, and anyway this is not a real waltz at all. They may be right on both counts, but not many listeners would sacrifice this particular movement. It is unpreten­tious, melodious, and charming; and it serves to relieve the emo­tional tension of the surrounding movements.

It is hard to forgive Tchaikovsky for the last movement of the Fifth Symphony [italics added]. His purpose was to end his symphony with a resounding, triumphal finale; his method in part was to take the gloomy motto theme, turn it from minor to major, and proclaim it to the skies. It so happens that this is one of the hardest tests to which a composer may subject a theme–to have it sung fortissimo by the brass. Better themes than Tchaikovsky’s have failed under this ordeal. Here the result is lamentable. The tune takes on neither dignity nor beauty only the banal trumpery of an operatic march by Meyerbeer [italics added].

 

— Richard Anthony Leonard, The Stream of Music

 

 

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“[The second movement’s] chief blemish is two convulsive interruptions by the motto theme that are noisy and tasteless. Chopin made use of such breaks in the mood of his later nocturnes, but he did it with a distinction of craftsmanship and idea which was denied Tchaikovsky.”

I DISAGREE.

 

 

 

the fourth movement

 

 

 

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It is hard to forgive Richard Anthony Leonard for such atrocious criticism.

The taste of the public, it has often been said, has always been, and will always be, abysmally low. But, a literary critic should be careful when savaging such universally beloved and esteemed works as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Misérables, or Great Expectations; or a pompous music critic the works of one of the greatest composers.

 

 

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On November 8 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the West-East Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64. The symphony is comprised of four movements: Andante–Allegro con anima, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, Valse: Allegro moderato, Finale: Andante maestroso–Allegro vivace.

I believe Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was the first symphony I got to know in its entirety. It was the first symphony I ever purchased, on an LP when I was a teenager.

The above quote is from a popular book by the British music historian and critic Richard Anthony Leonard that is now out of print. It was used in a course, Introduction to Music, which I took at Brandeis University in my sophomore year.

I was dismayed and almost felt wronged when I read Leonard’s comments on the Fifth, in my college survey text (Leonard’s book). I thought for a moment: Could I be wrong about Tchaikovsky? Could it be that I was snowed, fooled by Tchaikovsky’s “schlocky” music? No, I thought, I don’t, can’t agree.

 

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On October 27 at Carnegie Hall, I saw a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, opus 70. It was a work hitherto unknown to me.

The program notes contained the following comment:

Dvořák’s Seventh is generally ranked as the greatest of the composer’s nine symphonies. This assessment is voiced in spite of the work not being as ingratiating as the Eighth Symphony or as dramatic as the ever-popular Ninth, “From the New World.” Sir Donald Francis Tovey set the Seventh alongside the C-Major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art form since Beethoven.”

I am not prepared to say this about Dvořák’s Seventh. But, the comment got me to thinking: what are the greatest symphonies of all time?

Well, Tovey identifies most of them: Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms.

What about Mozart?

My personal ranking:

All nine Beethoven symphonies. You can’t really choose among them.

Mozart’s last three symphonies and his Symphony No. 36 (“Linz”). The “Linz’ and Mozart’s’ Symphony No. 40 are personal favorites of mine.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C-Major. Incidentally, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is haunting, but it odes not, in my opinion, rank with the others listed above by me and is not the equal of Schubert’s Ninth.

Brahms’s first and fourth symphonies. These are his two greatest, I feel. The First is a personal favorite of mine, but the Fourth is equally great.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. I am convinced that it ranks with the others, and is the only modern symphony about which I am prepared to say this.

In all of the above works, what I find is brilliance of conception, structure, and musical architecture and unwavering emotional power. So that each work feels like an organic whole and never flags.

Well, almost never. The third movement — Valse: Allegro moderato — of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is comprised of a beautiful waltz worthy of Tchaikovsky, and yet I find my interest and sense of inevitability in the music flagging a bit at that point.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   November 2018

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agitato

 

 
On October 25, 2018, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and soloists and choir of Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” and Mozart’s Requiem.

The “Nelson Mass.” Stupendous. To hear it live is a revelation. Here is the “Kyrie” (the opening section).

 

 

I was struck by something when listening to the “Lacrimosa” section of Mozart’s Requiem. The doleful stress of the strings, which beautifully convey tears: the concept of weeping.

 

 

It remined me of something: Vivaldi’s magnificent Stabat Mater. The strings in the “Eja mater” section.

 

 

I looked up some musical terms used for performance directions. The strings are playing agitato: agitated or restless. Agitato is a direction to play in an agitated manner.

Was Mozart somehow influenced by Vivaldi? No. Just a coincidence.

Did he know Vivaldi or his music? Doesn’t seem that likely.

Mozart did know Bach personally and admired his music. Bach, as is well known, was an admirer of Vivaldi.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2018

 

 

 

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‘the wide effulgence of a summer noon”; the beauty of great writing

 

 

I suffered a near loss of vision. It was terrifying, but treatment seems to have restored my sight to its former state, or near to it.

I temporarily lost the ability to read. To celebrate my recovery, I have begun reading Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets, a work I have been intending to read.

I think reading gives me the greatest pleasure of all. Here is Johnson on the metaphysical poets:

Their attempts were always analytick; they broke every image into fragments and could no more represent by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature or the scenes of life than he, who dissects a sun-beam with a prism, can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.” — “Cowley”

Like a biologist or physician examining a tissue under a microscope, I can detect great writing (and tell good from mediocre or bad); can recognize, appreciate, and delight in power and subtlety of exposition, when happily seen, from a sentence or two.

Reading gives me the greatest pleasure imaginable. The above sentence shows why Samuel Johnson is so admired and why he has few rivals as a writer of expository prose.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  November 4, 2018

 

 

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to autumn

 

 

 

 

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Madison Square Park, New York City; November 2016 (photograph by Roger W. Smith)

 

 

 

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Poughkeepsie, NY; October 2018 (photograph by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

Pushkin’s favorite month was October.

Spring starts out wet and raw and often wintry at the outset. Fall starts out just plain nice and within a couple of weeks or so has become just plain gorgeous.

By the end of the season, fall has become indistinguishable from winter. But, in the first month or so, fall features clear, sunny days without oppressive heat, which in summer can be unbearable.

By the end of spring, summer is already here and one experiences days that suffuse the senses of old and young with sheer delight. Ask Shakespeare, who wrote of “springtime, the only pretty ring time, / Sweet lovers love the spring.” (As You Like It).

Ask Edvard Grieg or Carl Nielsen.

Autumn has its proponents too.

 

 

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Let Autumn spread his treasures to the sun.
Luxuriant and unbounded …

From heaven’s high cope the fierce effulgence shook
Of parting Summer, a serener blue,
With golden light enliven’d, wide invests
The happy world. Attemper’d suns arise,
Sweet-beam’d, and shedding oft thro’ lucid clouds
A pleasing calm; while broad, and brown, below
Extensive harvests hang the heavy head. …

The sultry south collects a potent blast.
At first the groves are scarcely seen to stir
Their trembling tops; and a still murmur runs
Along the soft-inclining fields of corn.
But as the aerial tempest fuller swells,
And in one mighty stream, invisible.
Immense! the whole excited atmosphere
Impetuous rushes o’er the sounding world;
Strain’d to the root, the stopping forest pours
A rustling shower of yet untimely leaves. …

 

– James Thomson, The Seasons (1726-1730)

 

 

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

 

John Keats, ‘To Autumn” (1820)

 

 

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Октябрь уж наступил — уж роща отряхает

Последние листы с нагих своих ветвей;

Дохнул осенний хлад — дорога промерзает.

Журча еще бежит за мельницу ручей,

Но пруд уже застыл; сосед мой поспешает

В отъезжие поля с охотою своей,

И страждут озими от бешеной забавы,

И будит лай собак уснувшие дубравы.

 

 

Теперь моя пора: я не люблю весны;

Скучна мне оттепель; вонь, грязь — весной я болен;

Кровь бродит; чувства, ум тоскою стеснены.

Суровою зимой я более доволен,

Люблю ее снега; в присутствии луны

Как легкий бег саней с подругой быстр и волен,

Когда под соболем, согрета и свежа,

Она вам руку жмет, пылая и дрожа!

 

 

Ох, лето красное! любил бы я тебя,

Когда б не зной, да пыль, да комары, да мухи.

Ты, все душевные способности губя,

Нас мучишь; как поля, мы страждем от засухи;

Лишь как бы напоить, да освежить себя —

Иной в нас мысли нет, и жаль зимы старухи,

И, проводив ее блинами и вином,

Поминки ей творим мороженым и льдом.

 

— Александр Пушкин, Осень (1833-1841)

 

 

 

October has arrived – the woods have tossed

Their final leaves from naked branches;

A breath of autumn chill – the road begins to freeze,

The stream still murmurs as it passes by the mill,

The pond, however’s frozen; and my neighbor hastens

to his far-flung fields with all the members of his hunt.

The winter wheat will suffer from this wild fun,

And baying hounds awake the slumbering groves.

 

This is my time: I am not fond of spring;

The tiresome thaw, the stench, the mud – spring sickens me.

The blood ferments, and yearning binds the heart and mind..

With cruel winter I am better satisfied,

I love the snows; when in the moonlight

A sleigh ride swift and carefree with a friend.

Who, warm and rosy ‘neath a sable mantle,

Burns, trembles as she clasps your hand. …

 

O, summer fair! I would have loved you, too,

Except for heat and dust and gnats and flies.

You kill off all our mental power,

Torment us; and like fields, we suffer from the drought;

To take a drink, refresh ourselves somehow –

We think of nothing else, and long for lady Winter,

And, having bid farewell to her with pancakes and with wine,

We hold a wake to honor her with ice-cream and with ice.

The latter days of fall are often cursed,

But as for me, kind reader, she is precious

In all her quiet beauty, mellow glow.

 

 

— Alexander Pushkin, “Autumn” (1833-1841)

 

 

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“Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there. … October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world.”

— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” (1862)

 

 

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And, Roger W. Smith.

And, yes, the foliage is unmatched in the Northeast. I grew up in Massachusetts like Thoreau, and I never can or will forget the September and October days of my childhood.

 

 

— Posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

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Mozart, 3 German Dances; Handel, Water Music Suite (arranged by Sir Hamilton Harty)

 

 

 

 

 
They are posted here on a scratchy LP from the 1960’s that a friend digitalized for me.

Conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

 

 
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My older brother gave me this LP as a Christmas present when I was in college.

I played it so often I wore it out. I purchased another album as a replacement.

My brother said, “guess it proves you really liked the gift.”

These performances by Herbert von Karajan are utterly charming. I was just getting into classical music then.

What a way to begin.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

 

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Gavin Bryars, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

 

 

A well known early work of the contemporary English composer Gavin Bryars is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971). I feel compelled to post it here because it is a unique and stirring example of religious music, one exhibiting deep and sincere religious feeling. The piece can be accessed on YouTube at

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is based on a recorded loop of a vagrant singing a musical fragment that the vagrant, an old man, had improvised and which Bryars heard by serendipity. It is based on a 26-second recording of the homeless man singing outside Waterloo station in London. The improvised hymn, which Bryars composed musical accompaniment for, consists of the vagrant singing the words:

Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know for he loves me so.

On top of that loop, rich harmonies played by a live ensemble are built, always increasing in density, before the piece gradually fades out.

The piece is divided into five sections, within which we hear the recurring refrain. It begins with the tramp singing without instrumental accompaniment — his voice faint and almost inaudible. As it progresses, the musical accompaniment is varied from section to section: string quartet, low strings, no strings, full strings, full orchestra.

Astonishingly — given that it is based on a 26 second recording of an improvised hymn — the whole piece is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes long.

 
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According to the composer, Gavin Bryars:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song — sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads — and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” [which Bryars recorded].

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song — 13 bars in length — formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. … I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the homeless man’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

http://www.webcitation.org/699Wuhif4

 
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Columnist Stephen H. Webb called the piece “[t]he most Christological piece of music I have ever heard” and describes the work as follows:

At first we hear only the tramp’s voice, but then the strings gently begin; as if to say that no voice, no matter how rough and untutored, is without support. As the music slowly progresses, the string quartet follows the tramp’s lead but keeps a respectful distance, ready to provide full instrumental support while honoring his vocal freedom.

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/04/jesus-blood-never-failed-me-yet

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

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Çalikuşu (The Autobiography of a Turkish Girl) now available in a complete, new English translation

 

 

The book is available on Amazon:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calikusu cover

 

 

 

 

Çalikuşu (The Wren)

by Reşat Nuri Güntekin

The Complete English Translation

Parts 1-4 Translated from The Turkish by Sir Wyndham Deedes

Part 5 Translated from The Turkish by Tugrul Zure and Edited by Angel Garcia

 

 

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Çalikuşu (The Wren, 1922) is a novel by the Turkish author Reşat Nuri Güntekin (1889-1956). The novel was published in English translation in 1949 under the title of The Autobiography of a Turkish Girl. The English translation, by Sir Wyndham Deedes, was incomplete.

Deedes did not translate the entire novel. The Deedes translation has long been out of print and is almost impossible to acquire.

Now a new, complete translation has been published.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2018

 

 

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PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION

by Angel Garcia

 
This book is the result of an unexpected journey down a rabbit hole.

My mother loves foreign dramas. She fell in love with Feride and Kamran, the main characters of a Turkish drama that is available on Netflix. The drama is based on a Turkish book and she pleaded with me to find an English translation (if you know Filipino mothers, you will know the power of their soulful dark eyes and singsong voices). I figured the task would be an easy one, and the perfect Christmas present.

On Netflix, the drama is called Lovebird in English and Çalikuşu in Turkish. A bit of digging online revealed that Çalikuşu actually means “wren” and that the book is a Turkish classic written by Reşat Nuri Güntekin in 1922. An English translation by Sir Wyndham Deedes was written in 1949 but I could not find any available hardcopies. More digging, however, led me to an online file of the English translation, on which I spent many post-workday evenings manually typing it up and formatting it into a manuscript. Mission accomplished! I printed an actual physical book for my overjoyed mother that Christmas.

But I wasn’t fully content. My investigation also revealed that the English translation was incomplete. Fortunately, my engineering colleague and good Turkish friend, Tugrul Zure, was willing to check. I purchased the original Turkish version for him to compare with my manuscript and it was confirmed: the English version of Part 5 had left out many, many pages. Having now watched all the episodes on Netflix and also having read Deedes’ translation, I was intrigued and emotionally invested in Feride’s 192o’s Turkish life. The Netflix version of the story has deviations from the Turkish classic novel and ends much earlier than the classic novel, omitting Feride’s teaching adventures. How did Çalikuşu really end? If I could somehow procure a complete Part 5, would I even be allowed to put it together with Deedes’ Parts 1 to 4?

Luck was on my side. I began a search for the rights holder to Deedes’ work. Sir Wyndham Deedes passed away in 1956 without a wife or children. I instead found his grandnephew, Jeremy Wyndham Deedes, who was kind enough to allow me to use his great uncle’s work in assembling a complete English translation of Çalikuşu. To top it all off, my friend Tugrul was willing to help me translate the complete Part 5. Despite having moved away and preparing to have a baby with his wife on the other side of Canada, be continued to help me remotely.

So, a gigantic thank you Tugrul Zure and also to Jeremy Wyndham Deedes, who has graciously given his permission on behalf of the Deedes’ family. I can only hope that Reşat Nuri Güntekin and Sir Wyndham Deedes would approve.

Mom, enjoy! That goes for you too, Netflix Lovebird fans.

 

 

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The first page of Part Five, which has hitherto not been translated into English.

 

 

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See also my post:
“A Turkish Novel”
https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/01/03/a-turkish-novel-2/

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