Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

Orhan Pamuk’s objects

October 4, 2010

I went to a party at the weekend where I met a young man who was originally from Turkey. On being introduced, I told him that I’d just read a book in which one of the characters shared his name.

‘Is it by Orhan Pamuk?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I said, irked at being so predictable. ‘It was wonderful,’ I added.

‘Orhan Pamuk,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, we don’t really like him.’

I was surprised by his response. My understanding of Orhan Pamuk is that he is astonishingly popular in Turkey. Indeed, a Turkish newspaper was successfully sued by Pamuk’s publisher for questioning the extremely high Turkish sales figures (100,000 at the time) for My Name is Red. His books have, literally, unbelievable sales in Turkey; what could this man mean by saying that ‘we’ – which he clarified to mean ‘we Turks’ – don’t like him?

Well, apparently, Pamuk is too clichéd, too boring, too political to be of any interest.

Orhan Pamuk is undoubtedly political. In 2005 he got into trouble for an interview with a Swiss newspaper in which he said that ‘a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it’. Charges were brought against him under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which legislated against insulting Turkishness.

His novel Snow is generally agreed to be his most overtly political, questioning Islamism in Turkey and probing at the headscarf controversy.

Snow is also all that this man at the party had read of Orhan Pamuk’s – or, at least, he said he’d read a bit of it. I pointed out that there is a great deal to Snow that isn’t pure politics, that isn’t clichéd at all. I loved it for the way Pamuk describes that inspiration for writing a poem can strangely and suddenly just come. And for the way he captures the muffling, deadening effect of snow. It reminds me of the close of Joyce’s staggeringly good final short story in Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. Here is Joyce’s final line:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

It’s the sibilance, the somnolence, the softness of snow – its gentle suffocation. However, this chap clearly didn’t have a swooning soul when it came to Orhan Pamuk. I briefly attempted to talk about some other Turkish writers – Elif Shafak, for instance – but when he started looking at his iPhone and saying he had to go, I got the hint and went and poured myself another Gin and Tonic.

So I’ve just finished Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. I was particularly intrigued to read it, not just because I so loved Snow, but also because there is talk of Pamuk opening an actual real Museum of Innocence in Istanbul to go alongside the novel.

What begins as a love story soon reads a little strangely, with the occasional kink in the prose. And then the penny drops – the book’s narrator is guiding the reader around the museum:

Now, years later, and after a long search, I am exhibiting here an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin from Fuaye, one of the European-style (imitation French) restaurants most loved by the tiny circle of wealthy people who lived in neighborhoods like …

Repeatedly, throughout the story, there is a shift in the narrative to point out a particular object on display – a bottle of Meltem soda, a collection of cigarette butts, stills from Turkish films, a teacup, a ruler … The story of Kemal’s love for Fusun is told through these objects.

But what initially seems like a little quirk grows depth as we learn how Kemal obsesses over these objects during the years in which he is estranged from Fusun. He spends hours with his collection of objects, touching them, inhaling their scent, caressing them, drawing comfort from their association with his love, Fusun. And while there are obvious drawbacks to this synecdochal love, it helps to relieve his pangs of heartbreak and longing.

It is only much later on in the book that Kemal decides to turn his enormous collection of objects into a museum. So much can be told through an object; a 728 page love story is told through this collection.

It reminds me of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris by Leanne Shapton. This book was a quirky Christmas hit last year – a faux auction catalogue of all the objects that remain from a couple’s failed life together. Alongside jewellery and furniture are post-it notes and pyjamas. And it is the tiny flotsam of daily life that has the most narrative value.

Strangely, finishing The Museum of Innocence coincided with the fiancé and I having a mammoth tidy-up of our flat. Although we’ve been living here now for half a year, until yesterday there was still a box or two lurking at the back of the cupboard, piles of papers heaped up on the table, a stray bill or two tucked inside a paperback on the windowsill.

And, going through it all, we found a great deal of flotsam. I discovered an old diary, which I leafed through to find notes of past meetings:

7.30 Thom Ritzy

Olivia coffee 3pm

And neurotic to-do lists:

dentist, cobbler, wax, phone Dad.

There were old letters, birthday cards, half-filled notebooks, biros, a ball of string, roll of selotape, chargers and wires for things that we no longer possess.

Going through it all stirred a wave of nostalgia, and I found it almost painful to see so much of it thrown away.

‘We can’t throw away those cards!’ I shouted, as I saw all my twenty-fifth birthday cards going into the recycling pile.

‘Well what do you want to do with them then?’

I see his point. It’s a bit mad to collect all these remnants of the past years, to put them all away in a box somewhere, to store them all up, when they’re not useful and we don’t have the space to keep them. And, I hope, I’ll get a whole pile of new birthday cards this year, from pretty much exactly the same people.

But there are memories tied to each piece of flotsam – stories, moments, conversations … I don’t want to forget them all. I can understand Kemal’s temptation in The Museum of Innocence to collect everything, to preserve everything, to look at everything again and again, remembering what each piece signifies.

But I don’t want to live in a museum. And I imagine it might be more than a little while before I’m important enough for anyone to want to come and visit a museum full of my things. So, I have allowed the flotsam to be cleared (except for a few especially dear cards); now it is time to go about acquiring some more.


The Finzi-Contini cure for nostalgia

July 16, 2010

Having already blogged about nostalgia (here) a week or so ago. I found it again reappearing, pretty much in capital letters, in Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, my Italian reading for my Italian holiday.

The narrator of the story falls in love with Micòl Finzi-Contini, a wealthy beautiful Jewish neighbour. But Micòl is characterised with her nostalgia – preferring ‘the dear, the sweet, the sacred past’ to the present moment. When the narrator realises he is in love with her and kisses her passionately on several occasions she is completely frigid. She explains that it is because they were childhood friends:

she needed me to understand – it was absolutely unnecessary that we spoil, as we were risking doing, the lovely memories of a shared childhood. For us two to make love? Did it really seem feasible to me?

For Micòl, the past is more precious than the present. She sees the narrator in sepia, steeped in memories, awash with innocence. She refuses to pollute it, to alter the image by overlaying an adult perspective.

The failed love story of Micòl and the narrator takes place in 1930s Italy and is itself one giant memory, a lengthy nostalgia-tinted flashback. For in the Prologue the narrator says the ‘impulse, the prompt’ to write about the Finzi-Continis only happened ‘a year ago, one April Sunday in 1957’. An outing to some Etruscan tombs reminds the narrator of the ‘monumental tomb’ of the Finzi-Continis. And then he says, before the main story has even begun, that only one of all the Finzi-Continis he knew had ended up in the tomb. All the others:

were deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

The morning shadow of that tomb looms over the story that follows. We know that these hot bright moments of youth – of tennis, of gardens, of climbing walls, of reading, of love – will be extinguished before evening falls.

And, with this introductory remark about the Finzi-Continis being deported, one imagines that the following story will be all about the approaching doom. And yes, the introduction of Racial Laws are mentioned in the book and the characters discuss how they have been affected by them – being asked to leave the library, getting into a fight at the cinema – but they are really just part of the background to what is really a story about falling in love, and that love not being requited.

But the knowledge of Micòl’s forthcoming death brings poignancy and a real frustration with her insistency on a nostalgic viewpoint in which her past has more weight than her present. I want to shout at her that soon she’s going to die, that their world is vanishing, that really it is the present that is so precious, such a brief flash of daylight before the Nazi eclipse takes hold.

Of course, for the narrator, it is a different nostalgia at work. Rather than Micol’s veneration of childhood, with no regard for the present, the narrator sees that entire youthful period as precious. For he is looking back from 1957, from after the War and everything that it entailed. And that nostalgia gives a certain sepia sanctity to his memory. And while heartbreak is so exquisitely described, it feels so divorced from what is going to happen next. How can the pain of first love possibly be real, given the pain that is to follow? How can these golden days have existed so close behind the mass extermination that is to come?

How can this book just be a love story? How can it really be about a boy’s friendship with a girl, him falling in love with her and she turning him down, when it’s set in the late 1930s in Italy?

This is where real tragedy lies. Real life continues and is so normal, so completely oblivious to the horror that is to follow, the horror that is on such a different scale, the pain so incomparable. And that normality – that innocence, those days of idling around a tennis court – becomes so unbearably painful, so unspeakably poignant, in the shadow of the War, which is to come and disrupt everything, silently end it all.

So to Hell with nostalgia! Why be wistful for the past when the present, actually, is pretty amazing? Unless some colossal tragedy on the scale of The Second World War were to get in the way, we can’t really complain. The present, each moment of now, should be of absolute paramount importance. For how are any of us to know what lies around the corner? How can we know what might burst out of the shadows and change everything? Only then, once something really truly horrendously awful has happened, do we have the right to pine for the past. Just think how stupid we’d feel if in the future we looked back and saw we’d wasted the golden moments of life longing for something in sepia.


July 8, 2010

It was an uncanny coincidence that just as I was reading about nostalgia, I found myself going home.

I mentioned The Hare with Amber Eyes in my previous post, but shall reiterate here quite how brilliant it is. Really, buy a copy and read it.

At this particular point in the book, Edmund de Waal is describing his beloved netsuke when they are owned by Viktor and Emmy Ephrusi in Vienna in the early 1920s. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, inflation is escalating and Viktor – an incredibly wealthy Jew, head of the family bank – is at the beginning of losing everything. They live in a vast house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, filled with Old Master paintings, Gobelin tapestries, antique furniture, gold dinner-services … and of course the netsuke in their lacquer cabinet. And it is at this point that de Waal mentions nostalgia:

But the life of objects within the Palais was less mobile. The world had undergone an Umsturz, an overturning, and this led to a kind of heaviness in the things that made up their lives. Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background, a gilt-and-varnish blur to a busy social life. The uncounted and the unmeasured started at last to be counted very accurately.

There was a huge falling away; things were so much better and fuller before. Perhaps this was when there were the very first intimations of nostalgia … Viktor and Emmy kept everything – all these possessions, all these drawers full of things, these walls full of pictures – but they lost their sense of a future of manifold possibilities. This was how they were diminished.

Vienna is sticky with nostalgia. It has breached the heavy oak door of their house.

Nostalgia etymologically means the pain of homecoming, from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), coined in 1688 as a translation of the German heimweh. Its meaning only shifted to take on its more current sense of wistfulness for the past in 1920 – just as the Ephrussis were entering their predicament. How particularly apt that de Waal invokes this sense of nostalgia so poetically, when it has just come into being.

My own nostalgia over the past couple of days should be more linked to its etymological sense – I went home and it was painful! But no, the pain was more to do with being lurgied and coughing and spluttering and sneezing everywhere, rather than a trauma of coming home.

In fact it was heaven to go home, to a big clean house, to a fridge full of M&S treats and a mother who was convinced that I was really terribly ill and must go and get some antibiotics. Masses of sympathy and masses of sleep – a winning combination.

But I did find the objects at home had taken on a wistfulness. Of course, my old bedroom has changed since I was its full-time occupant. Shelves have been cleared, cupboards emptied; a new bed has been put in, with new linen; a whole stack of bookshelves turned into a flat-screen TV.

But there are a few survivors. Old cuddly toys in a row up at the top of the shelves, all my children’s books, lined up series by series – Swallows and Amazons, Duncton Wood, the Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Tintin, Asterix, Barbar, Beatrix Potter … as well as the occasional piece of detritus that has accumulated from visits over the years. A post-it note about keys, an old receipt, a half-consumed packet of chewing gum. Useless bits and pieces that the cleaner is too nervous to throw away, just in case they might hold some hidden resonance.

And, over time, they have become ‘sticky with nostalgia’. These objects aren’t in my future – otherwise I would have carried them with me to my new home. I’m afraid that Charlie the Caterpillar and Dogga and Jeremy Fisher and all the other cuddly toys won’t be particularly welcome in the flat that I share with the fiancé. I suppose they were pre-boyfriend cuddling companions and have now been made redundant. (Although I do have one teddy bear who remains with me, for when the fiancé goes away.) But I would be heartbroken if they were thrown away. As de Waal says,

Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background

Yes I really should throw away that old post-it note and definitely the chewing gum – it’s probably not even all that chewy anymore – but there’s something about the way everything is preserved, as though in amber. On a minute scale, it’s a bit like Rodinsky’s Room, in which Rachael Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair describe a fetishised lost room off Brick Lane, untouched for eighty years, discovered as though its occupant had just left – a bowl of porridge still sitting on the desk, now with a thick layer of dust on top.

It is an effort to bring these objects up-to-date, into the present, to push them towards a future. It is too tempting to leave them be, redolent of that moment in the past, sticky with nostalgia.

And now I’m off to Florence, where I haven’t been since living there, eight whole years ago. Back then it felt steeped in the past, impossibly saturated with Renaissance art and history. But it was also filled with the excitement of the future, stretching and widening in front of my eyes. It was my first time living on my own, in a new place; school was behind me and freedom ahead …

I wonder if I’ll feel nostalgic.

Lessons from The Lessons

May 7, 2010

I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Alderman’s new book The Lessons, essentially a Secret History set in Oxford.

Reading it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, not so much for Oxford (‘Ah, Oxford’) but for that naïve feeling of indestructibility that one can have in a close-knit group of friends.

In The Lessons, the main character James finds his group after just a term. For me, that came much later on in Oxford. It was partly there in the second year, when we were all living in houses out of college. But really it hit at the very end of university, after exams, when we had three weeks of doing absolutely nothing other than lazing around together and partying.

It felt like we were a proper gang. There must have been around twenty-five of us, and we were always together in the most clichéd of ways. Afternoons would be spent playing croquet in the college quad (yes, really), sometimes there’d be punting, or picnics and then there’d be evening drinks, followed by dinners – in formal hall, or barbeques – and then out to the various clubs, back to someone’s house, chatting, dancing, watching the sun come up, asleep around breakfast time. Looking back, I almost can’t believe it was real.

It was sad, after university, to see our numbers dwindle. There were some inevitable casualties of the general move to London. Some people stayed on for an extra year, or moved to different parts of the world. And then there were the ones who were in London but gradually distanced themselves from the group. The ones who I realised I didn’t really know well enough to arrange to see one-on-one, who slowly faded into the horizon.

But as the group got smaller, so it felt more special. It was around three years after university that it felt like there was something truly amazing about our group.

We went down to stay at a friend’s house in the countryside for my birthday weekend. There were eight of us. It felt incredibly special, even at the time. I remember being anxious that someone should take lots of photos, to try to capture the weekend, preserve it against time’s distorting dust. Every moment of that weekend felt as though it could never happen again. So much so that I almost felt nostalgic for it, even while it was taking place.

And it never did quite happen again. We had other weekends away, other trips, other times together. But it was always slightly different. It was never quite as good as that first time, never quite the same. At times it could risk feeling like a rehashing, repeating a performance, knowing that the more it was acted, the emptier it became. All the best hiding places had already been found, the best charades already acted, the best meals already cooked …

I almost think that something awful should have happened that weekend. We should have discovered a dead body, or made some dreadful pact. Or else something really nuts, like an orgy. But we just stayed up all night drinking and playing games and chatting. And during the days we went for beautiful long cold green country walks.

It makes me feel sad reading The Lessons. It makes me think of those days, of feeling so firmly part of something, so inseparable from the others, so bound together.

But I suppose those slightly incestuous hermetic groups can’t last forever. Perhaps they really are best in a novel, where such intense friendships are bread and wine for the writer.

And I shouldn’t really want them to last forever. Surely it’s a good thing that friendships drift apart and then together again, new connections are formed, old ones dissolve? Everything is always changing, and that’s what keeps life interesting.

But during that weekend, it felt like the eight of us were the centre of the world, the still point in the middle of life’s and time’s various whirlpools. It was the most wonderful, decadent, indulgent, naïve feeling. And I think Naomi Alderman captures it perfectly in her novel.