Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I did not know it”. With this opening sentence begins Orhan Pamuk’s new novel that is published today. It is a book that has sustained me over the last few wintry months here in Spitalfields, as I have rationed myself through its five hundred and thirty-one pages. Rarely in my life have I ever read something new and known for sure that it is of such quality that it will still be read and celebrated a hundred years from now. The Museum of Innocence is such a book.
Sometimes I feel I have read too much and it has made me overly-critical of new books that come my way. I do wish I could enjoy more, but often I am simply embarrassed by literary fiction, embarrassed in sympathy for the authors, straining awkwardly for self-consciously literary effect (you are at liberty to include me in this category). So please forgive me if I confess that, as I write in these posts only about what I like personally, I have had little cause to write to you about recent fiction, until now.
Let me admit though, even before I read his new novel, Orhan Pamuk was one of my favourite living writers. It was his emotional autobiography of Istanbul that became one of my inspirations to begin writing Spitalfields Life, and I love his earlier novel “My Name is Red”, a lyrical murder mystery set amongst the miniature painters at the court of the Topkapi Palace in the sixteenth century. Consequently, it was with immense expectation that I came to this new book after waiting several years since his last novel “Snow”.
From the opening sentence of “The Museum of Innocence” you are swept up into a compelling drama, and before you know it you have discovered a whole new world and a complete society of characters – this is the upper middle class milieu of Istanbul in the nineteen sixties and it is the tale of a secret love, in which the protagonist is Kemal, indolent son of a wealthy family of industrialists. He is engaged to the docile Sibel from an equally well-off family but the woman he truly loves is Fusun, a distant cousin from an impoverished branch of his own family. Fusun is poetry incarnate, with grace and mystery and an irresistible natural beauty, so the two embark upon a raging affair.
How lively and idiosyncratic these people are, how vivid is their world and how appalling are their actions. You are hungry to know where it is going and you know it is going to go wrong. Then you take a breath, and realise that in the midst of all this ugly social manipulativeness, these characters are blind to the implications and outcomes of their actions – they are each innocent in differing degrees. You love them, and you want to shake them too, and you have to keep reading to discover just how much of a mess is going to result.
At first, I had the feeling I was reading a Muriel Spark novel with its delicate irony and acute observation of middle class foibles, then as the sensuousness of the illicit affair came to dominate I had the thought it could be a John Updike novel. Such is the elegant fluid quality of Pamuk’s writing that it transcends these comparisons, even if Vladimir Nabokov came to mind as the narrator tells of his obsessive love in appropriately obsessive interior monologues. Ultimately, “The Museum of Innocence” speaks of the specific truth of human experience in a style and form that is both the inevitable outcome of the story and entirely its own.
With this book, it is not simply a case of an inspired piece of writing by a novelist at the height of his powers, the book carries such reality that I felt afterwards as if I had lived through these events myself, and I shall never forget it. Orhan Pamuk’s achievement is to create an effective reconciliation of a contemplative literary voice with an exciting story that can never be second guessed. “Let everyone know, I’ve lived a very happy life,” these words of Kemal are the final sentence of Orhan Pamuk’s best book to date.
Photograph of Orhan Pamuk by Jerry Bauer