Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Memoir as a Blueprint; Memoir as Self-Serving

I just finished Pamuk's Istanbul (discussed in this post), and I can safely say it was worthwhile. I'm definitely chomping at the bit for more Pamuk, but I would like to address a few things (some good, some bad) about the book first.

On the good: the more I read Istanbul,the more it resembled The Black Book, and indeed, I've realised that it is something of a blueprint for the book. Though Istanbul was written nearly 10 years after the original release of The Black Book in Turkey, it obviously reveals what Pamuk's mindset and his line of thinking about the city he lives in, and at least for me demystifies the complex narrative of the latter.

I remember falling in love with Pamuk's prose in 2006 when I read the new translation by Maureen Freely (which I bought in Spain, incidentally--I bought an imported English copy and so the cover was not something terrible as my experience is in America but actually quite tasteful), but being overwhelmed by the superstructure: I couldn't get more than halfway through. Now after reading Istanbul I see to what extent The Black Book is merely a surrealist, fictionalised account of what is in fact Pamuk's actual life and city. So many of the names are quite the same, so many of the details ring a bell, and I think now this book has prepared me better for going back to The Black Book better than I ever could have imagined. I'm excited to delve into it soon.

On the bad: Towards the end, Istanbul began to taper off. Pamuk included more and more about his personal life and his personal demons, to the point where I--stunningly--found myself bored.

Throughout most of the book his thesis is watertight: he interpolates the idea of "hüzün," (melancholy) historical Istanbul, and his own existentialist crises very well. In this context the personal anecdotes are humble, endearing, and most importantly interesting.

But the last few chapters these personal anecdotes begin to wear thin, because they are no longer linked to the thesis as solidly as they were before. They seem more like entries in a diary, indignant and rambling more than intricate and elegant (as had been my impression until that point). Here is an excerpt:
"...My brother and I would give our all to vanquishing and crushing each other to fend off the fear we kept hidden in the darkest corner of our hearts: the melancholy and desolation of sharing Istanbul's shameful fate."
Pamuk's self-deprecating confession that he is "prone to exaggeration" might justify these passages but at this point it ceases to be believable or endearing, and instead merely absurd. The "First Love" chapter which soon follows, which could have been linked much more gracefully with the overall narrative, ends up sounding exactly like the type of narcissistic confessional I might make to a friend. I thought as I read it how much more tolerable and interesting it would be if Pamuk had told me this over lunch or coffee rather than in the pages of a book, where my patience was being tried. In these final sections it feels as if the intermittent references to hüzün and Istanbul's historical fate are merely tacked on, reminders to himself what his book was originally about.

Ultimately, it is still Pamuk and interesting enough that one is compelled to finish (not the least because of the exquisite photos adorning almost every page). But it feels like Pamuk dropped the ball at the end. He alludes early on to the "hidden symmetry" of the book, but as one reviewer noted, it seems the this symmetry is nothing more than the contrast between internal, personal conflict ("the man") and external, historical conflict ("the city"). This is all well and good, and as I said, works for the majority of the novel. But towards the end this symmetry seems to crumble and become self-indulgent. The aforementioned reviewer notes:
"At times — certainly over the last fifth of the book — Pamuk’s melodrama about huzun gets to be a bit much. He haunts the miserable streets of a lost empire, collar upturned against the snow, trying to shake off his own desperation at a lost love and make an art form that doesn’t just ape the West. On and on he goes, trying to beat us over the head with the idea that the city inhabits the man and the man the city: we cut back and forth between his furious wanderings in the streets and his fight with his mother over what he’ll do with his life. Pamuk thinks he is terribly clever. He wants us very much to know how clever it is; earlier in the book he drops hints about its “hidden symmetry.” This symmetry, so far as I can tell, is just the symmetry between the man and the city. So now you know. If you were paying attention during the first half of the book, you already knew. I’d rather not be bludgeoned with the Cleverness Stick."
And I couldn't agree more. He convinced me about hüzün by page 107; did he really have to repeat it like a mantra so much so that I would almost regret hearing it said (or written, rather)?

So: what do we say? Well, Pamuk is still a wonderful writer, but I've concluded that he might just write fiction better than non-fiction--everything I've read, and everything I've been told by those who've read his other works indicates this. His thought process seems to lend itself much more to the grandiose and beautiful, and so his description of quotidian realities can come off as lacking if not properly executed.

We'll conclude with some minor ruminations spurred by youtube:

Here is a clip of Pamuk receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. It struck me as terribly ironic: here is this writer whose modus operandi is struggling with the dichotomy between East and West, and now here he is being awarded the prize for this effort in an antiquated European ceremony with tinny trumpets blaring and stilted gesticulation. Kind of strange that his recognition for articulating the melancholy of Istanbul, that site of East-West tensions, is to take part in a highly Western ceremony, only to later be disparaged by his own people and ridiculed for "insulting Turkishness" (by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of WWI). Kind of depressing, isn't it? He achieves that attention he so longed--"Under Western Eyes" as in the title of one of his chapters in Istanbul--and it serves instead as his downfall. Pamuk has some very cogent things to say in the Journeyman Pictures video.

Here Pamuk admits that he never had a job until he was 54, when he began teaching at Columbia University. Holy crap.

Miscellaneous Update: I've started reading Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac. It's my first of his books, and I think it's a good introduction to his works--I've heard good things, to say the least. It's just shy of 100 pages, less even, so it'll be a quick read. I'm enjoying the zany, stream of consciousness prose so far, to be sure: lots of quotables.

More posts to come on it for sure.

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