From the Archives: Orhan Pamuk and his Museum

Orhan PamukOn the way to Herbie Hancock’s opening Norton lecture at Harvard, “The Wisdom of Miles Davis,” we’re remembering Norton feasts of old, a series that has included luminaries like John Cage, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Orhan Pamuk, who spoke with us in 2009 after giving his six Norton Lectures, which filled the air with ideas about fiction. “The novel is not about the characters but about their world,” for example, part of the reason that Pamuk has never titled a book with a character’s name. (No disrespect to David Copperfield, Jane Eyre or the Karamazov brothers, either; but Pamuk is more in tune with Thackeray, who called his masterpiece not “Becky Sharp” but Vanity Fair.)

Two recurrent images in those talks will stick forever: first, the scene, endlessly revisited, of Anna Karenina on the train to Petersburg from Moscow after she first danced with Vronsky — “with a novel in her hand and a window that reflected her mood.” This is for Pamuk the most perfectly saturated picture in the greatest of all novels. And then there was the portrait Orhan Pamuk painted of himself, an insatiable teenaged reader, in his family’s grand apartment in Istanbul in the late Sixties into the Seventies, expanding his character, forming his soul, confronting his great teachers: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Thomas Mann, Dickens and Melville, among others. So the conversation begins:

I argue that for the last 150 years novels have been the global literary form… It is a very democratic form. You can talk about the biggest issues of history, life, ethics, things that until recently only philosophers or religion addressed… In my youth, that’s why I think I took novels seriously and read lots of classics. Not only as entertainment but also as guides to understand the world, examples for my spirit, variations on the colors and shades of human spirit. You read Dostoyevsky, you understand something about human spirit. You read Stendhal, you understand something not only about mid-19th century French culture, but the adventuring human spirit and freedom versus community.

Novels taught me not only to understand life, but also how to see and understand myself. I am not a Freudian in the sense that I do not believe that human spirit is formed only in childhood. I argue that although some part of us may have been formed in our childhood, we continue to re-form, to progress, to make ourselves adapt to new conditions, and in fact radically change even in our twenties and thirties.

And I think naively that I did this through reading novels… Perhaps because I felt that I was at the edge of Europe, for me, novels represented the best of European culture. I wanted to acquire that. I read novels in my teenage years and early twenties just as someone gets essential liquid for life.

Orhan Pamuk with Chris Lydon at Columbia University in New York, 12.12.09.

By now Orhan Pamuk is in the front rank of global novelists for My Name is Red and Snow, books about not so much the clash as the interlacing of cultures, in the terms of his Nobel Prize citation. His new one, The Museum of Innocence, is stuffed with the collectible evidence – the earrings, the cigarette stubs, the views out the bedroom window – of a blissful love affair going bad. In his Norton Lectures, that’s what Pamuk said most novels are: they’re word museums stuffed with the human details of a period and a place. “No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams put it. In our conversation Orhan Pamuk is inviting me and all his readers to see the real museum he’s building now, in Istanbul, to show off the substance, the real stuff of this book. Think of the novel, he says, as an annotated catalog of that Museum of Istanbul in the last quarter of the 20th Century.


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  • jack

    Excellent conversation. Snow my favorite of Pamuk’s novels, I haven’t read The Museum of Innocence, but it reminds me of the great Mario Praz’s The House of Life:


    The house itself has changed (now beside the Napoleon Museum), which robs the collection of some of the collective force it must have had when it was where it was meant to be.

    Anyone intereted in these odd-ball museums (here in Rome there’s also a museum devoted to Henry James Swedish sculptor infatuation — as kitsch a collection as you can imagine), among many other things, novels included, might want to check out Eccentric Spaces, by Robert Harbison:

    Thanks again for a great show.

  • nother

    I dated a woman recently whose job it was to design museums, which of course struck me as a very cool job. Along with her exquisite taste (helps with the job) she was witty, insightful, and attractive, and my only thought was – how am I not gonna screw this up.

    After a few dates though, I was looking for a way out, my romantic notions were deflated – of both her and her vocation. First of all, it turns out that not every museum is like the MET, there is a huge mass of niche museums large and small that are put together for reasons other than the greater good; reasons such as propaganda, politics, and conceit, much of it put together by people in expensive suits with a price in mind throughout.

    Then there was her exquisite taste I spoke of earlier, it had quickly become oppressive. She was sending every glass of wine back if it didn’t meet her standards, and she would have major dialogues with the waiter about the particular ingredients of a dish – yet she was pleasant with the server mind you. Food, music, theater, all of it had to pass muster with the curating in her mind’s museum.

    I realized this woman was my Gilbert Osmond, from “A Portrait of a Lady,” who is described in the book as “thinking that life was a matter of connoisseurship.”

    Speaking to Madame Merle about the collection of art in his home: “I don’t object to showing my things – when people are not idiots.” Merle responds: “you do it delightfully. As cicerone [tour guide] of your museum you appear to particular advantage.”

    Isabel stayed enchanted with her cicerone longer than I…she married hers. Only later does she realize her error: “Osmonds’ beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her.” “Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in the bank of flowers.”

    Yes, novels can be like a museum, but what kind of museum and what is the ultimate ideal that drives it’s content and curation? Are they Osmond museums and novels or are they Isabel?

    “He had his ideal, just as she had tried to have hers; only it was strange that people should seek for justice in such different quarters.” ———– “Her notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude.”

  • nother, I love your exquisite comments. You made some nice connections.

    “Yes, novels can be like a museum, but what kind of museum and what is the ultimate ideal that drives it’s content and curation? Are they Osmond museums and novels or are they Isabel?”

    I think of Pamuk as a Nabokovian collector of crawling, pupating and fluttering butterfly lives. I think his moth-like attraction to the flame of life draws him to articulate this sensibility. Like Lepidoptera, his characters mutate and have no fixed external form, but some of their characteristics endure, if not individually then through transference of circumstances.

    It seems to me that Pamuk’s ultimate ideal is to describe as concretely as he can the entire set of circumstances — human and environmental — that collectively shape the events he imagines. A museum, a book, or the Web for that matter, can only present annotated snapshots of all the impinging contingencies of life.

  • jim mcdowell

    nother, your comment was as insightful and delightful!

  • A Woman

    I have been an Orhan Pamuk fan since reading “Istanbul”, wondering why when there was no plot line, then realizing it was because the writing was so beautiful. He goes beneath the skin.

    This interview was full of his lighthearted, powerful passion.

    Regarding the way novels can enter into one’s most private life, I have this story.

    In a foreign country recently for 6 months, I met a young student and periodically, he contacted me and we talked intensely about life. There are 50 years between our ages so, though he was beautiful inside and out, both of us stayed within the frame of a friendship, nothing more. His kind attentions to me before I left his country (and even now) made it impossible not to fall in love with him, a feeling I have not experienced for a number of years. While we parted with high emotion, leaving without telling him that I loved him as a woman, not a mother, has been painful.

    On returning home, I discovered the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith, the creator of gentle detectives and thoughtful, compassionate detail. The heroine of these novels lives in Edinburgh and is the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. She cogitates on the consequences of everything! Isabel, in her 40s, has fallen in love with a man 15 years younger. Through 3 books in the series, she and this young man slowly find their way to a love affair. There are doubts and fears on all sides. The final words in one book in this series were: “There is a sea of love,” she thought, “and we are in it.”

    Those words are my life raft as I try to find the shore where I can lay down the burden of so much feeling. I have been stunned by all of this, but most recently by the way the experience of this woman in a novel – by a man – has become a touchstone and guide to my own an experience.

  • Potter

    After reading reviews and being uninspired (even by Updike’s) I realized that this was a filter and I needed to read Pamuk’s own words, not words about him. I have not read any of his novels, not knowing where or even if to begin; I have to love the writing itself or I give up. I gave “Istanbul” to my son who came back from travels a number of years ago with a vivid description of himself on the Bosphorus eating a freshly fried smelt in crunchy fresh bread in the breezes of that busy port. It sounded to me like he was really feeling alive in those moments. I want to go and eat fresh fried smelts in crunchy bread in the breezes right away. Anyway I notice my son is reading it now.

    So I just read Pamuk’s Nobel speech “My Father’s Suitcase”, so beautiful.

    Pamuk speaks intimately about his life, his feelings for his father, his dedication to his art, of love of it’s materials and it’s form, the search for what connects us: our human spirit. He thinks of his writing in terms of other arts ( in this interview): painting- “the fresco of Istanbul”, architecture- (writing a novel is) “making a cathedral with human details”.

    We read novels, the ones that we are directed to as great because they are skillful in giving, as Ophan Pamuk says, as no other medium, an experience, as close an approximation as maybe possible, of another life or other lives lived in a period or sweep of time and a place not our own, and because also we want to connect and not feel so alone, separate, different:

    (From the Nobel speech:)

    “My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other.”

    I like this :

    “As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”

    This was an inspiring interview- all 27 minutes and 32 seconds of it. Thank you.

  • nother

    “A woman”…I have a memory I cherish of a waterfall in Jamaica. It’s not a waterfall someone busses you in to look at, it’s one that zig zags flat down the mountain, enough so that you can walk the whole way through the water. It takes a few hours.

    My cousin and my best friend and I began our decent at the top of this mountain in Negril…a wild sanctuary of green lush grass and welcoming trees. In the middle lies a wooden makeshift bar with a whole lotta rum at the ready. Mostly I recall the sound of perpetual thunder… which was actually the forever roaring water flowing down the mountain right close. The contrast of that rumble of rapids with the moneyless serenity of wild green vegetation at the summit was spiritual I tell you!

    At the top is where we met our guide, a dreadlocked soulful Rasta named…I can’t remember his damn name but he was soulful. On the way down the falls, another random Rasta pops out to offer some ganja which you smoke thank you, and thus the decent becomes uplifting…the glare of the river-froth dances with darting sun rays that hover and bounce off edges of rocks on all sides. Thousands of tons of water gush down and rage alive in your ear. Shared knowing smiles from your loved ones and new ones – the Rasta – steal the show. To boot we’re talking cold crisp invigorating rapids lapping at your hips, up your bare skin…egging you on and holding you down. I honestly don’t have any memories of us reaching the bottom of this mountain.

    “A woman,” I tell you my story to get to that line – your passion eggs you on and holds you down. That journey for us down that waterfall was of course not about getting to the bottom. The only moments I remember my heart racing in those rapids were with shared stares from afar…connections amidst the chaos.

    I hear your story and I sense you and the object of your affection pushing on, the way we all must. But I also feel your heat as you report to us the gushing water around your hips and the hot rays wetting your eyes.

    So please don’t fret about where your going. In time you will only recall the rapids. Of course, I do understand you have to get to the bottom of the mountain before nightfall…which looms. Yet it is not dark yet.

  • nother

    So, the above could have done with some next day revision – especially a the end – but sometimes it’s fun to write in a flurry and I can’t stop myself from pressing “submit.” The point was to thank “a woman” for the post.

    And thank you Jim and Max for your kind words. Max your post on Pamuk was illuminating. I especially liked the Nabokov connection – so much so that I pulled one of his books, “The stories of Vladimir Nabokov,” from my shelf. And I’m not kidding the first page the book opened to was a short story called “The Visit to the Museum.”

    In this very short story, Nabokov (presumably) goes back to visit Russia and on a rainy day stumbles into the main museum of a town he is not very familiar with. Nabokov gets lost (echo’s of Kafka) in this huge oppressive museum with its subjective collection of Russian life.

    Finally he finds an exit and escapes “from the museum’s maze,” only to find himself still oppressed outside on that Russian street. “Alas, it was not the Russia I remembered, but the factual Russia of today, forbidden to me, hopelessly slavish, and hopelessly my own native land.”

    Pamuk tells us in this interview “museums at their best give a sense of human experience through objects.”

    Nabokov’s short story is the other side of Pamuk’s Museum metaphor coin. His story is of a museum – at it’s worst – giving a sense of human experience through objects.

    Incidentally, there is one more intriguing connection to this interview with Pamuk which I still do not have my head around. There is the discussion between Chris and Pamuk about the center of a novel being character or landscape. This Nabokov story is centered on one particular painting by Leroy, which includes a landscape with a man and cattle. There is a disagreement with the museums Director – Nabokov knows the painting as “Portrait of a Russian Nobleman.” The Director insists that the painting (the only Leroy in it’s collection) is called “The Return of the Herd.”

    The communists see the herd not the man. Again, this strikes me as the other side of the Pamuk coin.

  • Potter

    When Pamuk says that museums give a sense of human experience ( and I assume he means the human spirit as well) through objects I understand it. It’s not different in essence from slowly going through say the Greek collection at the Metropolitan Museum to going through the Memorial to the Holocaust Museum (Battery Park) with all of it’s artifacts. The invitation is to the viewer ( as in a novel it would be to the reader) to allow these objects to speak. And they do. Together in a collection they can be very powerful. A good curator makes a difference. I could also give as an example the recent Robert Frank exhibit of photography from the 50’s which had this affect on us but in that case it evoked memory as well.

  • Brilliant. Pamuk lets you in on Turkey as never before. This love story is utterly unconditional and written with such consumnate love. The scenes and the protagonst’s woes are very well crafted and takes the readers through all those pages of pure emotive poetry.