Unpacking Orhan Pamuk’s Library
The first words of Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence lingered in my mind as I entered his apartment overlooking the Bosphorus, “It was the happiest moment of my life, but I didn’t know it.” There I was at the center of Pamuk’s universe, surrounded by an exquisite collection of books. His library was even more impressive than the postcard view from the window. I could easily have spent hours pouring over every title and losing myself in the process of cataloging the books and stories in my mind. During what felt quite close to a Stendhal moment, I was struck by the similarity between the book cabinets filled with endless stories and the vitrines that fill Pamuk’s museum in Istanbul. I was reminded that Pamuk is a real collector—a characteristic that has had a tremendous influence on both his writing and his art.
In Walter Benjamin’s essay Unpacking My Library he discusses the traits of a genuine book collector. Benjamin was interested in the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, in the act of collecting rather than the collection itself. He hones in on the passion of collecting, and pinpoints how this passion is connected to memories. He states, ”This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
Although Walter Benjamin’s essay relates specifically to book collecting, the parallel to Orhan Pamuk’s role as collector of objects is quite relevant. Bernt Brendemoen has written extensively about Pamuk the collector, and his essay Orhan Pamuk and the Material World—The Author’s Use of Objects in His Novels provides valuable insight regarding the connection between Pamuk the collector and Pamuk the writer. From a curatorial perspective I am naturally interested in Pamuk the artist. As The Art of Fiction reveals, these three Pamuks are completely intertwined. In Benjamin’s analysis of the mind of a collector, which Brendemoen also references in his essay, he states that “there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” It is almost as if Benjamin had been able to look ahead in time and dig into Pamuk’s “garden of memories”. The ultimate question is whether these objects come alive in Pamuk’s writing, or if the objects somehow make the writing come alive. As the intricate relationship between the novel and the museum proves, the answer is found in an absolutely brilliant combination of both.[...]
If the pleasure of collecting is conveyed repeatedly on the pages of Orhan Pamuk’s books, it reaches its pinnacle in The Museum of Innocence where the act of collecting objects and the process of writing are inextricably bound. Nowhere are the tangible results of Pamuk’s passion for collecting more evident than in the vitrines found in his museum—29 of which are on display in The Art of Fiction. The exhibition also features a selection of Pamuk’s original notebooks filled with words and images, which serves to emphasize the importance of his role as a visual artist. In fact, he dreamed of becoming an artist until the age of 23 when “a screw fell loose” and he decided to become an author. Although Pamuk went on to become an award winning author the artist inside him never died. When I visited him on The Prince Islands, where he was busy writing a new novel, he proudly showed me the perfect antidote against writer’s block. He keeps a full artist’s supply of colored pens and pencils readily available so that he can tap into the world of images whenever he feels the need. His notebooks are integral to his work and within this exhibition they function as a powerful visual reminder that images and words are of equal importance to Pamuk.
On its most basic level The Museum of Innocence is a classic tale of impossible love reminiscent of Layla and Majnun or Romeo and Juliet. This is the story of Kemal who falls so deeply in love with Füsun that he becomes obsessed with collecting objects that remind him of the time they spent together before fate would tear them apart—not only once but twice. These objects are spun into a nostalgic and sentimental story that also paints a vivid picture of Istanbul from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
As viewers, we are invited to consider the symbolism of real objects that relate to a fiction. As readers, we are confronted with reality through intermittent references to Orhan Pamuk and the actual museum that he would later create to house the objects that Kemal collects. This playful balance between fiction and reality—so typical of Orhan Pamuk’s literary style—teases our understanding of both. Neither a book about a museum, nor a museum about a book, they are two sides of the same story; one told through words, the other expressed through objects. As such, an epic tale of love, an ode to Istanbul, and an unprecedented work of art come together to reveal the full potential of the relationship between words and images, literature and art.
The magic of objects is the essential underlying theme throughout, best described by Orhan Pamuk in his own museum catalogue The Innocence of Objects. The following passage, which corresponds to vitrine 53—An Indignant and Broken Heart is of No Use to Anyone, illuminates the conceptual underpinnings of the novel and the museum:
The Museum of Innocence has been made by those who believe in the magic of objects. We have been inspired by Kemal’s belief in objects, yet unlike the passionate collector, we are not moved by the fetishist’s desire to possess things, but rather by the wish to know the objects’ secrets. We carry in our own hearts the very same hope that we see emanating from the cinema crowd’s gaze this autumn evening. As our soul focuses on objects, we can feel in our broken hearts that the whole world is one, and we come to accept our own sufferings. What makes this acceptance possible is enshrined in the cinemagoers’ eyes. It isn’t necessarily in the soda bottle that Kemal kept by his bedside for years because Füsun once touched her lips to it or the broken porcelain heart. We turn instead to the crowd in the background, to the other world, to a place outside of Time—to you.
In describing his fascination with the secret meaning of objects, Pamuk reveals the biggest secret of all—he isn’t really interested in collecting itself. He is interested in the magic of objects. Orhan Pamuk consistently plays with our perceptions in much the same way as Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, and succeeds in creating a captivating fictional world that is somehow always just beyond our grasp. It’s as if Istanbul itself had been inspired by Calvino’s Invisible Cities while the “poetic allure” of its streets and alleys had been mapped out in Borges’ Labyrinths. It’s all about the magic that turns the objects Pamuk collects into literature and into art.
Countless journalists have begged the question of where Orhan Pamuk’s story ends and were Kemal’s story begins; they want to know if The Museum of Innocence is autobiographical. The novel certainly conveys the kind of bittersweet melancholy that one imagines could only be written by someone who has suffered the agony of heartbreak, and the parallels between the protagonist and the author are abundant—yet there is so much more to it. Perhaps most importantly, where does Istanbul’s story end and Pamuk’s story begin, and where does Pamuk’s story end and our own story begin?
Orhan Pamuk clearly enjoys playing with our perceptions, but he is not one to leave his readers completely in the dark. Throughout his authorship he provides clues that provide additional layers of meaning for the attentive reader. This includes phrases, passages, and themes that reappear from book to book, references to his sources of literary inspiration, and details that suggest how the narrative might unfold. For instance, in chapter 12—Kissing on the Lips Kemal professes, “Even then I sensed this room mysterious with old objects and the joy of our kisses would be at the core of my imagination for the rest of my life.” Blending past with present, and also referencing the future, Pamuk sheds light on the magic of objects that defines the entire story:
My mother’s accumulated old furniture, the boxes, the stopped clocks, the pots and pans, the linoleum covering the floor, the smell of dust and rust had already merged with the shadows in the room to create a little paradise of the spirit in which my mind could wander.
When Orhan Pamuk describes the wanderings of Kemal’s mind we are transported to a wondrous place where the likes of Proust, Baudelaire, Balzac and Flaubert are ever present. As Kemal peers into the bathroom mirror in chapter 49—I Was Going to Ask Her to Marry Me a female singer’s voice drifts into him through the window and provides him solace, “It’s love, it’s love, the reason for everything in the universe”. The passage is part of a pivotal episode in the story:
I thus lived through one of my life’s most profoundly spiritual moments standing in front of the bathroom mirror; the universe was one, and one with all inside it. It wasn’t just all the objects in the world—the mirror in front of me, the plate of cherries, the bathroom’s bolt (which I display here), and Füsun’s hairpin (which I thankfully noticed and dropped into my pocket)—all humanity was one, too. To understand the meaning of this life, one first had to be compelled to see this unity by the force of love.
As Kemal becomes increasingly obsessed with Füsun, torturously vacillating between deep anguish and bliss, his idealized vision of love brings a whole host of epically disillusioned protagonists to mind, ranging from Emma in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Florentino in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. The more time I spend considering each chapter in a book that is also a museum, the more I see the truth in Pamuk’s words, “Of course—as books were always telling us—everything was connected to everything else.” It is worth mentioning that the “fake” Jenny Colon bag, which plays an important role in the story, is a reference to the Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval whose love was Jenny Colon. This is cited in chapter 33—Vulgar Distractions where Kemal professes:
Years later, when I took refuge in books, I found, in a work by Gérard de Nerval, the best expression of the crude dullness I was feeling at the time. After understanding that he has lost forever the love of his life, the poet, whose heartbreak eventually leads him to hang himself, writes somewhere in his Aurélia that life has left him with nothing but “vulgar distractions”.
We can’t help but feel sorry for Kemal, and at this stage in the story will probably start wondering what will become of him in the end. Fortunately, he does manage to find relief in the objects that remind him of Füsun. Attentive museumgoers will notice that there is no vitrine for this particular chapter—as of yet. It seems appropriate in a novel that highlights innocence that there are no objects to accompany the notion of vulgarity, but Pamuk might not leave this vitrine unfinished. He has already hinted that if he were to complete this vitrine the objects would relate to “the hideous neighborhoods of ugly apartment blocks, depots, little factories, and dumping grounds.” And, I would imagine, “the pain of love no longer felt unbearable.”
In the continuous shift between fiction and reality, between the ongoing narrative and references to the museum, Pamuk switches effortlessly from passages written in the voice of the protagonist, to speaking directly to the reader as narrator, changing roles when we least expect it. This is particularly evident in chapter 17—My Whole Life Depends on You Now where the distinction between narrator/author and protagonist is blurred almost beyond distinction. Pamuk switches from Kemal’s fictional recollections and memories of Füsun to factual references to the book and the museum, thereby challenging our perceptions of what is fact and what is fiction. For instance, “Fusun was wearing the earrings of which one is displayed at the entrance to our museum.” In another passage Kemal refers to the book that readers of the novel happen to be reading, “we were fast approaching the ‘happiest moment of my life’ mentioned at the beginning of this book.” Pamuk guides us through Kemal’s emotions and helps us to understand the spiritual significance of the objects that Kemal collects. Pamuk explains this most poetically; “We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant. These mementos preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments.” Understood in this way the reappearance of the earring functions as an opportunity to recount the details of the happiest moment in Kemal’s life, when the butterfly earring falls from Füsun’s ear—the moment when she loses her innocence.
Innocence as a central theme is emphasized in the title of the book and the museum. It also appears in the title of the museum catalogue, The Innocence of Objects, and reappears in the title of Grant Gee’s documentary film, Innocence of Memories, about the relationship between the novel and the museum. Why innocence is so important is a tricky question that is difficult to answer without destroying the mystery and elusiveness of The Museum of Innocence. It’s important to keep in mind that Orhan Pamuk doesn’t create titles to explain his books; his titles are intended to engage and inspire the reader to reflect upon, reconsider, and maybe question a book’s underlying meanings. Suffice it to say that innocence is captured in memories and objects, and the clues to what this actually means are found throughout the narrative—in every chapter and each vitrine. Just as Marcel Proust conveyed the wonder and innocence of childhood through the fictitious town of Combray in À la recherche du temps perdu, Pamuk conveys the innocence of memories, objects, love, and childhood in The Museum of Innocence as well as in other books such as Istanbul: Memories of the City and The Black Book. In this case, innocence permeates the entire narrative and whether it relates directly to a butterfly earring, a tricycle, or a hairclip is up to the reader and museumgoer to find out. One way or the other it all relates to the search for lost time.
Returning to the library that I set out to unpack, by now it ought to be clear that The Museum of Innocence should be cataloged among the greatest works of literature—nestled somewhere between Gustave Flaubert and the nostalgic Turkish writer Abdülhak Sinasi Hisar. However, if there were space for the vitrines in my imaginary library I would place them in the art history section. In order to fully understand what transforms the real objects that relate to a fictional story into art, it is helpful to break away from the narrative to consider the art historical underpinnings of the work.
Those with an interest in art history will immediately notice the similarity between the carefully composed objects in Orhan Pamuk’s vitrines and Dutch vanitas painting. In this respect vitrine 40—The Consolations of Life in the Yali stands out in particular. The ornate crystal decanter filled with spirits, the watch, the seashell, the bundles of ripe grapes, and the delicate strand of pearls—all carefully laid out on a pristine white tablecloth—echo the Golden Age of Dutch painting, whereas glasses of raki and Turkish tea, and photographs of the Bosphorus create a distinctly Turkish setting and mood.
As I look at the objects in the vitrines I am reminded of the pleasure of trying to unravel the hidden meanings in Dutch still-life paintings as a child. These painstakingly realist 16th and 17th century paintings typically feature lavishly set tables where jewels, skulls, and timepieces provide clues to hidden messages often related to themes of life and death. The Consolations of Life in the Yali is comparable to a three-dimensional rendition of a Dutch still-life painting—one that truly captures Pamuk’s nostalgia for Istanbul and the Bosphorus. He acknowledges these sources of inspiration in The Innocence of Objects, “This portrait of my recollections from yali-life—the boathouses and rowing trips, the high ceilings, the enormous ships sailing so close by that it seemed as if they were passing through the living room fishing on the shore, the food and fried mackerel on the table—is inspired by memories of Dutch still-life painting.”
In a world where objects, words, poetry and prose are all interconnected, it turns out that The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul is also connected to a place known as Utopia Parkway. They are connected as if part of “a map we think we know by heart—that has suddenly and without warning taken on the contours of a foreign land.” As strange as this may sound, the link is vital to a full appreciation of Orhan Pamuk’s vitrines. The American sculptor Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), who worked from the basement of his home on Utopia Parkway, in Queens, New York, devoted nearly his entire lifetime to making shadow boxes. These were small glass-fronted boxes filled with objects, built on the fundamental principles of surrealism: ready-mades, found objects, and assemblage—many of the same factors that define the objects in Pamuk’s vitrines as art.
It’s easy to imagine Orhan Pamuk being intrigued by Joseph Cornell’s devotion to the careful arrangement of everyday objects in boxes. Yet, if the similarity between Cornell’s shadow boxes and Pamuk’s vitrines is worth mentioning from an art historical perspective, the more esoteric factors that inspired both of them to experiment with the poetry of objects is even more fascinating. A clue to the significance of this deep connection to objects and how they are arranged is already found in The Black Book (2006) where Pamuk writes, “It was not the objects that bewitched him, it was the order in which they’d been arranged.” Pamuk had begun to consider the implications and impact of arranging objects and was maybe even hinting at how these objects would eventually fill the vitrines in his own museum.
Vitrine 37—The Empty House is among the most similar to Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes. The seemingly unrelated objects including a doorknob, a doll’s arm, an old marble, and a piece of wallpaper that could easily have been salvaged by Cornell during one of his many visits to the New York junk shops where he found everyday objects that he implemented as art. However, these are the poetic remnants of the empty house that Füsun’s had family left behind, the house that would soon become a museum. If Cornell’s ghost is nestled somewhere in the shadows of Pamuk’s vitrines, nowhere is it more evident than in vitrine 13—Love, Courage and Modernity. Here, a taxidermy crow is perched on top of a tiny photograph of an Istanbul nightscape, accompanied by a bottle of Spleen eau-de-cologne, a copy of Kemal’s driver’s license, and half a glass of raki—all set against a painted starlit sky. As compositionally perfect as this vitrine is, Pamuk’s description is what really makes the objects come to life, “Just as Istanbul’s city lights lit up the night sky, traces of the enchantment of the faraway stars and indigo sky filtered down in the orange-yellow flats and onto the people inside them.” These are the perfectly measured words of a pictorial novelist who sees poetry everywhere.
Few have succeeded in capturing the mystery and poeticism of Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes as precisely as the contemporary Serbian-American poet Charles Simic. His small collection of poems featured in Dime-Store Alchemy is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the magic of objects. Taking poetic license with the words in his poem Where Chance Meets Necessity, I discovered that it also conveys the essence of Pamuk’s fascination with objects:
Somewhere in the city of Istanbul there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Pamuk’s
premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
He sets out from his home in Nisanstasi without knowing what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Pamuk walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.
Charles Simic’s poems reveal the deeply spiritual, poetic factors that Cornell’s and Pamuk’s boxes share in common. Embedded into one of the poems is Joseph Cornell’s own description of his collection of bric-a-brac, one that comes incredibly close to describing what The Museum of Innocence is all about, “A diary journal repository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key…the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions…childhood regained.”
However, despite their mutual fascination with the precise arrangement of objects, there is something crucial that sets Orhan Pamuk and Joseph Cornell apart. Pamuk’s vitrines are part of a larger concept that doesn’t end with the placement of objects in boxes. He not only creates stories through objects, he paints pictures with words. In order to fully understand this concept, Pamuk’s explanation of the relationship between objects and images in The Innocence of Objects is quite helpful, ”Objects are one thing, words another. The images that words generate in our minds are one thing; the memory of an old object used once upon a time is another. But imagination and memory have a strong affinity, and this is the basis of the affinity between the novel and the museum.” He thereby pushes the boundaries of literature and art as far as humanly possible, and until now, no other artist or author has ever created something even remotely close to what Pamuk has achieved with The Museum of Innocence.
In the subtle transitions from fiction to reality and back again Orhan Pamuk creates a universe that defies strict categorization. It is no coincidence that the transition from fictional story to actual museum includes a shift from small objects placed in vitrines to a room that visitors to the museum can walk into. In the final chapter of the story—Happiness, Kemal awakes in a moonlit attic bedroom. As he lies on the bed reflecting over the significance of the objects in his collection he expresses exactly how they make him feel, “like a shaman who can see inside the soul of things, I could feel their stories flickering inside me.” This is where Kemal realizes that “just as the line joining together Aristotle’s moments was Time, so, too, the line joining together these objects would be a story.” Pamuk elaborates on this in The Innocence of Objects, “This, according to Kemal, is the greatest happiness a museum can bring: to see Time turning into Space.” In the spirit of Walter Benjamin, one could describe The Museum of Innocence as the ultimate manifestation of the passions of a true collector for whom “the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.”
Having spent the better part of the past year completely immersed in Pamuk’s story, I have lost myself in a fictional world that at times has felt so real that it has seeped into my consciousness and dreams, and left me wondering exactly where Füsun’s and Kemal’s story ends and mine begins. As Pamuk writes in The Black Book, “You become someone else when you read a story—that was the key to the mystery.” Addressing the reader directly he states, “When I am talking of myself, I know I am also talking of you, and when I am telling your story you know full well that I am also giving voice to my recollections.”
If, during the process of unpacking Pamuk’s library, I have also unpacked my own library, it has been to emphasize the importance of our own roles in unlocking the mystery of Pamuk’s work. As readers and viewers, we unpack our own libraries and access our own memories to unlock the meaning of the stories we read. If we are fortunate, we might experience The Museum of Innocence as if we were gazing into a mirror. After all, “To read was to gaze into a mirror; those who know the ‘secret’ behind the looking glass are able to travel to the other side.” When I look into the mirror I also see the protagonist of The Black Book, for whom “The only tremor in his quiet life was when Marcel Proust enticed him into reading À la recherche du temps perdu; reaching the end of the book, he went straight back to the beginning to read through to the end again; this he continued to do for the rest of his life.” The realization that “each story leads to another story in an infinite chain, with each door leading to another door that leads to another” is possibly the first step to understanding the meaning of the innocence of objects. For those in search of more clues, they are right there hiding in plain sight, in every chapter and each vitrine.