Saturday, October 31, 2009

The museum

So the effect of that moment I was living was of something I was remembering. Visitors to my Museum of Innocence must compel themselves, therefore, to view all objects displayed therein — the buttons, the glasses, the old photographs, and Füsun's combs — not as real things in the present moment, but as my memories.

Here is an incomplete inventory of the objects on display:

- the shop sign that had once hung on the door where she worked (p 5)
- school photograph of maternal grandfather (p 8)
- an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin from Fuay, a European-style restaurant (p 12)
- the newspaper advertisement, the commercials, and bottles of strawberry, peach, orange, and sour cherry flavors of Turkey's first domestic fruit soda, Meltem, in memory of our optimism and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the day (p 26)
- Füsun's fuchsia dress (p 27)
- one of Füsun's earrings (first exhibit) (p 28)
- floral batiste handkerchief, as a symbol of solicitude (p 30)
- mother's crystal inkwell and pen set, symbolizing refinement and fragile tenderness (p 30)
- belt with oversize buckles, as a symbol of melancholy (p 31)
- photographs and postcards (p 41)
- pictures of movies stars form Zambo (p 45)
- cigarette, usher's flashlight, Alaska Frigo ice cream, symbolizing the desire and solitude of youth (p 47)
- Spleen cologne, from Paris (p 49)
- cigarette packets, teacup, glass, seashell to evoke heavy, draining, crushing atmosphere; girlish hair clip to remind us the stories happened to a child (p 55)
- painting, commissioned; view of Füsun's apartment, with chestnut tree (p 67)
- small collection of funeral photographs (p 83)
- plaster bust of his father, with plastic mustache (p 87)
- postcards of Istanbul Hilton (p 102)
- photo with Ship-Sinker Güven (who ran an insurance company); photo with gentleman banker (p 128)
- clock, matchsticks, matchbooks (p 146)
- depiction of internal organs of human body, from ad for painkiller (p 148)
- picnic basket, with thermos with tea, stuffed grape leave, boiled eggs, soda bottles, tablecloth (p 152)
- painting by Melling, of view similar to picnic view (p 152)
- door chime (p 161)
- stapler, ashtray with company logo (p 171)
- menus and glasses from Fuaye (p 174)
- letter to Füsun (p 179)
- newsclipping, with Ceyda's official beauty contest photo (p 180)
- collar of father's pyjamas, one of his slippers (p 182)
- items from mother's drawers (p 188)
- telephone token (p 201)
- hotel key, headed stationery, replica of sign (p 210)
- enlarged photo of father's toes (p 224)
- bolt of bathroom in Füsun's apartment, but not her lipstick (p 242)
- oil painting, commissioned; view of main room in Füsun's house from point of view of canary (p 250)
- little tin spoon, saltshaker, half-eaten ice cream cone (p 256-7)
- ticket stubs from summer cinemas, lobby photographs, advertisements (p 260)
- Meltem soda bottle (272)
- slender Buren wristwatch (p 288)
- model of Füsun's apartment (p 298)
- picture of view from window in back room (p 300)
- tombala set used for eight consecutive years at Füsun's house (p 322)
- 4,213 of Füsun's cigarette butts, each with its own soul (p 395)
- a pair of optical illusions (p 421)
- blue bikini (p 436)

Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilization will be aware that museums are the repositories of those things from which Western Civilization derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world, and likewise when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard. When their first pieces passed into their hands, the first true collectors — who would later exhibit, categorize, and catalog their great collections (in the first catalogs, which were the first encyclopedias) — initially never recognized these objects for what they were.

This is an excruciatingly lovely book, this book being The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Through all these objects, these simple objects — some conventional mementos, others ridiculously banal — a love story is told, and more.

As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that, like the tales of Leyla and Mecnun or Hüsn and Aşk, this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.

It is a book in 3 parts, the first section being about Kemal's relationships and how he sabotages them. It is very much about the nature of relationships, traditional versus modern, and, in particular, the issue of a woman's attitude to her own virginity. To be a modern woman in 1970s Turkey is a complicated, contradiction-laden thing. And it's evident that Kemal doesn't fully understand it either. Kemal is engaged to Sibel, a beautiful socialite, but he has fallen in love with Füsun. We see Kemal grapple with social conventions and learn his own mind. He makes choices and deals (or not) with their aftermath.

The second section is the meat of Kemal's obsession. It is a meditation on time and memory, and love, of course. This is the story of courtship, in a way. Kemal's grand romantic gestures are comprised of countless trivialities that finally are seen to sum up to something greater than its individually insignificant parts. And yet, it is in those discrete acts that everything is contained.

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death. As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning — a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore — we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the "present" can bring us enough happiness to last a century, [...]

The third section is quite short and is really more of a postscript. I'm not sure what purpose it serves to the novel as a whole... It allows Pamuk to insert the character of an author named Pamuk, commissioned by Kemal to write his story, as a guide to the museum. So that's a neat trick. Apart from that, I suppose it allows a couple points to be cleared up, things the narrator couldn't've known, and a few things are reported as being said, and I can see that it would've been difficult to have characters say these things naturally within their own narratives. Also presented here is a kind of philosophy of museums. But the astute reader would already have understood these things. Their reinforcement here is superfluous. The story by this time is essentially over. I almost wonder if the novel might be stronger without this section.

Similarly, the book contains an index of characters, absolutely useless to the average reader, but it is in keeping with the philosophy of museum: that it is not directed to the casual visitor, but it takes on import only from the perspective of the subject under examination (the museum's reason for being). The list acts as an acknowledgement of contributors.

It's kind of a disturbing book, actually. (It feels at times a little uncomfortably like Nabokov, for reasons I can't pinpoint but generally to do with the nature of obsession.) I don't know if our narrator is particularly sympathetic. It's not that he treats women badly, but he does some stupid things regarding women and he's such a guy about it. (I mean, he lies to Füsun! He actually thinks it's the right thing to do, he must believe he can get away with it, but he's kind of a jerk about it.) So it's a weird thing to get all wrapped up in his obsession: I don't think we're meant to fully understand it as we go along, it is the point of the novel to make us come round to understanding it.

We're led through this museum of a book, waiting to be told how it came to be. To what tragic end did this love come? You just know — the tone, the verb tenses — that all this, this love, is over. But the obsession continues.

The weirdness is amplified by the fact that we don't really know the object of Kemal's obsession. We know Füsun only through his eyes, and there are times we must question her innocence — is she playing her own game, is she acting out of anger, spite, revenge — we don't really know her at all.

This love is not innocent, nor are the parties to it. So I'm not sure about the innocence:

Main Entry: in·no·cence
Pronunciation: \ˈi-nə-sən(t)s\
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 a : freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil : blamelessness b : chastity c : freedom from legal guilt of a particular crime or offense d (1) : freedom from guile or cunning : simplicity (2) : lack of worldly experience or sophistication e : lack of knowledge : ignorance
2 : one that is innocent
3 : bluet

Chastity (as abstention from intercourse) is a factor, but I don't think it is central, except insofar as it leads to a chastening of character. Perhaps the museum is less a tribute than an attempt at absolution from guilt.

This is a gorgeous novel. I don't think it's as important as Snow, but I suspect it's more accessible, with a kind of quiet, noble beauty about it. It's about this timeless thing called love, after all, dwelling on all its elements in Proustian detail. And happiness! Have I mentioned happiness? No matter how tragic its end, there's a lot of happiness in love.

Excerpt: Kissing.

Jeremy is reading The Museum of Innocence and blogging about it as he goes. (I love this approach to reading/blogging, where reactions and associations are more immediate. I wish I did more of this, managed my time better, instead of saving it all up for a binge.)

Washington Post: "And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?"

The National (Abu Dhabi): "But The Museum of Innocence is far more ambitious than it might first seem; before long, Pamuk spins his love story into a damning social history of Turkish taboos and traditions."

New York Review of Books (Pico Iyer): "Every detail, in short, speaks of a culture of quixotic aspirations."

The Harvard Crimson: "The museum-like quality of novels is about preservation, conservation, and resistance to being forgotten."

Norton Lectures:
Excerpts from "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist," delivered by Orhan Pamuk.
Summarized in Harvard Magazine.

International Festival of Authors


Cipriano said...

Just tonight I pulled this book from the booshelf at Chapters and leafed through it, remembering my time with his Snow, at the beginning of this year.
I could have used snowshoes.............. real wide ones.
So, this one too........ seemed daunting to me.
Does one have to be from Turkey to enjoyably read this guy?

The Modesto Kid said...

Nice -- thanks for the link, Isabella -- and thanks for the well-written review!

-- Jeremy