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Essays and a Story

Written by Orhan PamukAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Orhan Pamuk

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On Sale: September 18, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-26783-2
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Synopsis

In the three decades that Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk has devoted himself to writing fiction, he has also produced scores of witty, moving, and provocative essays and articles. He engages the work of Nabokov, Kundera, Rushdie, and Vargas Llosa, among others, and he discusses his own books and writing process. We also learn how he lives, as he recounts his successful struggle to quit smoking, describes his relationship with his daughter, and reflects on the controversy he has attracted in recent years. Here is a thoughtful compilation of a brilliant novelist's best nonfiction, offering different perspectives on his lifelong obsessions with loneliness, contentment, and the books and cities that have shaped his experience.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One: The Implied Author

I have been writing for thirty years. I have been reciting these words for some time now. I’ve been reciting them for so long, in fact, that they have ceased to be true, for now I am entering into my thirty-first year as a writer. I do still like saying that I’ve been writing novels for thirty years—though this is a bit of an exaggeration. From time to time, I do other sorts of writing: essays, criticism, reflections on Istanbul or politics, and speeches. But my true vocation, the thing that binds me to life, is writing novels. There are plenty of brilliant writers who’ve been writing much longer than I, who’ve been writing for half a century without paying the matter much attention. There are also the great writers to whom I return again and again, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Thomas Mann, whose careers spanned more than fifty years. . . . So why do I make so much of my thirtieth anniversary as a writer? I do so because I wish to talk about writing, and most particularly novel writing, as a habit.

In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. When I learned, as a child, that diabetics needed an injection every day, I felt bad for them as anyone might; I may even have thought of them as half dead. My dependence on literature must make me half dead in the same way. Especially when I was a young writer, I sensed that others saw me as cut off from the real world and so doomed to be “half dead.” Or perhaps the right term is “half a ghost.” I have sometimes even entertained the thought that I was fully dead and trying to breathe life back into my corpse with literature. For me, literature is a medicine. Like the medicine that others take by spoon or injection, my daily dose of literature—my daily fix, if you will—must meet certain standards.

First, the medicine must be good. Its goodness is what tells me how true and potent it is. To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. I also prefer that the writer be dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books are by dead writers. Even if they are not yet dead, to sense their presence is to sense a ghost. This is why, when we see great writers in the street, we treat them like ghosts, not quite believing our eyes as we marvel from a distance. A few brave souls approach the ghosts for autographs. Sometimes I remind myself that these writers will die soon and, once they are dead, the books that are their legacy will occupy an even more cherished place in our hearts. Though of course this is not always the case.

If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of ten hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page. Most of what I write does not meet my own standards of quality control. These, I put to you, are two great sources of misery.

But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.

Let me explain what I feel on a day when I’ve not written well, am unable to lose myself in a book. First, the world changes before my eyes; it becomes unbearable, abominable. Those who know me can see it happening, for I myself come to resemble the world I see around me. For example, my daughter can tell I have not written well that day from the abject hopelessness on my face in the evening. I would like to be able to hide this from her, but I cannot. During these dark moments, I feel as if there is no line between life and death. I don’t want to speak to anyone—just as well, since no one seeing me in this state has any desire to speak to me either. A mild version of this despair descends on me every afternoon, between one and three, but I have learned how to treat it with reading and writing: If I act promptly, I can spare myself a full retreat into death-in-life.

If I’ve had to go a long stretch without my paper-and-ink cure, be it due to travel, an unpaid gas bill, military service (as was once the case), political affairs (as has been the case more recently), or any number of other obstacles, I can feel misery setting inside me like cement. My body has difficulty moving, my joints get stiff, my head turns to stone, my perspiration even seems to smell differently. This misery is likely to grow, for life is full of things that conspire to keep a person from literature. I might be sitting in a crowded political meeting, or chatting with my classmates in a school corridor, or eating a holiday meal with my relatives, struggling to converse with a well-meaning person of unlike mind, or occupied with whatever is on the TV screen; I can be at an important business meeting or making an ordinary purchase, making my way to the notary or having my picture taken for a visa—when suddenly my eyelids grow heavy and, though it is the middle of the day, I fall asleep. When I am far from home, and so unable to return to my room to spend time alone, my only consolation is a nap in the middle of the day.

So yes, the real hunger here is not for literature but for a room where I can be alone with my thoughts. In such a room I can invent beautiful dreams about those same crowded places—those family gatherings, school reunions, festive dinners, and all the people who attend them. I enrich the crowded holiday meals with imagined details and make the people themselves more amusing. In dreams, of course, everything and everyone is interesting, captivating, and real. I make the new world from the stuff of the known world. Here we come to the heart of the matter. To write well, I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction, I must enter into life. It is when I am bombarded with noise, sitting in an office full of ringing phones, surrounded by friends and loved ones on a sunny seashore or at a rainy funeral—in other words, at the very moment when I begin to sense the heart of the scene unfolding around me—that I will suddenly feel as if I’m no longer really there but watching from the sidelines. I’ll begin to daydream. If I’m feeling pessimistic, I think only about how bored I am. Either way, a voice inside urges me to go back to the room and sit down at the table.

I have no idea how most people answer such voices, but my manner of response turns people like me into writers. My guess is that it turns us more typically into writers of prose and of fiction than of verse. Here, then, is a bit more insight into the properties of the medicine I must make sure to take every day. We can see now that its active ingredients are boredom, real life, and the life of the imagination.

The pleasure I take in this confession and the fear I feel speaking honestly about myself—together they lead me to a serious and important insight I would now like to share with you. I would like to propose a simple theory that begins from the idea that writing is a solace, even a remedy, at least for novelists like me: We choose our subjects, and shape our novels, to suit our daily daydream requirements. A novel is inspired by ideas, passions, furies, and desires—this we all know. To please our lovers, to belittle our enemies, to extol something we adore, to delight in speaking authoritatively about something of which we know nothing, to take pleasure in times lost and remembered, to dream of making love or reading or engaging with politics, to indulge in one’s particular worries, one’s personal habits—these and any number of other obscure or even nonsensical desires are what shape us, in ways both clear and mysterious. . . . These same desires inspire the daydreams to which we give voice. We may not understand where they come from or what, if anything, our daydreams may signify, but when we sit down to write it is our daydreams that breathe life into us, as wind from an unknown place stirs an aeolian harp. One might even say that we surrender to this mysterious wind like a captain who has no idea where he’s bound.

At the same time, in one part of our minds, we can pinpoint our location on the map exactly, just as we can remember the point toward which we are traveling. Even at those times when I surrender unconditionally to the wind, I am able—at least according to some other writers I know and admire—to retain my general sense of direction. Before I set out I will have made plans: divided the story I wish to tell into sections, determined which ports my ship will visit and what loads it will carry and drop off along the way, estimated the time of my journey, and charted its course. But if the wind, having blown in from unknown quarters and filled my sails, decides to change the direction of my story, I will not resist. For what the ship most ardently seeks is the feeling of wholeness and perfection in plying its way under full sail. It is as if I am looking for that special place and time in which everything flows into everything else, everything is linked, and everything is aware, as it were, of everything else. All at once, the wind will die down and I will find myself becalmed in a place where nothing moves. Yet I’ll sense that there are things in these calm and misty waters that will, if I am patient, move the novel forward.

What I most long for is the sort of spiritual inspiration I described in my novel Snow. It is not dissimilar to the sort of inspiration Coleridge describes in “Kubla Khan.” I long for inspiration to come to me (as poems did to Coleridge—and to Ka, Snow’s hero) in a dramatic way, preferably already formed as scenes and situations that might sit well in a novel. If I wait patiently and attentively, my wish comes true. To write a novel is to be open to these desires, winds, and inspirations, and also to the dark recesses of our minds and their moments of mist and stillness.

For what is a novel but a story that fills its sails with these winds, that answers and builds upon inspirations that blow in from unknown quarters, and seizes upon all the daydreams we’ve invented for our diversion, bringing them together into a meaningful whole. Above all else, a novel is a vessel that carries inside it a dream world we wish to keep, forever alive and forever ready. Novels are held together by the little pieces of daydreams that help us, from the moment we enter them, forget the tedious world we long to escape. The more we write, the richer these dreams become and the broader, more detailed, more complete seems that second world inside the vessel. We come to know this world through writing, and the better we know it, the easier it is to carry it around in our heads. If I am in the middle of a novel and writing well, I enter easily into its dreams. For novels are new worlds into which we move happily through reading or even more fully by writing: A novelist shapes his works in such a way as to most easily carry the dreams he wishes to elaborate. Just as these works offer happiness to the attentive reader, so, too, do they offer the writer a solid and sound new world in which to lose himself and seek happiness at any hour of the day. If I feel able to create even a tiny part of such a miraculous world, I feel content the moment I reach my desk, with my pen and paper. In no time at all I can leave behind the familiar boring world of every day for this other, bigger place and wander freely; most of the time I have no desire to return to real life or to reach the end of the novel. This feeling is, I think, related to the response I am happiest to hear when I tell readers that I am writing a new novel: “Please make your novel really long!” I am proud to boast that I hear this a thousand times more often than the publisher’s perennial entreaty: “Make it short!”

How is it that a habit drawing on a single person’s joys and pleasures can produce a work that interests so many others? Readers of My Name Is Red like to recall Shekure’s remarks to the effect that trying to explain everything is a sort of idiocy. My own sympathies in this scene are not with Orhan, my little hero and namesake, but with the mother, who is gently poking fun at him. If, however, you will permit me to commit another idiocy and act like Orhan, I’d like to try to explain why dreams that work as medicine for the writer can serve the reader the same way: Because if I am entirely inside the novel and writing well—if I have distanced myself from the ringing phone, from all the troubles and demands and tedium of everyday life—the rules by which my free-floating heaven operates recall the games I played as a child. It is as if everything has become simpler, as if I am in a world where I can see into every house, car, ship, and building because they are all made of glass; they have begun to reveal to me their secrets. My job is to divine the rules and listen: to watch with pleasure the goings-on in each interior, to step into cars and buses with my heroes and travel about Istanbul, visiting places that have come to bore me, seeing them with new eyes and, in so doing, transforming them; my job is to have fun, be irresponsible, because while I’m amusing myself (as we like to tell children) I might just learn something.


From the Hardcover edition.
Orhan Pamuk

About Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk - Other Colors

Photo © Elena Seibert

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His novel My Name Is Red won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than sixty languages. 

Orhan Pamuk is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Praise

Praise

“Lyrical, vulnerable, deeply human and engaging. . . . [Pamuk] has become one of the essential writers that both East and West can gratefully claim as their own.” —Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review“Lyrical and reportorial. . . . Forms a remarkably cohesive picture of a literary man.” —The Washington Post Book World“Striking and valuable. . . . A triumph.” —The New York Review of Books“Reading these pieces one is infused with the sheer joy that exudes from each tale. . . . An autobiography in essays and tales, a book for writers and readers that is never less than captivating.” —The Baltimore Sun
About the Book|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Guide

Orhan Pamuk Reader’s Companion
 
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Turkish author to receive the award. He is the overall bestselling author in his homeland and his books have been published in more than fifty languages. This guide is designed to help you explore Pamuk’s world and writings, whether your group chooses to read all of his works or to focus on his acclaimed novels or engaging nonfiction titles.
 
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a well-to-do, Western-oriented family. As a child he attended private schools and dreamed of becoming an artist. He began his studies at Istanbul Technical University in architecture, but at the age of twenty-two switched to journalism, taking the first step in his career as a writer. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the story of three generations of a Turkish family, was published in Turkey in 1982. The White Castle, the first of his novels to be translated into English, takes place in seventeenth-century Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) and explores the meeting between East and West, a theme that recurs throughout Pamuk’s writing career. The White Castle also introduced a deeper, more personal interest, one that imbues in his works of fiction and nonfiction alike: the relationship between dreams and reality, memory and imagination.
 
In his early years as a writer, Pamuk spent five years in residence at Columbia University, where he now holds a position as a visiting professor. In the autobiographical profile he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Pamuk reflected on his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia and the influence that had on his evolution as a writer: “I was thirty-three years old . . . and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. . . . During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture” (copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2006). For much of those five years, Pamuk devoted himself to writing The Black Book, a strikingly original novel that weaves multiple voices and beguiling stories about Istanbul, past and present, into a modern-day detective story.
 
In his next novel, The New Life, Pamuk once again transformed the conventions of mystery into an intellectual adventure, creating a world in which a mysterious book, a fleeting romance, and conspiracies real and imagined wreak havoc on a university student’s life and his sense of identity. Set in the sixteenth century, My Name Is Red revisits Turkey’s rich and complex Ottoman past in a fascinating tale about the impact of Western art and aesthetics on an Islamic society that stifled individual creativity and strictly prohibited the creation of representational paintings.
 
As Pamuk’s fame grew throughout the 1990s, journalists in Turkey and abroad looked to him for elucidation on the political situation in his homeland and its relations with the West. Troubled by the changes occurring in Turkey, Pamuk wrote Snow, his first overtly political novel. A thought-provoking, witty, and balanced portrait of the rise of political Islamism, Snow was widely read and discussed in Turkey and became an international bestseller. The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s newest work of fiction, examines the nature of romantic attachment and the mysterious allure of collecting as it traces a wealthy man’s lifetime obsession with the lower-class woman he had loved and abandoned as a young man.
 
Collected essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches
 
Now in his late fifties, Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul in the same apartment building he grew up in. His deep attachment to the city is beautifully captured in Istanbul: Memories and the City, a combination of childhood memoir and journey into Istanbul life through his own eyes and those of painters and writers (including European visitors like the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and the French writers Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert); enhanced with photographs, it illuminates the personal and artistic influences on his work. Other Colors showcases the range and depth of Pamuk’s interests. There are short, lyrical pieces about his personal life collected under the apt and intriguing title “Living and Worrying”; critical essays on literary figures such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, and Rushdie, along with assessments of several of his own novels; and commentaries on a wide variety of political and cultural matters. A captivating collection, Other Colors provides fresh insights into the mind and imagination of one of today’s most notable writers.
 
A political drama and the recognition of Pamuk’s contributions to literature
 
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, Pamuk denounced the Ottoman massacre of millions Armenians in 1915 and the slaughter of thirty thousand Kurds in Turkey during the 1990s. His comments caused a furor in Turkey: several newspapers launched campaigns against him and he was officially charged with the crime of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” Facing death threats, Pamuk moved abroad. He returned to face a trial and the possibility of three years of imprisonment; the charges were dropped on a technicality in January 2006. The incident reverberated internationally, highlighting the conflict between anti-European nationalism in Turkey and the government’s campaign to join the European Union. It exposed, as well, the simmering distrust of—and sometimes blatant hostility toward—Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
 
In awarding Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy said, “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase” (Other Colors, pages 403–17), offers a more personal explanation of why he became a writer and what he hopes to accomplish:
 
It was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in My Name Is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us. . . . My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one 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 one another.

Discussion Guides

1. Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world?

2. Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?

3. Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?

4. In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.

5. Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?

6. What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?

7. Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?

8. Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?

9. What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?

10. Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?

11. In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?

12. Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?

13. Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?

14. How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.

15. In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
 
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum; Franz Kafka, The Castle; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy; Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
 
Pamuk’s works are available in Vintage paperback editions (listed here in order of their first translation into English): The White Castle; The New Life; My Name Is Red; The Black Book; Snow; Istanbul; Other Colors; The Museum of Innocence

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