Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orhan Pamuk: A Chapter in a Novel is not Necessarily a Short Story

Orhan Pamuk, the first Turk to win the Nobel Prize (2006), has a new novel released this week, The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely, published by Knopf. Favorable reviews appeared today (Oct. 21) in The Los Angeles Times and yesterday in The Washington Post.

I have no intention of commenting on the novel, for I have not read it, but I do want to make a few comments about a chapter that appeared in the Sept. 7, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Distant Relations.” According to Marie Arana in the Post and Tim Rutten in the Times, The Museum of Innocence is a “spellbinding, engrossing, mesmerizing” story of a romantic/erotic obsession. The story in The New Yorker is about the beginnings of that obsession.

Kemal, a 30-year old bachelor, is engaged to a woman named Sibel. Both are of the same class, urbane, educated, and sophisticated. American educated, Kemal lives with his parents in a wealthy neighborhood.

The story begins with this sentence: “The series of events and coincidences that would change my entire life began on April 27, 1975, when Sibel happened to spot a purse designed by the famous Jenny Colon in a shop window as we were walking along Valikonagi Avenue, enjoying the cool spring evening.”

When Kemal goes into the shop the next day to buy the purse for Sibel, he encounters an 18-year-old girl, named Fusun, who he recognizes as a poor “distant relation.” He is immediately attracted to her: “I felt my heart rise into my throat, with the force of an immense wave about toe crash against the shore.”

As usual with such fascinations, it is something inexplicably physical: “My eyes traveled from her empty shoe over her long bare legs. It wasn’t even May yet, and they were already tanned.” “With slender dexterous fingers, [she] removed the balls of crumbled tissue paper.” “I was admiring her honey-hued arms and her quick elegant gestures.” As Kemal leaves the shop, he pauses for a moment: “My ghost had left my body and was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Fusun and kissing her.”

Also, as is usual in such fascinations, what Kemal sees in Fusun is himself. When he must take the purse back because his fiancĂ© says it is a fake, he “cannot deny the startling truth that when I looked at Fusun I saw someone familiar, someone I felt I knew intimately. She resembled me…I felt I could easily put myself in her place, could understand her deeply.”

When Fusun begins to cry about the returned purse, he holds her, “which made my head spin. Perhaps it was because I was trying to suppress my desire, stronger each time I touched her, that I conjured up the illusion that we had known each other for years.”

However, “Fearful of the sexual beast now threatening to rear its head, I took my hand from her hair.” However, he does not leave the store until he has figured out a way to meet her later in an unoccupied apartment owned by his mother. “Back in the street, my shame and guilt mixed with so many images of bliss in the unseasonable warmth of that April afternoon that the very sidewalks of Nisantasi seemed aglow with a mysterious yellow.”

The story ends with Kemal’s mother pressing the key to the apartment in his hand, giving him a look like the one she gave him as a child, warning him that “life held unsuspected dangers that were far deeper and more treacherous than, for instance, failing to take proper care of a key.”

According to the reviews of this book, which I will probably never read, Kemal “takes” Fusion’s virginity and begins an affair with her. However, Fusun does not love Kemal and marries an unsuccessful art film writer. Kemal’s obsession becomes more intense. He loses Sibel to another man and begins stalking the neighborhood where Fusun and her husband live, stealing cigarette butts, underwear, bits of jewelry, and keeping them in the apartment where they had first had sex—which, of course, becomes his “Museum of Innocence.”

Well, being the irredeemable romantic that I am, I love novels of romantic/erotic obsession. At the top of my list of favorite novels are Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, it seems to me that for such an obsessive novel to succeed, it has to be consummately written. It has to be miraculous in its style. For it is its style that “mesmerizes,” not its mere story, which can so easily devolve into the merely sentimental. I realize that quoting passages out of context, as I have above, can be misleading. But I just cannot take a man who talks the way Kemal does seriously. The language just does not create a world that makes the story transformative.

As I have argued many times in this blog, it is much easier to forgive careless writing in a novel than it is in a short story. Reading a novel, (Lord knows there is so much of it) one can certainly get caught up in the mere plot or an obsessive character and be “carried away” or “mesmerized,” as the reviewers in the LA Times and the Washington Post seem to have been, ignoring stylistic infelicities, easy sentimentalities, and phrases that could have used another rewrite.

Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, the fragment of Pamuk’s new novel that appeared recently in The New Yorker makes a poor short story. Stylistically, it is casual and careless. It includes long passages about the nature of Fusun’s “distant relation” to Kemal that are not relevant to the fragment. It focuses on a central event—the purchase and return of the ostensibly fake purse—that has not significance except to make possible the initial meeting of Kemal and Fusun—which could have been accomplished in many other ways with absolutely no loss of thematic significance.

I have no objection to writers publishing sections of upcoming novels in The New Yorker. It is a great way to “double dip” into the meager pot of money that writers must scrabble for. I just wish The New Yorker would not call them short stories. I just finished “listening to” Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves (As you might recall, I seldom “read” novels, but listen to them on my Ipod as I take my morning walk, accompanied by my aging dog, Shannon.) I had read many of the “stories” that make up Erdrich’s novel previously, mostly in The New Yorker, or as they appeared in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Awards Stories. But Erdrich’s novels are, by their very nature episodic, the parts of which are detachable. She seems to have written them as self-sufficient tales—creating a stylized rhythm and a magical-realist world that I often find self-indulgent, but that I can become “engrossed” in or “mesmerized” by.

The obsessive novels that I love so much—Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The French Lieutenant’s Woman—amaze me every time I read them. I cannot quite believe that ordinary humans wrote them. In my humble human opinion, Orhan Pamuk is just an ordinary human.


Ana said...

Great blog! I am a Ph.D student in Spain and I am doing my research on the short story. I find your site really interesting and helpful! keep up the good work!!

Marianne said...

The new Pamuk novel has a beautiful title.

I did read part of that short story in The New Yorker. It held me spell-bound for a good long while, but the tone -- didn't you think it flagged somewhere, after the first two pages?

He is a great master of atmosphere, I'll grant him that. But atmosphere does not a novel make ...

Charles E. May said...

Yes, Marianne, I think tone is the problem. For such a romantic story to work, the tone has to cast a spell that is sustained. The short story is often a matter of tone. And for atmosphere to carry a novel, I think it has to be integrated completely with character.

RK said...

1) How do you know that the incident with the purse is not thematic? What if it is illustrative of another theme, one that emerges in the chapters to come?

2) A larger question, one that subsumes the previous one: You seem to admit (in the title of this post) that the New Yorker excerpt is a chapter of a novel rather than a short story. Why would you then evaluate it as one?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comment, RK.

Both your questions depend on whether we take the piece in New Yorker to be a short story or a chapter in a novel. My point is that if we take it as a short story--which the New Yorker presents it as--then the purse incident is not a thematic element. Indeed it might be a thematic element in the novel as a whole, except that novels do not usually depend on such details being thematic. I am responding to the piece as the New Yorker presents it--as a short story. As a short story, I don't think it is effective. As a chapter in a novel, we do not demand so much of it in terms of unity and relevance of detail.

RK said...

"As a chapter in a novel, we do not demand so much of it in terms of unity and relevance of detail."

I agree. I suppose the focus is usually on how the characters behave in the scene, rather than its being able to illustrate a thematic aspect. It's probably unreasonable to expect every single paragraph in a novel to reflect the larger themes it is supposed to explore.

Thanks for your time.

denisa said...

having started reading the novel, I agree with RK. the purse incident appears further on in the novel and it holds a certain significance.
I am not sure I will finish this novel but I would like to know if you managed to read it or not. There are some interesting paragraphs that I think you would enjoy.

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