In the last few weeks, I have been busy stuffing my clothes in vacuum bags, stacking my books in the closet’s unreachable shelves while standing on wobbly chairs, and packing everything in my Tel Aviv apartment that says “Nathalie” into a dark storage room in preparation for Part II of my journey to unknown destinations. As of March 12, I have officially released my apartment for sublet and begun my journey anew.
After a short detour visiting my grandparents in Istanbul, I have arrived in the warm homes of old friends in London. On my first day in London, I chanced on a tiny temporary exhibition presenting selections from The Museum of Innocence at the Somerset House adjacent to King’s College. As fate would have it, I had visited the original museum that stands in a small street in Beyoğlu, Istanbul just a few days earlier, also without conscious intent.
The Museum of Innocence is the physical manifestation of the Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel by the same name and comprises small vitrines showcasing items collected by the novel’s hero Kemal over his life-long obsession with the object of his unrequited love, Füsun.
The novel is set in Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s and follows Kemal’s torment after a number of choices land him single and the love of his life married to another. He spends the following decade collecting objects Füsun touched, cataloguing the memories attached to each and every one of them. The museum’s display of 4,213 cigarette butts that touched Füsun’s lips—which Kemal meticulously collected, dated and catalogued—presents a stark image of obsession, hoarding, and the way in which objects shape our memories, and in return, the perception of our lives.
I read the novel back in 2008 when it had all but taken over the glass vitrines of bookshops across Istanbul. As his latest novel released after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, it was the talk of town for good few months. Most readers I spoke to back then didn’t like the book, citing a visceral frustration in reading 600 pages of Kemal’s never-ending obsession that seemed to go nowhere. Pamuk had managed to annoy a whole lot of his readers, myself included. I remember skipping 50 pages in the middle of the book and feeling as if I had not missed a note as Kemal continued his escapades in hoarding Füsun’s stuff. As the content of the novel repeated itself incessantly, the story became a nuisance. Would nothing more than repetitive descriptions of Kemal’s OCD happen page after page?
I had no idea that the brilliance of The Museum of Innocence would be revealed to me in two stages eight years later on the first week of my open-ended journey: first at the fictional home of Füsun in Beyoğlu and later at Somerset House in London, where Kemal and Füsun’s possessions stand on display thousands of miles away from where they first laid eyes upon one another.
Form vs Content
On a video screen at Somerset, Orhan Pamuk says that he conceived of the novel and the museum simultaneously; the museum is neither an illustration of the novel nor the book a narrative of the items displayed in the museum. In this hybrid-form of literature and installation occurring in different spaces and times (the novel preceded the museum by a few years), Pamuk achieves a new form in art through an intricate linking of words and artifacts. Along the way, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, author and story, form and content. The novel and the museum become inseparable pieces of a whole.
For example, the museum in Beyoğlu tricks the visitor who has read the book as a fictional story. Quotes on the walls purport to present a Kemal, alive and in the flesh, who told his story to Pamuk:
Kemal was proud of his 4,213 cigarette butts and whenever he brought them out he would tell me their stories. He carefully dated each one, making additional notes here and there, some of which I used in the novel. Here you will find the relevant notes under each cigarette butt, written out in my own handwriting, as Kemal requested. –Orhan Pamuk
As the visitor climbs the stairs, the story as a figment of Pamuk’s imagination becomes no longer and Kemal transforms into a real man. At the top floor, where a representation of Kemal’s bedroom meets the spectator, the writing on the wall says: “Between 2000 and 2007, Kemal Basmacı lived in this room, where Orhan Pamuk sat and listened to his story. Kemal Basmacı passed away on 12 April 2007.”
As I read these lines, standing by a vitrine displaying handwritten pages of the novel’s drafts, I questioned my understanding of the entire novel – “Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Did Kemal Basmacı actually exist? And so what if he did?”
Susan Sontag on Form in Art
Susan Sontag has written various essays on the antithesis between form and content and the dangers of isolating one from the other in evaluating art. In “Against Interpretation” she cautions against artistic commentary that focuses on the content of a work as it inevitably leads to interpretation:
In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.
The Museum of Innocence is less about the content or the story it tells—rather, the tale of Kemal and Füsun is a vehicle to the form through which the author presents his art. The redundant descriptions of Kemal’s obsession with Füsun that annoyed many readers are the cornerstone of Pamuk’s chosen form, not poorly presented content.
In her seminal essay “On Style” Sontag writes:
Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will. And as the human will is capable of an indefinite number of stances, there are an indefinite number of possible styles for works of art.
In viewing Orhan Pamuk’s work from this stance, the genius of his conceptualization unravels to the spectator. In the Museum of Innocence, Pamuk shows the indivisibility of content and form. Through inventing a unique form for literature, he succeeds in creating great art and gives life to Sontag’s words when she writes:
The Form of Travel and of Life
These serendipitous meetings with The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul and in London during the first week of my renewed quest to the unknown provoked a contemplation on the nature of the second installation of my travels.
Gallivanting through Colombia and Mexico for most of last year, I thought much about the form of my travels. As weeks led to months and the countless cities I visited filled my camera, I realized that the “how” mattered more than the “what” of my exploits. Indeed, if my travels are viewed only in terms of its content—the mountains climbed, the cities traversed, the monuments checked of a to-see list—the experience quickly dissipates into nothingness, turning into a forgettable page in an ordinary storybook.
Yet if I am to view my travels as works of art in-the-making, then their form becomes an inseparable part of a whole, wherein the style of travel supersedes its objects. Where I go matters less—if at all—then how I go.
Indeed, Sontag ends “On Style” with an explanation of the applicability of her treatise on art to just about every experience:
…it remains to be said that style is a notion that applies to any experience (whenever we talk about its form or qualities). And just as many works of art which have a potent claim on our interest are impure or mixed with respect to the standard I have been proposing, so many items in our experience which could not be classed as works of art possess some of the qualities of art objects. Whenever speech or movement or behavior or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a “style,” and being both autonomous and exemplary.
With these words, I leave you to contemplate the “form” of your own experiences, your own life, for it is an inseparable part of the whole that is life: A work of art.
Have you read The Museum of Innocence or visited the museum? What did you think?