Ad Nauseam Ad Infinitum: Grace Andreacchi on Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk, Knopf, 2009

It’s hard to put down Orhan Pamuk’s new book The Museum of Innocence and yet I didn’t like it. The book is a disappointment, for it constitutes a step backwards. A beautifully crafted and elegantly devised step backwards if you like, a balletic pas en arrière, but nonetheless! No trace here of the intriguing peculiarities, those counter-realities and non-linear devices that made Pamuk’s earlier books such as Snow and especially The New Life interesting. For in this tale of obsessive love on the Bosphorus there is nothing really new, and much that is old, borrowed and very very blue. Take two parts Proust’s la Prisonnière to one part Nabokov’s Lolita, add lashings of the author’s own Istanbul: Memories and the City and there you have it, The Museum of Innocence. For what we have here is really a nineteenth century novel, and probably a French nineteenth century novel at that. I’m not sure why Pamuk wanted to write a nineteenth century novel en plein 21me, but that is what he has done. The fascinating if not always fully successful experiments of Pamuk’s earlier books have been banished to make way for a straightforward linear narrative in which, by the way, not much happens. The minute delineation of the agony of lost love is truthful as far as it goes, and that it fails to go anywhere much in spite of itself can be attributed to the solipsistic hero’s utter self-absorption. He seems more in love with himself than with anyone outside the circle of his exquisitely morbid self-consciousness.

The story concerns Kemal, a privileged young bachelor from the upper echelons of Turkish society. On the verge of a very proper marriage to a very right sort of girl he falls madly in love with Füsun, an impoverished young shopgirl and distant cousin. His brief and blissful affair with her comes to an end when he fails to break off the engagement, but he then finds himself unable to forget her, and so falls ever deeper into a hopeless downward spiral of longing and pain. The engagement is broken off after all, but too late to do any good, for Füsun has hastily married a young filmmaker. When Kemal takes to haunting the dinner table of his lost lady and her husband, surely we are reminded of the great Turgenev languishing in the wake of la Viardot. So yet another romantic nineteenth century ghost is evoked, and the Reader is left to wonder whether there be anything happening behind these literary gestures other than a will to believe oneself a great romantic writer guy with a place in the western literary pantheon.

Actually, the best thing about The Museum of Innocence is the title. The book fails to deliver that spiritual depth the title promises, for the closest it gets to a ‘philosophy’ is a lot of second-hand Proustian stuff about ‘Time’ with a capital T. The conceit of the ‘museum’, where the self-obsessed narrator displays the bizarre ‘items’ in his collection of love’s memorabilia – her cast-off cigarette butts, hair clips, crumpled napkins, broken bits of food etc. etc. ad nauseam ad infinitum fails to achieve any kind of transcendental reality and comes off as merely childish, self-indulgent and silly. For all his self-declared ‘love’ for Füsun, she never comes to life on the page at all, but remains always an embodiment of male fantasy at its most egoistic and unattractive. We learn a lot about her skin and hair and nothing at all about the inside of her head, or heart.

What’s really wrong with this book is that it’s not about love at all, it’s about nothing. About the emptiness of a man obsessed with nothing bigger than himself and his own sensations, which he details endlessly, compulsively, over more than 500 pages (!) and without even the awareness of his own emptiness. When, at last, the prospect of happiness is snatched away yet again by a badly contrived authorial trick, I wanted to avert my eyes at such bad taste. But by then the author is only making manifest what the perspicacious Reader has long ago realised, that the presence of Füsun herself is completely superfluous to this utterly narcissistic ‘lover’. On the official website set up by his Turkish publisher there’s a photograph of Mr. Pamuk’s writing desk where, among the scattered paraphernalia, we are able to discern that he keeps a photograph of – guess who? Himself.

Chopiniana, If You Will: Grace Andreacchi on Gabriel Olearnik’s Amor de Lonh


Amor de Lonh, Gabriel Olearnik, Andromache Books

The composer Robert Schumann once described the music of the man who is still arguably the Pole par excellence to the non-Polish world, Frédéric Chopin, as ‘a cannon buried in flowers’, and this isn’t a bad description of what the Polish-British poet Gabriel Olearnik is up to either. To carry the analogy a bit further, as Chopin built upon the old classical style with new, exciting harmonies, so Olearnik makes use of the rich traditions of the medieval troubadours as well as those found in such deeply reflective and intellectual poets as T.S. Eliot and Zbigniew Herbert to create a burning bright new poetry of the mind.

There is of course an earlier poetical work known as Amor de Lonh, that of the twelfth century prince, Jaufré Rudel. His enigmatic verses on the theme of distant love serve as a template for this new Amor de Lonh in which every kind of obstacle, both internal and external, must be vanquished before the soul is free to fly upwards towards its goal. Olearnik’s book opens with a translation from the French troubadour about to embark on a journey into the unknown in search of his ‘distant love’, he imagines himself already at her feet,

In that far court, I shall sit beside her beauty
and draw sweet words from her mouth.

According to legend, Jaufré Rudel departed on a Crusade more on account of the imagined charms of his lady, the Countess of Tripoli, than out of any desire to do battle with Saracens, but fell sick on the journey and arrived at her castle only just in time to die in her arms. To the medieval mind, this was not so much an exercise in futility as a confirmation of the power of the soul above that of the mere physical self. ‘Distant love’ only makes sense if you can see that, and if you can see it, then only ‘distant love’, unearthly love, a wholly purified and spiritual love becomes your aim.

The book is divided into three parts dealing, approximately, with themes of science, war and the art of love. But the dividing walls are porous, there are cannons buried among Olearnik’s flowers, and flowers bedeck his cannons. There are lines of heart-stopping beauty, as in this neatly counter-weighted conclusion to the early poem ‘Acid and Optics’:
It may have been otherwise.

I could have singed my skin with strong waters,
you might have stretched light and its daughter, shade,
but in each weighed cosmos, every counterpoint of the real —
in another world I would still find you.

The language is rich but never cloying, vivid and direct, sometimes playful as well. There are references galore, everything from Ryszard Kapuscinski to St. Exupéry to Thucydides, adding layers of meaning in counterpoint.

In the second part of the book, we are plunged into the terrors of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, ‘War comes and will not be gainsaid.’ The tone is alternately apocalyptic, sardonic, or simple and moving as in the quiet poem ‘Ice Wine’:

But I remembered my father, his hands brown
his head red from the sun, steaming, sweated
his height, his green bottle and the love in it
thirty summers ago.

A theme begins to develop with this poem of fathers and sons, and lends a personal weight to the tragedy of war as part two unfolds.

The third part opens with a poem of sickness, ‘108 degrees’. The poet speaks from a hospital bed, burning with fever, or is it love? We are never sure:

Every heart is a dark forest.
I press the sand to stand still, gaze beyond the beachhead

At times the language of the Song of Solomon is invoked, then suddenly we are in London’s dirty streets where the ‘Madonna of Soho’ stands ‘with stilletoed core and white innocence,’ sacred and profane love become one. The book ends with a reprise on the theme of distant love that is also, oddly enough, a joke. But, the sly humour is one of the more unexpected notes, another moment of Chopiniana if you like.