I saw Orhan Pamuk read for Portland Arts & Lectures last Tuesday. I’ve liked Pamuk’s work (Istanbul, The Black Book), but always with the uneasy sense that he wants very badly for me to like it. His 2006 Nobel Prize speech was a beautifully engineered machine for producing tears, oiled by the easy pathos of a son thanking his father for a giant award.
Pamuk’s self-presentation on Tuesday amplified this approval-seeking side of his literary personality. Not that he was especially genial or ingratiating; on the contrary, he came across as robotic, a hard-bitten lit geek who’s spent hours pondering his c.v. Pamuk’s tic of referring to his life in numerical chunks of ambition (“from ages 9 to 17 I wanted to be a painter; from age 18 to 19 I wished to be a poet; this novel that appeared in Turkish in 1999, in English in 2003; my books have been translated into 55 languages”) struck me not so much as boasting as the reflexive box-ticking of the lifelong grade grubber.
In a way it shouldn’t be surprising that a writer as meticulous as Pamuk would treat his own life as a sentence to be edited into perfection, with books as nouns, acclaim the verbs. But it seems to have led to his unmistakable anger, a pervading sense of self-betrayal that came through on Tuesday in ways large and small. He read, for example, a few excerpts from his new book, Other Colors, a ragbag of articles, interviews, and columns that he mentioned more than once reflect a rueful time when he was eager to make a literary reputation, so answered any questions from journalists, even featherweight ones about his wristwatch. He ridiculed interviewers who ask about the titles of his novels because they can’t be troubled to read the books. His columns about his love for his daughter—a subject, like that of his father, designed for maximum pathos—were written on the fly he said, often in a two-hour window, and proved to be more popular in Turkey than his well-wrought prose, which he produces in athletic 8-10 hour writing sessions practiced daily for 36 years. The overall picture was of a public too dense, undiscriminating, and shallow to appreciate him at his true worth, which he preferred to measure in numbers rather than readers (hours worked, languages translated into, years endured before prizes won.)
What’s troubling about this attitude is that the audience has never ceased to matter for Pamuk, at least in the mass. He courts the interview, the weekly column, the critic’s plaudits, the reader's tears without especially valuing the persons who bestow them. That’s also a classic grade grubber tic—to despise the judges whose approval you’re performing for—and I wondered, just a little, if Pamuk’s greatest fiction is finally himself, metaphor for Turkey’s ambitions and angers vis-à-vis Europe.
4 hours ago