The Nobel winner of 2006 has defied the prize’s curse to write a rich novel that is both a tragic love story and an epic poem, nestled in its setting of Istanbulby Julian Evans / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Museum of Innocence
By Orhan Pamuk (Faber and Faber, £18.99)
Orhan Pamuk’s novels are long, winding cavalcades of story, fluttering with colour and movement, freighted with effortless prose and marshalled into beautifully organised and timetabled networks. So I will say it now: they’re mostly too long. Snow (2004, 440 pages) is too long. My Name Is Red (2001, 503 pages)—which more than any other novel propelled him to the welcome of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel prize in 2006—is too long. And The Museum of Innocence, at 532 pages excluding its “Index of Characters” (there are 148 of them), is about 120 pages too long. For all its inflation, though, his new novel is also a large book as art.
I have lived with The Museum of Innocence for days. It has whipped up my curiosity, enthralled, cheered, moved, saddened and occasionally bored me. It has held me in fear, emotional near-paralysis and deep narrative thirst. To declare it the work of a great poet would not be to confuse what kind of novel it might be. This is in a dozen ways a recognisably mundane love story, anchored to its place and time: Istanbul in the mid-1970s and 1980s. To emphasise the poet in Pamuk is just to underline his magnificent gift for constructing sentences, matched in the English edition by Maureen Freely’s superb gift for transparent translation. And this is the root of the length problem—that, never less than interesting on their own, many sentences are superfluous at the structural level.
Pamuk’s sentences—their ripe rhythms, their warm and infinite profusion, their infatuation with detail, their precise understanding of their own fictitiousness—are nevertheless the novel’s compass and code. Listen to this, from a middle chapter entitled “Sometimes”:
“Sometimes Aunt Nesibe would say, ‘Aren’t you a bundle of joy today?’ Sometimes I’d try very hard not to reach over and touch Füsun. Sometimes, especially on summer evenings, a breeze would stir, slamming the doors. Sometimes I thought about Zaim, and Sibel, and all my old friends. Sometimes flies would land on our food on the table, annoying Aunt Nesibe. Sometimes Aunt Nesibe would take mineral water out of the refrigerator for Tarik Bey and ask me, ‘Would you like some, too?’ Sometimes, before it had even turned eleven, the watchman would pass by blowing his whistle. Sometimes I was overcome by an unbearable longing to say, ‘I love you!’ when all I could do was offer Füsun a light.”
This chapter of simple, incantatory sentences, covering just over six pages (in this case, not a sentence too long) begins in an adoring triviality—of domesticity, of family, of city—and piles up into a poetry of longing so passionate it may make you shiver, as it did me. Such accumulations reflects the novel’s style, for this is both poet’s panorama and novelist’s excavation: a book equally moving in its lyrical autopsy of tragic love and its slyly affectionate narrative of Pamuk’s home city.
The narrator, Kemal, once remarks that “a novel need not be full of sorrow just because its heroes are suffering.” Pamuk reinforces the idea repeatedly. Kemal is foolish, yet this does not devalue the quality of his longing—and his foolishness is very great. Brought up in one of Istanbul’s wealthiest families, at the novel’s start in 1975 he is 30 and about to become engaged to Sibel, his social equal. Then he meets and seduces the lovely 18-year-old Füsun, a poor, distant cousin who works at a pretentious boutique in the city, the Sanzelize (“Champs Élysées”). Sibel and Kemal’s engagement party at the Istanbul Hilton goes ahead, and Füsun disappears. Eventually, Sibel breaks off the engagement (Kemal has become impotent with her) but, by the time Kemal finds Füsun again, she has married someone else.
Kemal has lost everything thanks to the false value he ascribed to his first feelings of potency: his pride in possessing not only a charming, wealthy fiancée but also a beautiful teenaged lover. Years later, thinking back to the moment when Füsun told him she loved him (in a voice “both accusatory and unexpectedly gentle”) he recognises that there was “something contrived” in his own reaction. He smugly believed, then, that Füsun had proved herself the loser in a game because she had spoken “too sincerely.” It was, of course, he who had lost.
Pamuk’s method of recollection and sad recognition is as Proustian as his obsession with detail. When Kemal enters the Sanzelize boutique, “the small bronze double-knobbed camel bell jingled two notes that can still make my heart pound.” Seeing Füsun at a funeral, Kemal’s description of her headscarf that “endowed her with a proud and sacred beauty” runs over a dozen lines. Kemal, needless to say, is as gnawingly jealous of Füsun as Proust’s Swann is of Odette: Pamuk minutely anatomises this jealousy, revealing it as a pre-emptive emotion that compensates for its sufferer’s
false motives. Even when, in the dreamy middle of the story—after Kemal rediscovers Füsun, now married to a penniless aspiring screenwriter, and spends the next eight years visiting his Aunt Nesibe’s apartment four or five times a week just to sit opposite his former lover—he cannot shed his jealousy. The pact he makes with Füsun’s husband, to finance and write a movie in which Füsun can launch an acting career, is indefinitely postponed. Both men are westernised, both “modern,” yet neither can overcome his jealousy of another man kissing her, even on screen.
If it is sentences that are its glory, it is physical details—doorbell, headscarf—that are the novel’s fuel. For Kemal, collecting becomes as vital as recollecting. During his love affair with Füsun he feasts on the objects she used and wore: a pencil, an earring, a lipstick. Later, yearning for her, he evolves into a kleptomaniac for love. Among other things, by the time he’s through he has squirrelled away 4,213 of her cigarette butts. (The motif of cigarettes, and the author’s comic accounts of Kemal’s indecision that go with them, suggest another homage, to Italo Svevo.) What is summed up in Proust in the aroma of a madeleine or a phrase from a sonata is physically accumulated by Kemal in a museum he sets up—the museum of the title—that is partly inspired by memories and partly about memory’s circularity. The museum is a memorial not to the past, but to the tragedy of the ever-vanishing present—of how we only know the significance of things after they are gone. It’s a theme that is evident from the novel’s opening line: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” Canny storyteller that he is, Pamuk follows this beginning with an elliptical paragraph meditating on what might have been (“if I had recognised this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away”) interrupted by just one direct sentence: “Kissing Füsun’s shoulder, already moist from the heat of our lovemaking, I gently entered her from behind, and as I softly bit her ear, her earring must have come free…” One sentence, and one earring, are enough to fix the moment.
This is Pamuk’s first fiction since his Nobel prize. It’s gratifyingly untouched by the curse of the Nobel, perhaps because he started writing it in 2001, the same year he began collecting objects for his own Museum of Innocence that he intends to open in Istanbul in 2010, and to which each copy of the novel contains an entrance ticket. It will be a museum “forever open to lovers who can’t find another place to kiss in Istanbul,” in Kemal’s words, and a repository of the immeasurable elements of life in the city. This is appropriate too, because the book itself barely strays outside the city. When Füsun finally separates from her husband after his affair with an actress, she asks Kemal to take her to Paris; but they never reach it. To say how and why is tempting but would flout a useful convention of the book review, that it should tantalise rather than reveal. It suffices to say that something tells me people will still be reading The Museum of Innocence in 50 years’ time—despite its over-length—because its author is a genuine artist. Pamuk is a re-maker and renewer of a great European art form, and this novel is probably his richest and most generous response to his heroes in European literature: a joyous, astonishing, good-tempered tragedy that shines the myriad glimmering lights of Istanbul into the most human corners of the human heart.