Orhan Pamuk: The SRB Interview
When Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy credited him with discovering ‘new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’ That same year a Turkish court dropped charges against him, ending a well-publicised trial that had caused international outrage and cast a shadow over the country’s commitment to freedom of speech. Pamuk’s prosecution came after he gave an interview to a Swiss newspaper in the course of which he said:
‘Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it.’
Pamuk is a writer who does not actively court controversy but neither can he avoid it. Born in Istanbul in 1952, he clings limpet-like to the city, enchanted by its past, present and possibilities. ‘Istanbul’s fate,’ he wrote in Istanbul: Memories of a City, ‘is my fate: I am attached to this city because it made me who I am.’ He grew up in a large, well-to-do, dysfunctional family, in a five-storey apartment block known as Pamuk Apartments, surrounded by his large extended family, and constant noise.
‘I wasn’t sure what I was going to be,’ he wrote in Istanbul, ‘but if anyone asked, I said I would stay in Istanbul and study architecture.’
Architecture, however, was usurped by literature, which distressed his mother with whom he often argued while she waited for his father to return home from visiting his mistress. On occasion, Pamuk would himself wander around the city into the early hours of the morning, implanting in his memory its ‘consoling’ streets and discordant sounds and multifarious characters. Once he returned home and wrote, ‘I don’t want to be an artist. I’m going to be a writer.’
It is a vow he has kept, producing a stream of well-received novels which have been translated into more than fifty languages. His first book to be published in English was The White Castle, which was followed by The Black Book and The New Life. In 2003, he won the International IMPAC Award for My Name is Red and in 2004 he published Snow. The Museum of
Innocence appeared in 2010. In it, its hero, Kemal, collects objects which chronicle his obsessive love for Fusun. Always eager to identify with his characters, Pamuk scoured Istanbul’s flea markets for the same objects out of which he, like Kemal, has created a museum which, he says, has received warm praise from the press and continues to attract a steady stream of tourists.
His latest book in English is Silent House, which was first published in Turkey in 1983. Set in a dilapidated mansion in a former fishing village near Istanbul, it features an elderly widow called Fatma who is attended by her loyal servant, a dwarf called Recep. Never far from the surface, however, is a question that has been long been at the forefront of Pamuk’s mind, namely Turkey’s painful transition from Ottoman past, which ended after six centuries in 1929 with the abolition of the monarchy, to western modernity.
The SRB’s editor, Alan Taylor, met Orhan Pamuk in London at the Bloomsbury office of his publisher, Faber, where they talked about living with relatives, painting and what it’s like to have a bodyguard, after which the interviewee asked his interviewer to pose with him for a photograph which, he said, he could not be guaranteed to forward.
Scottish Review of Books: You were 60 years-old earlier this year…
Orhan Pamuk: It’s a sad subject. I have so many books that I want to write and what worries me is that the time is getting shorter. I have a more relaxed vision of humanity and the world but I am still working a lot and getting older is all about writing the books that I planned for so many years. Also, living is a lot of work…
Would you ever consider taking a sabbatical?
I have friends who see how much I am working and say, ‘Orhan, you have all the distinctions, all the awards, all the sales, what do you want to achieve, why do you continue?’ My answer – I really don’t know. But if you give me a break of five days what I want to do is the same, write another novel. God gave me this year, it is 365 days. What should I do? Maybe I write a story. Maybe I paint a bit more. Do I just sleep in the bed? No. I think that my creativity, my mind, my tentacles are open to work when there is a self-imposed deadline. I have to catch up with things, I have to do this, I have to prove something. And I still don’t know why I think that.
In an introduction to My Name is Red you wrote that when you were in London once you went into the British Museum, which is just across the road, and you sat in the Reading Room…
I read the books and I write the books. And that’s what happened. With that sense, that logic, I should be the happiest person in the world.
But the problem is that in order to write the book you shouldn’t be happy all the time. You should have self-imposed criteria or standards for good fiction, identifying with people, jumping into the character or the atmosphere of the book – you sometimes cannot do this. It’s not like jumping into a sea. You simply cannot jump sometimes and that frustrates you, makes you resentful, angry, unhappy. Being a writer is managing these moods in a productive way so that you don’t waste much of your time.
And when one reaches 60 one is more conscious of the need not to waste time.
That’s why I’m impatient about political debates or attacks. It hurts but if it wastes time it is even worse.
Not to mention the amount of time that research and writing a novel consumes. Recently a crime novelist said he couldn’t understand how literary novelists take ten years to write a novel. He reckoned that nine of them must have been spent in a bar.
Okay. It really depends on the novelist.
You cannot accuse anyone for writing fast or slow. There is the story of Stendhal writing The Charterhouse of Parma in 42 days, probably he was lying the other way around, maybe he also went some places to drink, but wrote it, I guess in 100 days. Or Faulkner who said he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working in a power plant.
Fitzgerald said it took him the same time to write The Great Gatsby.
There’s nothing fancy about that. But you cannot write another Great Gatsby in the next six weeks. Shakespeare did it, sometimes Dostoevsky did it when he was in his late forties and early fifties. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, they were writing one masterpiece after another. I like to entertain thoughts about these subjects. In your youth you only desire to write great books, at my age you see the whole humanity. But I would not self-congratulate myself for being sixty!
Do you ever envy poets?
Because in general it takes much less time to write a fourteen-line poem than a 400-page novel.
I like being a novelist, the sense of a marathon, of a long-distance runner, I like that pace. I like that lifestyle, in fact, that it’s combined with other things, watching a movie at night, reading the newspapers late afternoon. But on the other hand in the morning you have this immense, empty landscape of the novel which you will fill with characters. It’s like inventing a second world that you want to dwell in. I like it. It’s not that I have to publish a book; it’s that I have to write a book that I care about.
How much planning do you do?
Do you, for example, wait like Joseph Heller until you have the ﬁrst sentence in your head and away you go, like a car going downhill with the handbrake off?
I agree with Joseph Heller about the first sentence. That you cannot plan it. On the other hand I read a lot of biographies. I have a lot of writer friends. Compared with what I’ve seen and experienced I’m relatively a novelist that plans a lot. Let’s imagine a novel is like a huge, old tree with 10,000 leaves and a big trunk and branches.
All of us should get a sense of the trunk and some branches. I take notes but the human imagination – even Shakespeare’s or Dostoevsky’s – is limited. You cannot pre-plan a whole novel, it comes through the hard work of the execution of the idea. So lots of little branches, even some parts of the trunk and also many many leaves, their brilliance comes as you work intensely that day. There is no pre-planned novel. In fact, it’s a performance you do while following a plan.
So what you’re saying is that you have the general plan in your head or on paper but you can’t plan every detail. That comes spontaneously, as you write.
In the end what matters is, are you sure about the story and can you chapter it. Then you collect the leaves. Of course some leaves also give you some branches and parts of the trunk. I should know what’s going
to happen, because then I like to pick up details that legitimise that second part, the ending.
Some writers have suggested that sometimes characters take on lives they did not foresee while others, such as Muriel Spark, thought this impossible, that she was the only person capable of determining how the character that she had invented acted.
This is Nabokov answering E.M. Forster. Both are partly right. There is the fact that the book also has its own logic which you only discover when you write it. But it’s not the characters’ logic. I have a lot of respect for Forster but I have less respect for his theory of character. It is also a combination of the objects and the demands of the story, that you cannot pre-plan because the mind is limited. It’s like playing chess. You cannot see the consequences when you’re playing but when you begin to execute them – wow! – it’s obvious.
Stylistically, Silent House seems quite different from other of your books, though I’m not sure whether this is conscious or because of the translation. Istanbul seemed to me more Proustian in style while Silent House is more straightforward.
It’s a straightforward inner monologue though I think that is how we behave when we think we’re talking to someone. We don’t have a monologue with ourselves. What we call inner monologue is actually inner dialogue with some imaginary or real person, We don’t say, ‘don’t do this, Orhan’. We say, ‘look, I’m not doing this’, to someone who may not be there but we’re having an imaginary conversation. I think we have imaginary conversations with others in our minds and we call these things thoughts, actually. But they are addressed to someone, they are not addressed to ourselves.
You paint as well as write, which is quite unusual.
Victor Hugo did it! Strindberg did it!
Not always very well! What kind of pictures do you paint?
I have different energies. Japanese, Chinese, landscape painting, I like. I try to do something with that, combining maybe what 1920’s Italians called pittura metafisica, metaphysical painting that later developed Chirico and Dali. I like that kind of stuff. Surrealism. I would say I follow my own humours. I think it was Dr Johnson who said to Boswell, ‘I follow my own humours.’ I am happier when I paint but I engage more deeply with the world when I write. But both desires persist in me. When I am painting I can listen to music or sing a song or even drink. but when I am writing, no singing, no music. I am as playful as a child but much more seriously.
Your upbringing in Istanbul seems to have been a perfect one for a writer but not necessarily for a happy human being.
I feel so. First of all I feel so privileged to have been born into the city when I was born. There was a million people when I was born, now they say there are 15 million. It is one of the top ten big cities in the world. And I am so lucky to have witnessed this one million to 15 million from the inside. I was there! And so, an endless source of stories. I am self-consciously an Istanbul writer and I work and work and work. The change in the city that I have experienced in the first 45 years is less than what has happened in these last 15 years. So it’s also hard to catch up with the immense change and I want to chronicle that too.
Has winning the Nobel Prize made it harder for you to wander around Istanbul incognito?
In the last year people stop me and take photographs all the time. Some five years ago because of right-wing popular mania there was right-wing anti-western attack on me. That’s all levelled down, perhaps years passed, perhaps my museum, perhaps I wrote a love novel [The Museum of Innocence], and now I have a bodyguard but I am more relaxed, people tell me. But also I have the benefits of the bodyguard.
I wander round the city’s dark corners, go to places that are really a bit threatening or into courtyards that are people’s private property. ‘I am so curious, I am a writer, can I have a look?’ That kind of thing. I walk and walk. In fact, the bodyguard I have is also nice because I can go into every corner of the city with him.
Does he read your books?
I don’t want to go into that because he is a private person and whatever I say here will be in Turkish newspapers.
It’s very unusual for a writer to have a bodyguard.
Yes, but I’ve got used to it. At the beginning I was very upset but now the pain’s off.
Did you ever think of leaving Istanbul for good?
In 2005 all my friends were saying, get out, [that] I’d be crazy [to stay]. So I’d go out for a while then come back. I was also thinking of the museum; I’d go out and come back and didn’t tell anyone. Everyone thinks I’m in America, actually I’m in Istanbul managing the museum. So it was hard times but now that pressure is off, there is no question of leaving, or I go to America to teach for a semester, not running away from Turkey.
How would you describe your childhood and upbringing?
I don’t know about England – or Scotland – but the image of the Turk is heavily influenced by the immigrant workers in Europe, especially in Germany, France and some Scandinavian countries, and Belgium perhaps.
These are rural Anatolian people coming from the most dispossessed and poor places. But there is also the middle-class secular Turkey to which my family belonged who are not very different from middle-class, secular Italians of the 1960s and 1970s. I come from a very secular family who believed in Kemal Ataturk’s ideal of western civilisation, though sometimes I am critical of the new generation’s authoritarian attitude. So Scottish readers should know that there are secular, middle-class Turks who in many ways are not different from secular, middle-classes elsewhere. Of course, Turkey was much poorer than European countries. I started writing the stories of these families.
This is perhaps one thing that I should underline. What about the other thing? On the other hand I spent my childhood among the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Let us not forget that Ankara was not the capital of Turkey until 1919; Istanbul was the capital and until recently, until the mid-nineteenth century, all the riches of the Middle East and the Balkans came to Istanbul. When the empire collapsed I was living among the ruins of all this grandiose architecture but it was also sad, because we had Kemal Ataturk asking us to go west and they were not prestigious in our eyes. These old Ottoman ruins.
Because the Ottoman period was associated with failure?
Everything relating to that old Ottoman culture – no one thought it should be in the museums. There was a lot of exterminating of the culture. Anyway, so that was my childhood. I lived in an upper-class family in that poor town of Istanbul which, when I was born, had only a million people, with a sense of ‘nothing is happening here’, ‘no one is interested in us’, and a feeling of being out of history. An amazing feeling when you compare it with today. But the whole change happened in the last two decades; earlier it was always never-changing.
In fact, the mood of Silent House is that everyone is frustrated. They’re going inward and they’re angry and resentful, even of the west and of each other. That positive or self-confident feeling that comes from economic growth or affluence is not around at this time.
What comes across strongly is a sense of decay, reminiscent in many ways Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
I like that novel because it gives you the immediacy of history. The present as history. Also the characters are self-conscious about time.
Maybe Lampedusa gave to his aristocratic characters too much a Marxist vision of time.
Also what Lampedusa’s book has is an overwhelming sense of melancholy, which is a favourite word of yours.
Yes. When I was writing my autobiography, Istanbul, I explored – since I am painterly and like art – what is the dominant feeling when we look inside Istanbul, when we treat it as a painting. What is the feeling that a city generates from us? I asked myself, in order to pin down the identity of a city.
In my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s the feeling that looking at the landscape of Istanbul gave me was melancholy. So you go inward; you better not venture, because most probably you would fail.
Any man of about 35 is a sad man until recently in Turkey. I wanted to address these feelings in the poetry they deserve. Turkish melancholy, hüzün, is also a sort of a communal theory rather than private intellectuals’ demonic sensibility. Not only that, it’s also a communal ethics of not asking too much, not demanding too much, following in the footpaths of your elders, being obedient, also uncritical of the past. New life comes from venturing and asking questions. But you cannot generalise too much. There is the working class Istanbul, there is the poor Istanbul, there is the Istanbul of the 1950s, there is the tourist Istanbul.
As well as Istanbul, houses features often in your work. Pamuk Apartments, the building in which you were brought up, seems a gift to a writer, where there were several storeys and many stories, layer upon layer of storeys and stories. A Tower of Babel.
It’s a story of getting a lot lonelier and lonelier. I come from a big family – aunts and uncles and grandmother and cook, many, many cousins, fighting, eating together, everyone is cracking jokes. Though I liked it, it was also slightly too communal, too jokey, not private, not private space to imagine. Individuals, of course, cracked jokes about the would-be painter, the would-be poet. Also very down-to-earth and that kills some of the poetry
in you. I liked it but for me I sometimes said the best position is you have the sort of family which are in the next room while you write your stories and you can join them when you want. At first we were all living in a big mansion then we moved to apartments in a big apartment building. Then some moved to other places and the fathers and mothers died or separated. Now I’m coming to a lonely end. That house is now my archive. I have a penthouse at the top of that building. I lived there until recently but now I’m not living there any more. That neighbourhood also changed.
Everything changes. And you should not be nostalgic, you should accept it as you accept the world.