Pamuk’s museum of consolations

Our first morning in Beyoğlu, we went to The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s actual museum on Çukur Cuma Caddesi that is based on a novel, of the same name, about “love’s labour’s lost.” The museum was for me a peak experience in Turkish culture.

I

Orhan Pamuk swam into our ken via a personal history he wrote for The New Yorker of March 7, 2005 — his first piece in that magazine — “The Pamuk Apartments: Growing up among the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.” The memoir depicted the author’s childhood in Istanbul in a charming rapture of  homely detail about his formerly-prosperous extended family. They — parents, a brother, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents — lived on different floors in the five-storey Pamuk Apartments in the tony Nişantaşı district of Istanbul. Little Orhan had pretty much the run of the place.

Pamuk Apts New Yorker

The memoir is by turns ingenuous and mordant in tone. Istanbul is in Pamuk’s narrative an epicentre of melancholy, which Turks call hüzün. Another memoir in The New Yorker (“My First Passport,” April 16, 2007) took up his father’s frequent disappearance. Sarcasm and humour combine in well-turned phrases: “My father and my uncles hadn’t yet managed to squander their entire inheritance.”

There, way back when, are this museum’s origins:

In each apartment, there was … a locked glass cabinet displaying Chinese porcelains, teacups, silver sets, sugar bowls, snuffboxes, crystal glasses, rosewater pitchers, plates, and censors, which no one ever touched, although among them I sometimes found hiding places for miniature cars …

The Museum of Innocence is very much a place of glassed display cabinets. The cover of the catalogue:

catalog loCover photo of the Museum of Innocence catalogue The Innocence of Objects shows Box 25, The Agony of Waiting. See below.

The memoir “My Father’s Suitcase” bore the subtitle, “The Nobel Lecture, 2006” (The New Yorker, December 25, 2006); it can be read  on the Nobel Prize website. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Pamuk “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures” (Nobel website). The “political novel” Snow (2002) was his eighth. Not being much of a reader of novels, I took little note. But I was impressed with the clarity of Pamuk’s autobiographical writing. It seemed to bring a whole world to life. Impressed, too, by his devotion to Place. “He knows his place” was never truer — or more relevant to the question of how we are to live in a pasteurized, homogenized, souring world.

I happened on a documentary on BBC World News about the museum Pamuk opened in his neighbourhood in Istanbul in April 2012. It seemed so improbable, basing a museum on a novel, so extravagant. I liked what the video camera showed of Istanbul — the narrow streets, the little shops.

0742 innocence

My interest in Turkey shot up. For this trip, trying to get a feel for Turkish culture and society, I read the translation of Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City (Vintage, 2004). Pamuk’s website describes Istanbul as “a poetical work that is hard to classify, combining the author’s early memoirs up to the age of 22, and an essay about the city of Istanbul, illustrated with photographs from his own album, and pictures by western painters and Turkish photographers.” I found it a charmingly random scrap-book of family and local history and was sorry when I came to the  end.

istanbul cover

I also listened to the audiobook of Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence (narrated by John Lee; Canongate Books, 2013; downloaded from my public library). The two books are complementary. Both draw on the author’s experience of family, community, city and nation over decades. Where Istanbul builds a mosaic of experience and knowledge, Museum evokes Istanbul of the 1970s and 80s in the construction of a melodrama of frustrated love and obsessive collection. I will confess to much preferring Istanbul. I found the conventional love-story of Museum a tough slog. It strains belief to suppose that the cast-off lover would spend every evening for seven years at the family dinner table of his married ex-lover. I have a nose for contrivance. The marathon of abasement is the ground of the protagonist’s ability to collect so much of his ex’s stuff. Everyone turns a blind eye to his compulsive theft of their goods because had they not, there would have been no more talk about any museum, he’d be packed off to the local shaman/confessor/analyst — whatever, if anything, the Turkish form of that agency.

museum cover

Towards the end of the novel my interest perked up. The dissertation on the niche occupied by small private museums is fascinating, if rather more journalistic than literary. I took note especially of the protagonist’s account of the collecting disorder. There are two types of collector, says Kemal, the novel’s protagonist: one the Bashful who hides his collection, and the other the Proud who exhibits it. “The Proud regard a museum as a natural destination for their collections,” he writes in Chapter 82, “Collectors.” In the Bashful stance, pathology rages:

the Bashful collect purely for the sake of collecting. Like the Proud, they begin—as readers will have noticed in my own case—in pursuit of an answer, a consolation, even a palliative for a pain, a resolution of difficulty, or simply out of a dark compulsion. But living in societies where collecting is not a reputable act that contributes to learning or knowledge, the Bashful regard their compulsion as an embarrassment that must be hidden. Because in the hands of the Bashful, collections point not to a bit of useful information but rather to a wound the Bashful collector bears.

Found myself treading the turf of my own childhood, when I began the collecting habit  — (stamps, coins, models, comics, bubblegum sports cards) — that still operates on me — (pictures, postcards, maps, books, information, what have you). Collecting provides consolation, I think, for the loss of some primary bond with the world … love of life, savoir faire, ambition … Whether by nature, nurture, coincidence, fortune, bad luck, bad timing, incompetence, it doesn’t matter, you toil in the same nets of inhibition — in Kemal’s case you love and need love, but you get a pallid death-in-life. No matter how you trick it out, collecting is far off the highway of life. So is prison. Collecting brings release from the prison of oneself, if only temporary.

In the last chapter it’s revealed that Kemal’s first-person narrative has all along been ghosted by none other than Orhan Pamuk. Kemal hired him to write the book. How postmodern is that? “Hello, this is Orhan Pamuk!” (516) — Cute. Playful. The author and the character have these long conversations that are really Kemal’s extended monologues. Here comes the pitch:

With my museum I want to reach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. (518)

And:

What Turks should be viewing in their own museums are not bad imitations of Western art but their own lives. Instead of displaying the Occidentalist fantasies of our rich, our museums should show us our own lives. (525)

The didactic rears its head. Pamuk’s own story is one of spectacular redemption. His disorder doesn’t cost — it pays. Having won the Nobel Prize for his writing, Pamuk found a new calling as a curator. Pamuk told an interviewer he spent the equivalent of his Nobel Prize money, $1.5 million, creating The Museum of Innocence (the museum). In the catalogue he writes that the idea for the museum came in the 1980s, before the idea for the novel. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our glorious fantasies got the kindling of affirmation and pride that came to Mr. Pamuk with universal acclaim? Alas that we cannot all win the Nobel Prize.

II

He did the museum right. It is a gorgeous space. Everything is deluxe, from design to finish. The entrance is stunning, the staircase a wonder. The main exhibition on the second floor is a miracle of compression. The novel has eighty-three chapters; the museum, eighty-three displays. Not all  are completed; what look like tiny theatre curtains are drawn across a few of the cases. Most are assemblages; a few are impressionistic or surrealistic installations.

At least one, No. 68, has what I would consider merit as an original work of art. The framed and mounted display of four thousand cigarette butts is the first object one notices opposite the entrance. The butts are mounted on pins like insects, grouped by year, in perfect rows and columns, the width of the annual strip varying as to how many of Füsün’s cigarette butts Kemal collected. Pamuk — sorry, Kemal — stamped the dates under each butt and made tiny notations. I’m going to commit a tiny crime and show a scan from the catalog, to illustrate the fantastic level of detail achieved on a superficially absurd project:

c butts detail

This is meaningful in its own right, existing of and by itself. There’s a small photo of “4,213 Cigarette Stubs” in situ at the Museum website, under “About the Museum.” A photo that shows the scale of the work ran with Pamuk’s interesting travel article “Small Museums” in The New York Times, March 20, 2014.

The price of admission (25 Turkish lira) is waived if you bring the novel, specifically the admission pass on p. 520. Admission comes with an audioguide — an essential companion to the exhibition. Several dozen people toured the museum at the same time as we. I noticed that people without the audioguide spent very little time at each display, merely glancing over it before moving on. They were soon finished and probably left in the spirit of the woman we met at the door — “A serious hoarder,” she sneered. The audioguide makes extended and often eloquent references to the contents of each display in the context of the novel. I can’t imagine anyone making sense of the museum without it, unless one knows every chapter of the novel backwards and forwards.

The catalogue The Innocence of Objects (New York: Abrams, 2012; $42 Cdn in the museum gift shop) provides a whole new perspective on the literary phenomenon that is The Museum of Innocence. First and foremost it’s a sumptuous picture book. Many of the images are close-ups of the displays. (Query to proprietor: Couldn’t photos of a few displays be gainfully put up on the museum’s website, with captions, without compromising their ownership?) The book unfolds abundant galleries of vintage photos and other material culture. Photo captions add appreciably to the weight of the illustrations. Around them, excerpts from the novel mingle with original text tracing the arc of the project from fantasy to novel to museum, or text in the voices of the fictive Kemal and Orhan that fills out the meaning of the objects on display. Overall, the catalogue is a necessary complement for the inspired.

Between the novel, the audioguide and the catalogue, the museum’s assemblages accumulate layers of signification. Take for example, Box 25, The Agony of Waiting, depicted on the cover of the museum catalogue (above). In the novel, Chapter 25 is a pivot-point. In Chapter 24, The Engagement Party, an extended bravura performance of writing, Kemal the protagonist celebrates being engaged to marry Sibel. His 18 year old lover Füsun is there too. Kemal and Füsun part with a promise of sorting out their relationship tomorrow at their usual place of assignation. In Chapter 25 Füsun doesn’t show and continues absent day after day while the chump Kemal continues to wait for her at his mother’s spare apartment. (I don’t blame her! Kemal is the very type of human-relations deficit disorder! Doesn’t get it! Shun! shun!)

One of the eccentricities of the novel is Kemal’s tour-guide voice. In Chapter 25 we hear it illuminating objects in Box 25:

I have here the clock, and these matchsticks and matchbooks, because the display  suggests how I spent the slow ten or fifteen minutes it took me to accept that Füsun was not coming that day. (146)

… fleeting dreams would mix with memories when my eyes lit upon this teacup, from which Füsun drank during our first encounter, or upon this little old vase that she picked up for no reason while impatiently pacing the apartment. (147)

The vase seems to have disappeared.

Can’t remember what the audioguide said about this display. The catalogue has a little essay, “Time and Objects,” that adopts the artifice of the novel — Kemal is the protagonist, Orhan the narrator.

We had agreed with Kemal that … everything in this box should relate to patience, waiting, and resignation. (129)

The writer recurs to the clock mentioned in the novel, now “with its internal workings exposed,” that “measures the lethargic progress of time,” and the matchsticks “laid out in front of it in an attempt to count the minutes.”

The red cloth they sit on seems to relate directly to Pamuk’s experience: “Whenever my grandmother had her friends over to kill time playing cards, she would always drape a dark red baise tablecloth like this one over the table.”

The picture at upper right, of people in silhouette watching a ship on the Bosphorus, is by Ara Güler. The compelling image is “a white ship we watch longingly from afar. The many denizens of Istanbul who watch the ships sailing down the Bosphorus and dream of other countries, other realms, and other lives are intimately acquainted with the emotion that lies behind the photograph …”

The picture upper left shows someone “looking out at the Hilton Hotel—where the engagement party was held—from their seat on the steps of the Taşkışla—where Füsun took her university entrance exams. (A strange coincidence from a black-and-white postcard from the 1960s.)” Presumably the photo at lower left is of the forementioned exam building.

Related to the theme of study are “a piece from a writing set on the left, with an item from a coffee service set to its right.”

Visitors who look closely inside the box might read Füsun’s exam registration form and find out that Füsun’s foreign language choice in high school was English. But Kemal never mentioned this side of Füsun to me.

Finally, there is the photograph at lower right that I guess illustrates the theme of waiting (can’t recall the image) — “just one among the many thousands of anonymous, abandoned photographs that have come into my possession from Istanbul’s junk dealers.”

III

I found the museum very moving. Lingered for more than two hours over the displays. What moved me was the sense of a kindly light shining into some of my dark corners.

You end up on the third floor, where Kemal was said to lodge and from which he descended from time to time in pyjamas to mingle with the visitors in his museum.

Another tiny crime. No pictures allowed. My hand slipped, honest …

0722 bed

Oh, yes, one more plot thang: the museum is actually Kemal’s sweetheart’s family home. Where you are standing is where he spent those seven years, pining and pilfering — only please remember always to call it collecting.

What makes this museum vibrate with meaning is, of course, not the melodrama of  fictional characters’ lives but the exquisite representation of Istanbul people in certain configurations during a certain period. I was transfixed by a sequence of Pamuk family home movies of the fifties that runs at least half an hour without repeating, on a screen detached from any of the numbered displays. Little Orhan and his brother jumping off docks into the Bosphorus; the large family out for a walk … reminding us that Pamuk’s collection is about real people after all. When the narrating voice in the novel morphs into exactly the documentary voice in Istanbul, you understand that you are viewing reflections of a real world of real events.

I have to say that, having listened to snippets of the novel read by Pamuk and another reader in the excellent museum audioguide, the audiobook of the novel comes off as decidedly second-rate — the reading is rushed and lacks nuance.

I remain puzzled about the meaning of “innocence” in the titles. How can disorder produce innocence? Restore it, somehow? Or is the title about having one’s self-respect — Kemal’s Pride — restored from shame by, waitaminute, opening a museum? No, for most of us, nearly all, that is too preposterous. The title of the museum catalog, The Innocence of Objects, hints at somehow gaining access to an inanimate universe … where, on the surface of it, innocence and guilt do not exist. Could it refer to the innocence of a young girl, just 18, seduced and manipulated? It certainly wouldn’t be the married and divorced Füsün, who nurtures a lethal grievance against Kemal for her failure to develop a career as a movie actress.

Nowhere in any of the Innocences can I find any enlargement on the meaning of the title. It does sound grand, though, doesn’t it?

PS 1

Orhan Pamuk is on a roll. In May the Museum of Innocence won the European Museum of the Year Award for 2014. The European Museum Forum‘s citation:

Its radical, in-depth exploration of the psychological meaning of the collecting process and its insight into material objects as metaphors and as carriers of emotions, memories and cultures […] inspires and establishes innovative, new paradigms for the museum sector.

PS 2

our museums should show us our own lives (The Museum of Innocence, p. 525)

We visited the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, on the Beyoğlu waterfront, and came upon Yolda, On the Road, an exhibition of photographs of the real Turkey by members of the collective Nar Photos:

0740 Nar exhibit 0741 exhibit

We were boggled at how removed is the pathos in those photos from the ever cheery touristic experience — and from the relentlessly returning good cheer of The Museum of Innocence (the novel).

A review in English here.

The NAR Photos collective website here.

2 thoughts on “Pamuk’s museum of consolations

  1. HELLO
    I too were very moved reading the novel : ” The Museum of Innocence” and will absolutely visit the museum when I travel to Istanbul on my second trip there which hopefully will take place next year. I visited Istanbul 2 1/2 years ago and did not know Orhan Pamuk then. I really do now and just finished his book yesterday about Istanbul. Wonderful . Its allmost like being there yourself and make me want to read more about the strange city.
    I must confess that I couldnt finish ” Snow” , but I will try again.

    Greetings Anja Hilden

  2. Thank you for writing. Reviewing my review, I have to qualify two things.
    First, it didn’t give nearly enough weight to Pamuk’s elaboration of Turkish family life, specifically the to us astonishing perisistence of the extended family and its social imperatives — such that in the novel, Kemal could have dinner at Fusun’s family home every night because he had a slender blood relationship with them and Fusun’s mother was sweet on him. So it may indeed have been quite normal to have dinner there for an extended period.
    The same peculiarly Turkish reality hangs over Kemal’s theft of Fusun’s goods. It may well be — the family dynamic being what it is (Pamuk is fantastically specific and detailed about that) — perhaps a man could behave badly with impunity. Perhaps there is no agency of personal growth like “shaman/confessor/analyst” in Turkish society. Perhaps the prerogatives of blood relationship do not extend to intervening in opposition to a family member’s behaviour.

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