Nurullah Ataç is one of the few writers of Turkish literature who has not produced many works in his work except for reviews and essays.
Ataç, whose full name was Mehmet Ali Nurullah Ataç according to official documents, was born on August 21, 1898, in Beylerbeyi, an old quarter of Istanbul on the eastern side of the Bosphorus, to Mehmet Ata Bey, an Ottoman bureaucrat who translated the “Geschicte des Osmanischen Reiches” (“History of the Ottoman Empire”) by Joseph von Hammer and Münire Hanım. He was the seventh child of his parents. His ancestral origins are from the Black Sea region on his father’s side, while he was a member of the Kısakürek family from southern Kahramanmaraş on his mother’s side, making him distant cousins of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a great poet of the time of Atac.
Ataç’s father, Mehmet Ata, known to the public reader of the time as the “hammer translator”, worked as a civil servant and bureaucrat in all parts of the Ottoman Empire for precisely half a century of 1869 until his death in 1919. His tomb is at the tomb of Sultan Mahmud II, who embraced many royal and intellectual bodies over the past three centuries in the Fatih district of Istanbul.
Mehmet Ata Bey was also a teacher and a writer. He taught literature and ethics at Mekteb-i Sultani (Imperial Galatasaray High School), or the Ottoman Imperial High School in Galata-Serai in French, and several other high schools in Istanbul. He has written articles for various newspapers and magazines including Sabah, Diyojen, Servet-i Fünun, among others. Ata Bey has translated and written several volumes with fiction and non-fiction titles.
Mehmet Ata was an idealistic and hardworking person with a nervous disposition, which probably earned him the nickname “Mad Ata Bey”. On the other hand, he attached great importance to his son’s education and made him love literary works. Ataç adored Tevfik Fikret, the great poet of Servet-i Fünun, who was a friend of his father.
Ataç lost his mother Münire Hanım in 1909 and his father in 1919. He remembers his mother as an extremely conservative woman with superstitious beliefs. Münire Hanım never allowed her son to play certain games or fly kites because she believed they were a sin. Ataç wrote: “I didn’t have a childhood at all.
Ataç’s school life did not last long. He received an education in an idadi (the equivalent of high school) before enrolling in Mekteb-i Sultani, which he left four years later without graduating. He is learning French and reading dramas by Namık Kemal and poems by Tevfik Fikret, his favorite poet.
Ataç moved to Geneva, Switzerland to attend a private college, which he left without graduating again. From his own memories, he didn’t like living abroad and missed his family too much. Yet he excelled in French and found the opportunity to read many literary texts in their original form in Geneva.
Ataç met Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, a great fiction writer of the time, in Geneva when he was only 18 years old. He enjoyed engaging in literary conversations with the eminent author.
Ataç lost his father and two of his siblings during his stay in Geneva. The family struggled to bear the cost of studying abroad after the death of his father. He was reluctant to return to Istanbul even though he didn’t like being abroad either. Another cause for this reluctance was that he fell in love with a Swiss girl named Claire. He even proposed to her but was rejected. He tried to find a job in Geneva but was unable to do so. Finally, Ataç returned to Istanbul after his older brothers wrote to him that they could no longer afford the cost of his living there.
In Istanbul, Ataç forgot about Claire and fell in love with Meliha Hanim, a distant cousin. However, Meliha Hanım was in love with another cousin and married him but died a few years later. Ataç attempted suicide because of his unrequited love for Meliha. Ataç would later marry Leman Hanım, another distant relative, in 1926. Leman Hanım offered immense support to Ataç for years. She was patient and even lived with their only child in Istanbul when Ataç was working in Ankara.
Ataç enrolled in the literature department in Darülfünun (now Istanbul University), from which he also did not graduate. Yet he became part of the literary circle of the poet and author Yahya Kemal Beyatlı comprising the poet, novelist, literary scholar and essayist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, with whom Ataç clashed over old and new literature and also wrote about it years later. Tanpınar was a follower of Ottoman poetry while Atac denied any connection with tradition. He defended the idea that modern Turkish literature should be organized according to the Western model without any reference to the long Turkish tradition. For this reason, he supported the Garip literary movement of Orhan Veli and his friends, who fought against Yahya Kemal and the classic literary and ethical values he represented.
A subjective critic
Ataç has worked as a French teacher at several educational levels. He has also translated books for the Ministry of Education. In addition, he worked as editor-in-chief for some official periodicals, including the legendary newspaper “Türk Dili” of the Turkish Language Association (TDK), which was the corporate representative of the Kemalist cultural revolution.
Ataç began to write poetry and theater. But he only became a literary critic after realizing that he was not particularly gifted in either genre. Yet he refused the idea that he was writing literary criticism. He wrote: “Yakup Kadri should not appoint me literary critic. Because I am not. In fact, I wrote a few reviews, not more than the amount I guess each author should have written. What I write, in my opinion, are essays, they are the writings of a moralist.
Despite his own testimony, Ataç was revered as the prototype of the modern literary critic in Turkey. Even Hüseyin Cöntürk, the dean of objectivism and scientific approach in literary criticism, viewed Ataç’s work as the writings of a critic rather than an essayist. Cöntürk found a formula for placing Ataç in the context of literary criticism by calling him a subjectivist critic and defining his writings as critical essays.
Ataç died of multiple organ failure on May 17, 1957 in Istanbul. He wrote numerous volumes of critical essays and journals, while his interviews and letters were published posthumously. Important authors such as Tahir Alangu, Metin And, Hüseyin Cöntürk and Asım Bezirci have written separate volumes on Ataç’s work, while his daughter Meral Ataç Tolluoğlu has published a biography of the late critic. Many theses and academic works at university and doctoral levels have been written on the life of Ataç.