Conversation: Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk
In “The Museum of Innocence,” a man obsessed with his love for a woman whom he will not marry collects objects to remind him of their relationship and his infatuation.
Jeffrey Brown talked to Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature late last year:
A transcript is after the jump.
Here’s Orhan Pamuk reading an excerpt from “The Museum of Innocence”:
Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Brown also talked to Pamuk in 2006 shortly after the Nobel prize was awarded. You can find that conversation here.
JEFFREY BROWN: “It was the happiest moment of my life, thought I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?” The opening sentences tell us of the precise moment when a love affair reaches its height and let’s know that such happiness won’t last. The new novel, “The Museum of Innocence,” set in Istanbul in the 1970s, is about memory and the details of everyday existence that add up to a life. Its author is Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Welcome to you.
ORHAN PAMUK: Welcome.
JEFFREY BROWN: You tell us what happens, what will happen in the opening lines, and then what. It’s filling in the details and the pleasure of the telling.
ORHAN PAMUK: Yes. “The Museum of Innocence” is both strong love story and upon aroma of Istanbul society, but it’s a love story. I would say love in a repressed culture where man and woman do not come together too much as in Western societies. Negotiation and communication of love is done through gestures, silences, raising eyebrows or testing the enduring characters and testing each other’s anger, resentment. This kind of atmosphere.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it is in that sense a very personal, intimate story of details, but you’re saying that it is also set in a very particular place.
ORHAN PAMUK: It is personal is a sense that my part of the world is represented that when lovers cannot go together and negotiate, they get sophisticated about so many little details, and these are things, also Turkish films, Turkish Bollywood melodramas follow, yes. “Museum of Innocence” is a love story told in thousands of thousands of little details that it has, yes, about remembering love, how painful it is. Also my aim was not to treat love as something we put on a pedestal and say how sweet it is, but to try to understand it as an eternal human problem. You may even call it suffering, and try to talk about love as if it’s a car accident that happens to all of us, a humane thing. We’d rather understand instead, either making it a sweet pop song or condemn it.
JEFFREY BROWN: The idea of the museum, both in this book as a kind of physical thing and an idea. The narrator collects memories, but there are everyday stuff right? It’s cigarette butts and it could be an earring from his lover.
ORHAN PAMUK: Things that are related to my narrators, my love affair, infatuation with a girl, twice-removed cousin from the poor family, poor branch of the family. My narrator is an upper-class Istanbul boy, and we, of course, we follow his point of view. While on the other hand, the story has two sides that I am chronicling: a love that takes place in Istanbul and then also follow the story through objects, which my narrator collects. But collect is the wrong word here. I argue that attachment to things is a sort of a continuation of secret wounds we have, whether that’s love or something cultural.
JEFFREY BROWN: Secret wounds?
ORHAN PAMUK: Secret wounds we have, that we get attached to things because we have some secret wounds. In Western societies, in Western civilization, that is put on a pedestal by museums, while rest of humanity, I will say 80 percent of humanity, actually did not invent museums, but we have piles of objects through which sometimes we want to hide because it’s embarrassing, it shows our pain, suffering, and sometimes exhibit if people help us to say, well you have a collection, why don’t we make a museum. The novel, in Museum, this story is told through objects, but in the end what counts here is what we do when we fall in love.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were talking about this repressed society of Istanbul. It’s in the 1970’s. Is that in a sense your Istanbul right?
ORHAN PAMUK: Yes, this was in fact. “Museum of Innocence” is made up of so many little details, and most of them based on my life in the sense that I’m not the character. I didn’t love a story like that, so to speak — a question everyone asked after I published the book in Istanbul — but on the other hand these are things that knew, say Istanbul’s clubs, movie houses, eating habits, going to Bosporus, schools, hospitals, I did a whole panorama.
JEFFREY BROWN: And a society looking to the West, right?
ORHAN PAMUK: Both. A society who cannot get away, who can never part from its traditions and who also wants to be Westernized, looks for — especially the upper classes — looks for the European examples, and also the whole main body of the culture is moving very slowing. I also argue that the way of tradition is so strong that although your pretensions of Westernization may have power, but tradition is even more powerful. That’s why at the center of the book there is this culture of virginity, taboo of virginity, which my characters at the way beginning of the book break effortlessly, but then they suffer the consequences.
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, this tension hasn’t gone away, I mean, this is still the stuff of daily headlines.
ORHAN PAMUK: This is the stuff my previous novel, say, “Snow, politically or “My Name Is Red,” from point of view of art. Here I probably try to look at the spirit of the nation, my corner of the world, Istanbul, this time true love.
JEFFREY BROWN: I read a quote recently where you said at 57, I am less experimental and more mature as a writer. What does that mean?
ORHAN PAMUK: When I was 22 or 25 and said to my old fans, I am resigning from everything, I’m going to be a novelist, everyone said, What, you are going to suffer and also you don’t know anything about life, what will you write about, you are a boy. And now 35 years later, I think they were right, but at that time I used to say, well, literature is not about life, it’s about literature. Now I can say that literature is about life and this book, “Museum of Innocence,” is what I know about life. Family, happiness, friendship and betrayal, jealousy, all human, the strongest feelings and what makes us happy, what makes us unhappy, what are the essential things about life. This is not only about love. but about a very traditional novel and going and exploring all these big issues.
JEFFREY BROWN: So a maturity as a person that translates into your writing.
ORHAN PAMUK: As a mature, yes. I enjoy now talking about life like an old man, and instead of making another experimental — I have experimented enough and found my voice. I think now what I have found in literature in 35 years, just tell the truth about life and love or human heart, perhaps.
JEFFREY BROWN: I went back and I was reading your Nobel lecture from a few years ago, and you said, “I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself.”
ORHAN PAMUK: Yes, literature pins down our experience. That’s what I said. This is what I know about most about life, so in a way I pinned it down and put in a story. Our experience of our lives passes to other generations. Little details of how we open a door, how we look at a good landscape, how we have a glass of water when we are sad, and that has also an importance. Novels keep this, in fact literature keeps this to new generations, but also to consider our lives, to consider what is essential in life we need literature, and for me novels are literature.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for you, it’s been a few years now, has your life been changed by winning the Nobel Prize?
ORHAN PAMUK: The classical question, of course: Now he has won the Nobel Prize, you can’t write a good book. Well I was in the middle of this book. Nobel Prize made me more busy, more occupied, but also brought me so many new readers. I was planning four novels. It made me a busy person, but I also received it at a relatively young age, that I’m also writing and working and working. My joy of writing novels went even further up. The Nobel Prize for me is not a retirement pension. I’m working and working and working.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, good. The new book is “The Museum of Innocence.” Orhan Pamuk, nice to talk to you.
ORHAN PAMUK: Thanks.