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subject matter of romantic love and loss spoke to me, and I could see that his usual dense and intellectual style had been replaced by a looser, lighter first person narrative.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.