In 2010, I moved from California, where I had lived for 11 years, to Turkey, where I had never stayed longer than a month or two. I had been offered a job as writer in residence at a private university in the forest on the northern edge of Istanbul. When I got there, I found out that the university had no writer in residence programme. It didn’t even have a writing programme. There was just me. The two living beings I saw with the most regularity were a campus groundsman, who always seemed to be standing in the bushes when I left the house, and an obese one-eyed black cat, who used to come in through my bedroom window. It had one green eye and one empty socket, and the minute it saw me with its single eye, it would start running from room to room, uttering piercing meows and crashing into the furniture. There was a lot of furniture, which had come with the apartment.

It wasn’t long before I heard that Orhan Pamuk was in town, building a museum. The museum was said to be full of stuff that had ‘belonged’ to the protagonists of his last novel, The Museum of Innocence. If you knocked on the door, he would let you in and show you the heroine’s old shoes. I hadn’t read The Museum of Innocence, and my general attitude to a novel-themed museum was one of mistrust. I place a high importance on the material self-reliance of a printed page. Kafka refused to put a picture of an insect on the cover of Metamorphosis. That’s what it is to believe in literature.

And yet, a year and a half later, I was wandering the twisted streets of Cihangir and Çukurcuma, looking for the Museum of Innocence. A press opening had been announced, with events scheduled from 9.30 in the morning till 11 at night – 13 and a half hours of innocence. I have a weak spot for endurance-style literary events. The day before the opening, I stopped by the campus bookstore and bought a copy of the novel, planning to skim the first hundred pages. I stayed up past two. The next day I took the metro to Taksim and walked down Sıraselviler Avenue to Cihangir. Fifteen years ago, when Pamuk first bought a building here, Cihangir had been a working-class area dotted with small workshops specialising in the manufacture of plastic tubs and children’s footballs. Today the proletarian teahouses and barbershops are outnumbered by vegan-friendly cafés and the showrooms of increasingly ironic antiquarians. On Çukurcuma Street, I passed a bathtub with feet and a bench inscribed with the words DIRE STRAITS. Nearby, a cat had made itself comfortable in some kind of venerable stone urn – only its satisfied head was sticking out.

The morning press conference, held at a restaurant near the museum, was so packed I couldn’t get in the door. Standing on tiptoe outside the banqueting hall, I counted ten television crews. One of the cameramen, a burly felonious-looking type with a shaved head, winked at me. I retreated into the shadowy corridor, where I stared at an old wall and listened to Pamuk who, between fielding questions from the press (‘The man in love – he is a little bit sick?’), was telling the story of the museum.

The inspiration for the Museum of Innocence came to Pamuk in 1982, while he was having dinner with the last prince of the Ottoman dynasty. Exiled after the formation of the Turkish republic, the prince ended up in Alexandria and worked for decades at the Antoniadis Palace museum, first as a ticket collector and then as director. Now, back in Istanbul after a fifty-year exile, he needed a job. The guests discussed the delicate subject of employment for the straitened septuagenarian prince of a defunct empire. Someone said the İhlamur Palace museum might need a guide: who better than the prince, who had lived there as a child?

Pamuk was immediately taken by the idea of a man who outlives his era and becomes the guide to his own house-museum. He imagined how the prince would greet visitors – ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Seventy years ago, in this room, I sat with my aide-de-camp and studied mathematics!’ – before crossing the velvet cordon to sit once more at his childhood desk, demonstrating how he had held the pencil and ruler.

Ten years later, Pamuk came up with an insane plan: to write a novel in the form of a museum catalogue, while simultaneously building the museum to which it referred. The plot of the novel would be fairly straightforward: over many years, an unhappy lover contrives to steal a large number of objects belonging to his unattainable beloved, after whose untimely death he proceeds to buy her family’s house and turn it into a museum.

You might think that Pamuk’s first step, as a writer, would have been to start writing. In fact, his first step was to contact a real-estate agent. He needed to buy a house for his future heroine, Füsun. During the 1990s, Pamuk visited hundreds of properties, trying to imagine Füsun and her parents living in them. It was beyond his means to purchase a whole building in Nişantaşı, the posh neighbourhood inhabited by Kemal, the hero of the novel. He could afford a single floor in a stone building in the old Ottoman commercial centre of Galata, but then the remodelling would be difficult. The beautiful rundown wooden houses near the old city walls were the right price, but those were in religious neighbourhoods, and this was a novel about the secular middle classes. In 1998, Pamuk finally bought a three-storey wooden house in Çukurcuma. Füsun, the petulant beauty, was thus neither a Nişantaşı socialite nor the scion of Galata bankers, but an aspiring actress living with her seamstress mother and schoolteacher father. The heroine’s socioeconomic position and much of her character were determined by real estate.

For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.

I left the press conference in a dreamy frame of mind, and headed to one of the local vegan-friendly cafés, to drink coffee and finish The Museum of Innocence. As has often been observed, it’s nice to read realist novels in their original locations. One character was talking about a brothel in a seven-storey Greek building on Sıraselviler, the street I had taken from the metro to Cihangir. In the novel, the police raided the brothel, ‘sealing off only one floor, obliging the girls there to take their admirers to another one that was, nonetheless, adorned with the same furniture and mirrors’. I thought it was a pretty good model for a brothel to have seven identical floors.

When I left the café, a young man who looked like he might be a vegan was getting onto a Vespa, accompanied by a tiny grey monkey. The monkey had a tremendously detailed, worried little face. ‘Up, Hasan!’ the young man said, starting the engine, and the monkey hopped onto the handlebars. They drove away. I walked back down to Çukurcuma. The bathtub was still there, but the cat wasn’t. I turned a corner and the museum came into view, its narrow wooden façade painted the deep red of a pre-revolutionary fez. Eighty-three exhibits, most inside glass vitrines, correspond to the book’s 83 chapters. Many of the displayed objects look just like the novel said they would: the prosthetic hand belonging to Kemal’s father’s employee; the white sock and tennis shoe worn by Füsun to her rendezvous with Kemal on the day of his engagement to another woman; the quince grater stolen by Kemal from Füsun’s mother shortly after the 1980 coup. At the press conference, a French-sounding journalist had asked Pamuk why the novel didn’t devote more pages to the 1980 coup. Pamuk replied: ‘I expressed what I had to say about the 1980 coup through Füsun’s mother’s quince grater, which appears in Box 66.’

Other boxes contained material interpretations of things that, in the book, had no material. In Chapter 29, Kemal goes to bed each night hoping to forget Füsun, but always wakes ‘to the same pain, as if a black lamp were burning eternally inside me’. Box 29 contains a sculpture called Black Light Machine which, incorporating parts from a toy steamboat, a 19th-century pasta machine and several clocks, represents this eternally burning black lamp of unforgettable love.

Some items mentioned in the novel as forming part of Kemal’s collection – an Alaska Frigo bar, a Thermos of tea, a plate of stuffed vine leaves – leave you uncertain as to whether you’re dealing with unreliable narration, magical realism, or perhaps a highly sophisticated system of refrigeration. All these items appear in the museum, and so does the half-eaten ice-cream cone that Füsun tossed on the ground in Istinye, modelled in plastic by expert food replicators who do a lot of work for Turkish soap operas. Contemplating a glass of polymer-based rakı with ice, I wondered whether a museum could be said to be magical realist, or unreliably narrated. I decided to ask Pamuk: he said only that he wanted the museum to be ‘a place where time is frozen’.

The most elaborate visual representation of frozen time is Box 68, 4213 Cigarette Stubs. It contains all the cigarette stubs discarded by Füsun and collected by Kemal between 1976 and 1984, mounted in rows and columns on a floor-to-ceiling panel. From a distance, it looks like a giant cuneiform text. Up close, you can see that many of the filters are stained with lipstick or sour-cherry ice cream, Füsun’s favourite. To complete the display, Pamuk’s assistants emptied out several hundred boxes of Samsun regulars (Füsun’s brand), replaced the tobacco with chemically treated paper, set the cigarettes on fire, and put them in a vacuum machine. ‘The vacuum smoked these cigarettes, not us,’ Pamuk says, specifying that no anti-smoking laws were violated in the construction of the display, which is, indeed, a testimony to the unhealthiness of smoking, as well as a contribution to the anthropology of lost gestures.

4213 Cigarette Stubs was designed by Kıymet Daştan, an Istanbul sculptor and jewellery designer, who also built the Black Light Machine. Kıymet turned out to be a friend of a friend of mine. My friend – a conceptual artist whose works in progress include a monument to time made out of her own hair – arranged a meeting for us, which ended up taking place on the deck of a Bosphorus ferry. I asked whether the stains on the filters were real. ‘Yes,’ Kıymet said, in a small voice nearly drowned out by the wind. ‘I ate a lot of ice cream.’ She also had to redo six or seven hundred cigarettes, because Pamuk said she was wearing too much lipstick, much more than Füsun. Pamuk spent last summer captioning each stub, by hand, with the date of its retrieval by Kemal. Under some samples, he wrote scraps of recorded conversation (‘Are you looking at the clock?’).

Though it isn’t as technically impressive as Box 68, I was just as struck by Box 1, The Happiest Moment of My Life. It contains a single gold butterfly earring suspended in front of a tulle curtain, which trembles by some mechanical or magical-realist means. The composition represents a moment during the couple’s brief physical relationship when one of Füsun’s butterfly-shaped earrings is knocked loose and, ‘for all we knew, hovered in midair before falling of its own accord’. The quivering earring seems to afford a glimpse not just of the time of Eros, but of the Eros of time – the way it can hover before your eyes, golden and tremulous. Kemal spends the next eight years working and working to get Füsun back in bed. The museum does the same thing: labouring to re-create, through thousands of hours of cigarette-squashing and clock-dismantling, an effortless instant. Replicas of the earring may be purchased in the museum shop.

The museum logo is a butterfly and, in the scene with the butterfly earring, Füsun is 18 and the narrator is 30. I don’t usually care for Nabokov references and I’m not crazy about butterflies, but I found The Museum of Innocence to be one of the few books I’ve read that alludes to Lolita successfully. It made me realise why Lolita is a novel about paedophilia. Lolita has to be impossibly young, because the brevity of youth is a metonym for the brevity of life, and the monstrousness of Humbert’s passion is the monstrousness of facelifts, or of Lenin’s tomb, or of the wedding cake in Great Expectations. ‘Exhibit number two,’ Humbert says early in Lolita, ‘is a pocket diary bound in black imitation leather, with a golden year, 1947, en escalier, in its upper left-hand corner.’ Although Lolita is narrated from a prison and not a museum, the profusion of birdcages in the Museum of Innocence tips you off to a figurative equivalence. Humbert, Kemal and the last Ottoman prince share a family resemblance to the ape credited by Nabokov with inspiring Lolita: the one ‘in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal’, showing the bars of its cage.

There are differences, of course, between a caged animal and a deposed pasha. Humbert is bombastically exasperated by his prison, despising the furniture, plotting to murder Lolita’s mother, drugging Lolita – basically rattling the bars and throwing garbage at the visitors. Kemal, by contrast, peaceably eats dinner in front of the TV with Füsun and her parents for eight years. When Füsun is out, he sits alone with her parents, complimenting the mother on her stuffed zucchini, telling the father how telephones ring in America, never once attempting to slip anyone any barbiturates. ‘I tasted pleasures I’d never known before,’ he writes of the 1593 evenings spent in this fashion. To me there’s something deeply Turkish and hilarious about this. When he gets a chance to spirit Füsun away to Paris, he has his father’s chauffeur drive them in the 1956 Chevrolet, and he brings Füsun’s mother along.

Unlike most novels treating the theme of lovers kept apart by society, The Museum of Innocence is narrated without anger. Kemal seems to like everyone in the story, from Füsun’s goofy husband to her conventional mother. The vulgar is so intertwined with the sublime that Kemal, unlike Humbert, has no thought of detaching Füsun from the ‘objects that had made her who she was’. The type of bric-à-brac that seems like an aesthetic rupture in Lolita’s mother’s front hall – ‘door chimes, a white-eyed wooden thingumabob of commercial Mexican origin, and that banal darling of the arty middle class, Van Gogh’s Arlésienne’ – is meaningful and appropriate in Füsun’s mother’s buffet: ‘the never-used coffee cups, the old clock … the little glass vase with the spiralling floral pattern whose likeness one could see displayed on the buffet of any middle-class family in the city’. Pamuk’s museum restores a specialness to objects of mass production, transmuting quantity into quality. A middle-class fake is more magical than a priceless painting, precisely because it’s everywhere at once.

Late in the novel, no matter where in the world his Byronic gloom takes him, Kemal can’t stop running into Füsun’s mother’s saltshaker. Cairo, Barcelona, New Delhi, Rome: ‘To contemplate how this saltshaker had spread to the farthest reaches of the globe suggested a great mystery, as great as the way migratory birds communicate among themselves, always taking the same routes every year.’ You can imagine Marxist criticism deploring the displacement of birds by saltshakers, condemning the globalisation that enables you to travel halfway around the world only to find the same napkin dispenser sitting on the table. But you can imagine another Marxist criticism glimpsing here some version of the truth that Fredric Jameson said was essentially impossible to convey in the novel: ‘Never has the world been so completely humanised as in industrial times; never has so much of the individual’s environment been the result, not of blind natural forces, but of human history itself.’

Every few years, Pamuk writes, ‘another wave of saltshakers’ washes in, replacing the old generation. People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them’. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is always and only in the Louvre, the saltshakers are everywhere for a few years, and then they’re gone, shifting the dimension of rarity from space to time. As rarities, some of them are salvaged by collectors. Pamuk believes that the appearance of collectors is one of the inevitable historical stages of modernisation. But collectors are cranky, capricious types, liable to lavish all their attention on postcards and bottle caps while ignoring all kinds of other things – toothbrushes, for example. Pamuk was astounded by the difficulty of getting hold of 1970s toothbrushes: how could they all have vanished from the face of the earth? After he mentioned the problem in an interview, a reader sent him a large collection of old toothbrushes that would otherwise have been lost to posterity.

The evening of the opening, Pamuk hosted a cocktail reception for 385 people on the terrace of a nearby restaurant. Waiters passed among the guests, distributing cloudy glasses of raki that looked exactly like the plastic replicas in the museum. I met Pamuk’s editor, who made my head explode by relating that, since he hadn’t ended up writing the novel in the form of a museum catalogue, Pamuk had recently decided to write the catalogue as a separate book. (The English translation, The Innocence of Objects, will be published later this year.) Borges could have written a four-page story about the madman who builds a museum while writing a novel about building the museum, but Pamuk wrote the novel, built the museum, and then wrote a book-length catalogue about it.

Pamuk himself arrived, betraying no signs of fatigue from the large-scale strains of his artistic process. His editor reminded him to address the guests: ‘Tell them about the food,’ she suggested. Pamuk took the microphone. ‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ he said. ‘I know you are all worried about the food. Well, don’t worry. There is enough food.’ The dishes being served, he said, were all the kinds of thing that Füsun’s family would have eaten in the 1970s. ‘Do you think that means fondue?’ I overheard an American diplomat ask. The party lasted a long time. I met a typesetter described as the world’s best decipherer of Pamuk’s handwriting. Ara Güler, the master photographer of Istanbul, sat under a tree surrounded by admirers; the museum contains some cityscapes from his personal archives.

The waiter brought round a tray with Füsun’s favourite stuffed vine leaves. I wondered whether Füsun wore less lipstick than I do. Füsun’s face is one thing you never do see in the museum. Pamuk calls it a ‘tactical error’ for writers to show their characters’ faces, on book jackets or elsewhere. I wondered why it was OK to show all Füsun’s personal effects when it was not OK to show her person. It occurred to me that the novel, though fiction, isn’t uniformly fictional. Endings are fake, because nothing in real life ever ends; characters are composites, because real people are either too close to you or too far. But the furniture and clothes: that stuff must almost all be real. There’s no way Balzac invented all that furniture. All those soaring ambitions and human destinies are just a pretext for telling the truth about the sofas and the clocks.

As Nabokov himself once established with entomological diagrams, Kafka had no clear picture of what his insect looked like. On the other hand, he probably had a clear picture of the framed magazine picture on Gregor’s wall (‘a lady fitted out with a fur hat and fur boa who sat upright, raising a heavy fur muff that covered the whole of her lower arm towards the viewer’) and the ‘cool, leather sofa’ and the cigarettes and the textile samples. No matter how you showed the insect, it would be a lie. But physical things, the mass-produced brothers and sisters, have a certain truth. Like Orthodox icons, they are ‘images not made by hands’: symbols that are also somehow identical to the things they represent. When you watch a film adaptation of a novel, you always have to stop and ask yourself what are the odds that Eugene Onegin happened to look exactly like Ralph Fiennes, and yet a teapot from the right historical period is a real part of the world that created the character and plot. If you had enough of the textile samples and magazine pictures and sofas, maybe you could re-create the insect.

When Kemal visits the Proust Museum in Illiers-Combray, and sees ‘the portraits of those who had served as models’ for Proust’s work, he leaves ‘none the wiser about his novels, though possessing a clearer idea of the world in which the author had lived.’ The portraits are a red herring. The real ‘models’ aren’t the people in the portraits, but the world around the people: not only the furniture but the psycho-sexual furniture too. All those saltshakers and cigarettes, manmade yet inhuman, coming and going in waves, stand for the rules we live by: in the case of The Museum of Innocence, sexual ethics. That’s the mass-produced object that we’re all conditioned by. We all have the same one sitting on our dining table.

I left the party close to midnight and made my way back up Sıraselviler Avenue, wondering which building had contained the brothel with seven identical floors. I thought about how much I preferred The Museum of Innocence to Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City. At the press conference a German journalist had asked whether ‘Füsun’ was intentionally reminiscent of hüzün, a word used by Pamuk to designate Istanbul’s unique and shameful post-imperial melancholy. ‘Westerners coming to the city often fail to notice’ Istanbul’s hüzün, which ‘stands at a great metaphysical distance’ from the more individualistic melancholy of Burton: this metaphysical remove mirrors ‘the distance Istanbullus feel from the centres of the West’.

When I first read Istanbul, ten years ago in California, I didn’t see why disused fountains should fill anyone not responsible for their maintenance with ‘shame and melancholy’, or why anyone should experience living in Istanbul as ‘the melancholy and desolation of sharing [the city’s] shameful fate’. I knew many Turks of my parents’ generation who were brought up to view the fall of the Ottoman Empire as a great personal humiliation, one the West was constantly sneering at. But this didn’t make me any more sympathetic to what I saw as the romanticisation of hüzün. Frankly, I’m still unsympathetic. I think pride and shame should be based on what you do, not who you are. For Istanbul to have its own special shameful melancholy, imperceptible to everyone except Istanbullus and maybe Claude Lévi-Strauss, sounds to me like an invitation for a bunch of self-important lugubrious dudes to sit around doing nothing and feeling like they’re fulfilling their Hegelian role (if only Hegel applied to the East).

In response to the question about hüzün and Füsun, Pamuk said that he had written Istanbul right in the middle of working on The Museum of Innocence. Resonances would be unavoidable. That was when I realised that my exasperation with Istanbul was directly proportional to my admiration for The Museum of Innocence, and that, to my mind, it was less a matter of ‘resonances’ than of balancing the books. It was as if, in the year he took off from the novel to write the memoir, Pamuk had poured all the rancour from his heart. (‘Until the age of 45,’ he writes in Istanbul, ‘it was my habit, whenever I was drifting in that sweet cloud between sleep and wakefulness, to cheer myself by imagining I was killing people.’) When Kemal feels shame, it isn’t geographic or metaphysical. It’s the reasonable and understandable shame of a man who chooses to spend eight years collecting his married ex-lover’s cigarette stubs. The replacement of hüzün (melancholy) by füsun (magic) mirrors the central truth of the novel: ‘If the objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum,’ Kemal realises, ‘they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride.’ The Museum of Innocence is a machine that processes shame into pride. By the last sentence of the novel, the conversion is complete: ‘Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.’

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