Tuesday, July 26, 2005


More on Pamuk

Still making my way through Pamuk's Istanbul. It's one of those vaguely reader-resistant books--perhaps because the author keeps holding out the promise of two distinct narratives, his own history and that of the city, and delivers neither--but it's tantalizing nonetheless. Special news flash: hüzün, the form of post-imperial melancholy that's supposedly peculiar to Istanbul, turns out to be a French import! "What I have been trying to explain," says Pamuk, "is that the roots of our hüzün are European: The concept was first explored, expressed, and poeticized in French (by Gautier, under the influence of his friend Nerval)." Can there be anything sadder than borrowed melancholy? Second-hand sorrow? That explains a lot, including the author's fascinating struggle with the anxiety of (Western) influence. He writes:
To some degree, we all worry about what foreigners and strangers think of us. But if anxiety brings us pain or clouds our relationship with reality, becoming more important than reality itself, this is a problem. My interest in how my city looks to western eyes is--as for most Istanbullus--very troubled; like all other Istanbul writers with one eye always on the West, I sometimes suffer in confusion.
Pamuk alludes several times to a quasi-musical structure undergirding the book, which I haven't yet detected. But the perceptual confusion he mentions in the preceding paragraph is what the book is about. How does the East look to the West--and vice-versa? At one point, describing Flaubert's five-week sojourn to Istanbul in 1850, Pamuk parenthetically notes that the traveller planned to write "a novel called 'Harel Bey,' in which a civilized Westerner and an eastern barbarian slowly come to resemble each other, finally changing places." Flaubert never wrote it. But Pamuk did, in his fourth novel The White Castle, which involves exactly this sort of cultural mating dance, culminating in a swap of identities. Tricky devil, isn't he?

As for the translation by Maureen Freely, Pamuk is rumored to like it so much that he's asked her to re-translate some of his earlier work, including The Black Book. Not knowing Turkish, I can't attest to its accuracy, but the prose is attractively unruffled, with only an occasional, non-idiomatic dimple. Plus one notable blooper, I'm afraid. Regarding Joseph Brodsky's famous swipe at the deplorable East, "Flight from Byzantium," we read: "Perhaps because he was still smarting from W.H. Auden's brutal review of the book recounting his journey to Iceland, Brodsky began with a long list of reasons he'd come to Istanbul (by plane)." Whoopsie. Unless I'm very wrong, Freely has misunderstood one of Pamuk's simit-shaped sentences. It was Auden who wrote a book about his journey to Iceland--his collaboration with Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, was published in 1936. Was Brodsky smarting from the negative reviews that Auden had gotten nearly fifty years before? I suppose that's possible. But that's not what the sentence says.

All for now, except to mention that during my five-hour drive from New Hampshire on Sunday, I slipped a disc by an Istanbul-based rapper named Ceza into the CD player, and what do you know--I liked it. I didn't understand a single syllable, of course, although on one cut I'm sure I heard the words Jack Benny popping out of the mix. But the guy is a gifted motormouth, spitting out five umlaut-ornamented words per second, and he's clearly got what we English speakers call an attitude: perhaps I stumbled across the Turkish Eminem. A marketing hook to die for?

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James, This is an excellent post about Pamuk's book and it helped me, too, as I struggle with it.

I've enjoyed your blog-- it's diversity and intensity--so much!

-Leora Skolkin-Smith
Thanks for clarification on Iceland/Auden/Brodsky. I googled into here searching on this subject. I've read most everything Brodsky wrote in both languages; he has no book on Iceland, he greatly admired Auden and as far as I know Auden also held him in high regard. It looks to me like a Pamuk's blunder rather than translator's because Pamuk is hurt by Brodsky's view on Istanbul.

This view is not inconsistent though with what one can infer from Pamuk's "Istanbul" itself. His mother's forceful statements in the last chapter (I finished reading the book) attest to that. Turks seem to be lazily floating halfway between East and West. Western influence in literature of interest to turks is French romantics: Gautier, Nerval, Flaubert. Good stuff, but there is more, isn't there? There is little reference in the book to the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman history; it seems that neither the author, nor the 4 melancholic writers care much about the glorious past. I was hoping to learn from the insider's view on Istanbul's history.

To complete the list: Pamuk's affluent classmates and friends do not seem to exhibit any interest in intellectual endeavors, the author is quite solitary in reading, writing and painting.

There is one exception to the general turkish melancholic lethargy: pogroms of greek and armenian population in 1955.

Another is Mr. Pamuk himself who is daring to speak freely from within the society where freedom of speech is on the far end of uncertain travel to the West.

Zachary Deretsky
It's a great piece. I loved the book specially the part on the city having a spirit. The memories enmeshed with the history of the city made it a beautiful read.
[Quite absurd to comment more than a year later].
This book was translated into my language in 2006. I thought that I had to get it immediately since I lived in Istanbul for four months and have kept wonderful memories. Haven't read it yet, though.
Conclusion: I need to stop working and keep up with the good reading.
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