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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