Love and Loss in Istanbul

It’s been a good year for literary fiction for me: I was won over by Lolita, blown away by Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, and now I’ve been quietly entranced by Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Museum of Innocence. When I saw it in the bookstore, it shouldn’t really have attracted me; it’s a huge chunkster of a novel, 726 pages, and having read Pamuk before, I knew him to be an author who requires patience, even if he does reward it. But the subject matter of romantic love and loss spoke to me, and I could see that his usual dense and intellectual style had been replaced by a looser, lighter first person narrative. It seemed like a perfect book for the start of autumn, and so it turned out to be.

The story concerns Kemal Basmacı, a rich young man living in Istanbul in the mid-1970s and about to become engaged to the beautiful, aristocratic Sibel. As befits the alliance of two important families, their union is surrounded by much pomp and circumstance; they are a golden couple, at the height of their powers and their society. And then one afternoon, Kemal enters a small boutique to buy Sibel a present and finds his distant relative, Füsun, working there. He falls deeply and irrevocably in love with her and the two of them embark on an affair that will have long-lasting repercussions. At this point in its history, the cultural life of Istanbul is in transition, notably over sexual mores. It is possible to be a ‘modern’ woman, one influenced by the relaxed attitudes of the West, and to sleep with a man before marriage, when that marriage is clearly a done deal; this is Sibel’s situation. Füsun givens herself to Kemal on trust, hoping that he will make the situation right for her. And Kemal wants to have his cake and eat it; he cannot imagine foregoing his glitzy society marriage, but his feelings for Füsun, a poor shop girl and in no way a suitable partner for him, have reached the point of obsession. The catastrophe that is evidently waiting to happen takes place at the engagement party itself, when Füsun learns something about Kemal that makes her lose trust in him, and she seems to drop out of his life with swift irrevocability.

I don’t want to give too much plot away, mostly because there isn’t very much plot in this novel, certainly less than one might wish for in a book of over 700 pages. But the uncertainty as to whether Kemal and Füsun will ever be together is quite brilliantly drawn out, even though Pamuk takes the reader to the edge of extreme frustration. The novel owes a great debt to Proust, whose Marcel longed for Albertine over more pages than anyone might think plausible, but the roots of Kemal’s character stretch further back in time than that, to the sorrows suffered by the young Werther, in Goethe’s novel of exquisite male sensibility, or to Chateaubriand’s Réné, an isolated wanderer who was doomed to be unlucky in love. Essentially, Pamuk’s novel resurrects the mentality of the romantic melancholy hero, whose quixotic hopes and fears seem to be fixated upon a beautiful woman, whilst somehow ignoring and negating that woman at the same time.

Pamuk brings this hero up to date by adding a postmodern quirk to the story in the form of the museum of innocence that Kemal is creating from the earliest pages of the narrative. So great is his love for Füsun and so terrible the prospect of her loss, that he collects every single object he can lay his hands upon that has in some way been part of her life. It’s the weight of those objects that stretches the story out to its vast length. Proust only needed one madeleine, but Kemal has earrings and hair clips and 4,213 cigarette stubs and pictures from places they’ve been and china dogs and cologne bottles and, well… the very banality of the objects he assembles, the sheer quantity of them, ensures the pathos of his project as well as its magnificence. The idea of obsession as an inability to move on, a stubborn and determined stasis, is given perfect material form in his huge and ridiculous collection.

Kemal is, then, a man who loves extravagantly, loyally, outrageously, but he is also a dangerous obsessive whose pathological inability to withstand loss causes damage to the lives of many people. But the real talent of Orhan Pamuk is to extend his story outwards to embrace the internal conflict of Istanbul itself. In the decade or so on which the narrative focuses, Istanbul is caught between any number of extremes, between its fundamentally repressive views of women and its desire to be modern and Western, between its segregated layers of rich and poor, between political factions whose riots and revolutions provide a backdrop to the action that the characters roundly ignore. The personal is far more important than the political here, except of course, that these conflicts find themselves embodied by the lustful and confused figure of Kemal, torn between women who represent very different ways of life. Like all good love stories, this one is as influenced and compromised by the culture in which it takes place as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, for where private lives feel compelled to transgress public taboos, the threat of tragedy is inevitably evoked. But I was also reading that Pamuk, although a Nobel prize winner, is not popular with his native city and now lives mostly in exile in America. The shimmering tapestry of Istanbul that he weaves felt as full of love and longing as Kemal’s image of Füsun, and the fact that Pamuk turns up as a character in his own novel seems to indicate another loss that has yet to be accepted.

As I said before, this is a novel that takes time and patience to read; Pamuk is never as easy as he seems and he requires a reader prepared to put in some work. But I really loved this and felt that I had been through a genuine literary event when I reached the closing pages. It is at once a familiar story and an unusual quirky one; it is deeply personal and yet drenched in a very particular cultural and geographical landscape. It is slightly mad, but full of heart and intelligence. And its slow, drawn-out style, if you give in to it, puts you in a different rhythm of being, one that makes the clamour and the rush of modern life recede, leaving you encapsulated in a bubble of preserved time that asks to be examined for its richness and depth – just the way that any good museum should.


14 thoughts on “Love and Loss in Istanbul

  1. This certainly sounds like a interesting story, but I admit the length and density of novels like this are a bit frightening! Your review really piques my interest though.

  2. Lovely post. I have tried Pamuk, but I have to admit I set the book aside–nothing to do with him but everything about me and how I was reading at the moment. I just wasn’t able to give the book the attention it needed, and as you mention his books require thoughtfulness. Still, his work really appeals to me, so I want to give something a try at some point. It almost sounds as though a little experience with other stories only enhances this one, though I’ve not read Proust, Goethe, or Chateaubriand!

  3. A beautiful lyrical review. Pamuk’s been one of those authors I’ve always intended to read but haven’t quite got around to because I suspect they’ll be ‘worthy’ but dull. But this sounds wonderful – will have to give it a go.

  4. I know there’s a Pamuk novel on my shelves somewhere, but I’ve always suspected he’s an author you need to give a lot of time to and give your whole mind up to. I like the sound of the museum project Kemal assembles in this one, is it nosy to be interested in the detritus of other peoples lives and the little tokens that mean so much in context, but nothing if you see them lost on the streets.

  5. Oh wow, this sounds good. How sad that Pamuk is living in exile. I had not realized that. You are right that he is a writer that takes work. I’ve only read Snow but it was good and I have a few other Pamuks on my shelf waiting for the time I can give them proper attention.

  6. Litlove, I have Pamuk’s Snow sitting on my shelves, a find from one of the library’s Big Book Sales, and I’ve been wanting to read it but reluctant to do it right now because I get the sense it won’t be an easy one to get through. Maybe when winter comes and I spend more time indoors. By the way, I just caught up with your post on Auntie Mame! I loved it. (Both the post and Auntie Mame). I saw the play when it came to the Shubert in Chicago in the late ’60s starring Carol Channing and still have the Playbill someplace. And love the movie with Rosalind Russell. I grew up wanting a madcap aunt just like her.

  7. Lovely review. I enjoyed The Black Book and I’d say that Pamuk definitely captures the madness of obsession (or obsessive love). I love the different levels of the story that you mention (the historical overtones, the parallel with Istanbul and Pamuk’s own longing for that). Not sure I’d manage 700 pages though. I wonder if it’s really necessary to drag it out for that length or whether Nobel prizewinners get more licence to be wordy.

  8. Becca – I agree that Pamuk’s earlier novels have been on the scary side! But what I liked about this one was that it wasn’t dense at all – far more readable. But it IS long!

    Danielle – I really have to be in the mood for his writing, but when I am, he’s wonderful. As for the other writers, ah, that comes of a lost youth spent reading European fiction. If you wanted to try romantic melancholia (in book form) then have a go at Chateaubriand’s Rene, which is very short. But only when you are in the right mood for it – all these things have their seasons, I find.

    Baker’s daughter – he can be tough going, I admit. But he’s worth putting in a bit of effort (if you feel that way inclined, as I never think anyone ought to read books because they ‘should’). But this was definitely the most readable of his novels. Get it out the library and try a couple of chapters – you’ll soon see if it’s for you.

    Jodie – you do have to give him time, it’s true. But if you like the museum idea you might well enjoy this as it is a HUGE theme of the novel, and he explores it well (if exhaustively).

    Stefanie – I really must read Snow (and all the others!). I would LOVE to know what you think of this if you get hold of it!

    Grad – Definitely save him for when you have the time and the inclination. And Auntie Mame was a lot of fun. I’d love to see that film now, but it’s so hard to get hold of in the UK. I will keep my eyes peeled!

    Pete – I sort of believe that no book should ever extend beyond 500 pages – that it’s always about unnecessary padding at that point. But I was eventually won over to the length of this one because, like Proust (my other exception to the rule) it’s about feeling time passing. As a reader you need to have a certain experience in real time to appreciate what happens in the book, and so on that grounds, I let it go. But then again, he DID win a Nobel and so he can do what he likes!

  9. I know this isn’t really the focus of your post, but I’m glad to hear someone else was blown away by “The Night Watch.” I found that novel to be so good and so moving.

  10. I liked The Museum of Innocence a lot and will certainly read it again. I agree, really, with everything you say here and am grateful for your drawing my attention to all its antecedents – I had not really thought even of Proust, but, yes, of course! I’m a fast reader and don’t at all mind a book being this long. But it’s a shame if the sheer size means a much smaller readership, because this is such a magical and endearing and strange and lovely book in so many ways. I read it a while ago, when it first came out in English, and was surprised, when I thought about it, by how sharply the atmosphere and a great many scenes and images had lingered in my mind. Yes to all the antecedents, and yet Pamuk is so wonderfully not like anyone else!

  11. mbolit – I wish I’d been blogging at the time I read it – now of course, it is all too mushy in my brain to write about. But I really loved it and thought it hands down the best written book of the year.

    Jean – how wonderful to think you have read the Pamuk and loved it too! I never for a moment thought that anyone would have read it also. I do find that Pamuk is a strangely powerful writer. You don’t necessarily expect it at the time of reading, but he definitely weaves a spell and makes an impression. And I felt the length was necessary, which I don’t always. Wow – I’m so glad you loved this!

  12. My friend Beth of who is also a big Pamuk fan, has been reading Hamdi Tanpinar, whom he often cites as a big influence, and says that many of the characteristics we think of as essentially Pamuk are from Tanpinar. He sounds worth reading. But she also told me that the English translation of A Mind at Peace is not fantastic – I have a lot of trouble with chewy translations, and I expect you do to.

  13. I’ve read and admired his novel Snow, but I haven’t felt ready to tackle another Pamuk novel. You are tempting me, though! This one sounds fabulous and very satisfying. I will keep it in mind!

  14. Such a wonderful, and thorough, review. I stayed too much on the surface, only focusing on the obsessive love relationship and the way that “the rush of modern life seems to have receded” (as you so aptly put it). But then again, I stayed on the surface with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, content to dwell on the issues of self, and destruction, and passion rather than to look further at the culture as I should probably have done.

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