Literature Lover Looks Beyond the Ivory Tower
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:24
Photo courtesy of Rob Mattson

Midway through my interview with Melih Levi, he stopped the conversation to read me a quotation by Elizabeth Bruss. Levi recently received the English department’s prestigious Bruss Prize, an award established in memory of a beloved Amherst English professor. Since receiving the prize, Levi has delved hungrily into Bruss’ writings, and he can’t help but share.

“She’s endlessly fascinating,” Levi said of Bruss. “She wrote this book called ‘Beautiful Theories’ which I think you would really like.”

Melih Levi is the best sort of person to ask for a book recommendation. The consummate English major, he is always updating his Facebook status with quotations from famous poets or telling you about the authors he thinks you would like. For him, literature is an intensely communal experience.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that when I asked him to meet me at one of his favorite places on campus, he chose Johnson Chapel. It was a swelteringly hot day near the end of reading period, and Levi was finishing up the last paper of his college career. Although the heat and the stress of finals had proved almost incapacitating to the rest of us mortals, Levi seemed perfectly at ease as he sat cross-legged in the grass outside JChap, looking like he’d come straight out of a college admissions brochure.

He said he likes the building especially because of its connection to Amherst’s rich literary history.

“It just feels like I can imagine other people’s experiences at Amherst,” he said. “After I read Wordsworth, I can look back at the building and think about all those other people in the past who might have felt excited about reading Wordsworth. I think it has just become a site of imagination and reflection and a site for connecting with past generations of Amherst English students.”

As his days at Amherst draw to a close, it’s clear that Levi still relishes his ties to the college’s community of poets, writers and scholars. He told me that since coming to study at Amherst, he’s discovered that many of his favorite writers have connections to the Amherst area — among them James Merrill, James Baldwin, Agha Shahid Ali and, of course, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

The Beauty of Poetry

Levi didn’t always know he wanted to be an English major, though. When he arrived at Amherst from his hometown of Istanbul, Turkey, he was convinced that he would be studying neuroscience.

“When I was back home in Turkey, I always wanted to study Turkish Ottoman literature,” he said. “I am totally in love with Ottoman poetry. But it’s sometimes hard to get people to respect the humanities back home.”

Levi rekindled his love of literature after taking a first-year seminar called Big Books with former English professor Andrew Parker.

“That freshman seminar changed everything for me,” he said. “It made me realize that I really need to stick to literature. I think neuroscience was more of a cop-out.”

I first met Levi in an English classroom, in a course on Victorian novels. It was the spring of his junior year, and he’d just returned from a semester abroad studying Victorian literature at Oxford. Despite this prestigious opportunity, he found that he preferred Amherst’s English department to Oxford’s. Levi is a meticulous close reader, and he disliked the Oxford tutorials that asked him to read two or three hefty novels per week.

“I want to spend time with the novels, to see what the political stakes of reading are,” he said. “I want to disturb the novels. I want the novels to disturb me. We don’t have enough time to do that at Oxford.”

In the classroom, Levi is a precise and brilliant thinker, one who bubbles over with enthusiasm for the writers he’s discussing. His words tumble out in breathless paragraphs; it seems like his mouth can hardly keep up with his very sophisticated mind.

And his attention to the text is so close that it’s almost intimidating. Levi’s first-year roommate, Eric Grein ’15, said that even at the beginning of his college career, it was not unusual for Levi to spend several hours on a 20-page reading, annotating with three different pens.

One of the joys of taking a class with Levi is that he manages to simultaneously play the roles of both student and teacher — a keen listener who is extraordinarily generous with his knowledge.

This semester I got to see a different side of Levi in the classroom, when he was the teaching assistant for my Reading the Novel class, taught by Professor Judith Frank.

“Students loved him,” Frank said. “They said that he was not only great at helping them with their papers, but that he was incredibly kind as well. He became a sort of partner to me in teaching the class.”

Given his passion for discussing literary theory and his somewhat professorial demeanor, you might think that Levi is destined for a career in academia. But the striking thing about Levi is that his love of literature cannot be contained within the classroom.

“One of the biggest concerns I have when I am studying literature at Amherst College is that we become too theoretical, or we become too caught up in our thinking about literature, and we forget the importance of literature in daily conversations,” he said.

When I asked him to name some of his greatest accomplishments at Amherst, he told me about the success he’s had getting his friends excited about poetry.

“Making my roommate Eric Grein fall in love with Wallace Stevens — that’s, I think, a big accomplishment,” he said.

Levi’s friend Ryan Willey, a network and telecommunications technician at Amherst, said that Levi introduced him to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The two met at a college event in 2013, and Willey said they bonded over their “love for words.”

“He woke me up to the beauty of poetry,” Willey said.

The Politics of Translation

During his first year at Amherst, Levi’s love of literature led him to undertake a project that would be ambitious for any scholar, let alone a first-year college student. He and History Professor Monica Ringer began co-translating the Turkish novel “Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi,” a project they completed this year. Theirs is the first English translation of this 1875 novel by Ahmet Mithad Efendi, and it will be published by Syracuse University Press.

Levi has been fascinated by issues of translation for much of his time at Amherst. He served as the student coordinator for this year’s Copeland Colloquium, which focuses on translation. It’s a particularly fitting project for someone who grew up straddling multiple continents and multiple cultures.

“I grew up in a Jewish house, and that was an interesting experience, because it’s a very small community in Turkey,” he said. “I was lucky to be able to experience different religions in that way. So I would celebrate Passover, I would celebrate Shabbat, but at the same time I celebrated Ramadan with my friends.”

He also had an unusual experience living in Istanbul, which connects the continents of Europe and Asia.

“I live on the European side, and my school was on the Asian side, so I would change continents every day," he said. “That I think is an experience a lot of Istanbul natives have, that we exist in the middle of things, that we can’t make up our minds.”

In his translation of “Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi,” Levi said he found himself addressing this issue of being “in the middle of things.”

“The novel is an interesting form because it entered our discourse at a time when we were trying to situate ourselves between Turkish and European,” he said. He told me that “Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi" was written at a time that many people see as characterized by a desire to emulate European society and a struggle to maintain a sense of Turkish identity.

As Levi’s thinking became, in his words, “more political,” throughout his college career, his understanding of the translation project changed too.

“If we assume that there are only two ways we can go, we ignore a lot of minority politics,” he said. “In Turkey if you’re trying to create a nation, you can’t really focus on that single choice between European and Turkish. There are a lot of communities in Turkey — the Kurdish community, the Armenian community, the Jewish community, that are also struggling with language problems and also trying to enter the society in different ways.”

As he continued the translation project, he said he became more conscious that “translation is also about choice.”

“That idea of choice also made me anxious about advertising this novel to people as being about the choice we had to make, because I think there are so many other choices we had to make, but we didn’t really pay much attention to them,” he said.

The Real World

A week after our interview, Levi came up to me as I was working in Amherst Coffee. It was the Sunday night of senior week, and many of his classmates had flocked to Myrtle Beach and Cape Cod, enjoying one last week of debauchery before getting on with their adult lives. Not Levi, though. He had spent the evening bent over a table in the dimly lit coffee shop, intensely engaged in conversation.

I asked him if he was planning on going anywhere for senior week.

“No,” he said, smiling. “I couldn’t leave.”

It’s the kind of answer I would expect from Levi, who describes coming to Amherst as “the best decision of my life.” He told me that although he’s ready to go, “I’ll be crying when I leave Amherst.” Throughout senior week, I’ve seen him around campus — taking long walks, lingering over a good conversation in Val.

Soon, though, he’ll have to leave, as he graduates and gets ready to move to Dublin, where he’ll be an associate at LinkedIn’s Business Leadership Program. It might seem like a surprising move for this lover of literature, but it’s clear from talking to Levi that he couldn’t be more enthusiastic to step out into the “real world.”

“I am not so much disturbed about choosing a corporate track for some time and trying to also pursue creative projects,” he said. “I think I can only benefit from it at this point.”

“I think there’s a reason why people call it the real world,” he added. “We are not only caught up in the world of ideas; we are not trying to pursue some kind of knowledge, but we’re also seeing the implications of that knowledge.”