Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's University Lecture Tells the Story of Objects

Dec. 17, 2012Bookmark and Share

With his 2008 work The Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk combined his love of fine arts and literature by building an actual museum that brings the obsessive love portrayed in the novel into the real world.

Orhan Pamuk spoke at this fall's University Lecture. (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Orhan Pamuk delivered this fall's University Lecture.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Pamuk’s “mind is like a three-ring circus. You’re always, always trying to keep up,” said President Lee Bollinger, welcoming faculty and students to this fall’s University Lecture. “And you always go away highly stimulated.”

Winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature and the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor of the Humanities, Pamuk took the podium and captivated the audience with a lively discussion of the novel and its real-life counterpart, which opened this year in his native Istanbul.

“It’s a novel about love but it doesn’t put love on a pedestal. It tries to treat it as something that happens to all of us,” Pamuk said. “It teaches about our culture, our history, about attitudes and humanity."

The book is about an upper-class Turkish man, Kemal, who falls passionately in love with Füsun, a beautiful young shop assistant and distant cousin. Kemal marries a woman of his own social class and Füsun also marries. But Kemal remains obsessed with her and visits regularly, collecting everyday objects that remind him of their relationship—a comb, a dress, shoes, even a quince grater from her kitchen, all of which comprise his museum of innocence.

Pamuk acquired many of the objects while writing the novel, and planned the book and the museum together. He had hoped to open the museum the day the book was published in Turkey but it took longer than he expected. “There is a connection between the book and the museum. But it is not text and its illustration, nor is the novel an explanation of the museum. It’s more complex,” Pamuk said.

He illustrated his talk with slides showing some of the museum’s exhibits, which are in cabinets organized according to the 83 chapters of the book. One of them holds objects from the Istanbul apartments where the lovers met. Another contains 4,213 butts from Füsun’s cigarettes. Pamuk, who as a child wanted to be a painter and later studied architecture and journalism, was fully involved in the design of the museum, which is in a building he bought in 1998. A catalog of the collection was published in September.

A vitrine in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence
A vitrine in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

“It’s a magnificent museum that you should visit,” said Nicholas Dirks, executive vice president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who toured the museum with Pamuk last spring. In leading the post-lecture questions, Dirks asked about the title of the book and the museum, noting that the objects obsessively collected by the protagonist are not innocent.

The titles of his novels aren’t intended to explain them, Pamuk responded. “Webster’s dictionary defines innocence as artlessness, as having no pretensions of art,” he said. “I was more or less exploring or making suggestive remarks about naiveté, about all popular culture.”

The author of eight novels and a memoir, as well as essays and a screenplay, Pamuk joined the Columbia faculty in 2006 shortly before being awarded his Nobel. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages and has sold some 11 million books. His second novel, The Silent House, was published in English for the first time this fall. He wrote parts of The Black Book, a novel published in Turkey in 1990, in Butler Library while he was a visiting scholar at Columbia in the mid-1980s.

Dirks also read aloud a passage from the book about the museum. “I want to teach not only the Turkish people but all the people in the world to take pride in the life they lived,” Kemal says. “While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame. If the objects that bring us shame are presented in a museum, they are immediately transformed into objects in which we take pride.”

The University Lecture features distinguished faculty speaking about their work. Pamuk’s writing covers a variety of subjects, including “class struggle and modernity, the nature of love, military authority, the psychology of collecting, and the customs and traditions of his native Istanbul,” said Provost John H. Coatsworth in his introduction. Coatsworth also noted Pamuk’s “sustained artistic and philosophical exploration of the ambiguous relation between fiction and reality.”

In 2005, Pamuk was prosecuted in Turkey for his comments about the massacre of Armenians during World War I and more recent treatment of the Kurdish minority under a new law banning “the public denigration of Turkishness.” The charges were later dropped after an international outcry.

Pamuk “has suffered significantly for speaking his mind,” Bollinger said. “I want to say how proud we are at Columbia to provide him with support and a safe refuge.”

—by Georgette Jasen


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