My Father's Suitcase
The Nobel Lecture, 2006: "The writer's secret is not inspiration--for it is never clear where that comes from--but stubbornness, endurance."
By Orhan Pamuk
“Just take a look,” he said, slightly embarrassed. “See if there’s anything in there that you can use. Maybe after I’m gone you can make a selection and publish it.”
We were in my study, surrounded by books. My father was searching for a place to set down the suitcase, wandering around like a man who wished to rid himself of a painful burden. In the end, he deposited it quietly, unobtrusively, in a corner. It was a shaming moment that neither of us ever quite forgot, but once it had passed and we had gone back to our usual roles, taking life lightly, we relaxed. We talked as we always did—about trivial, everyday things, and Turkey’s never-ending political troubles, and my father’s mostly failed business ventures—without feeling too much sorrow.
For several days after that, I walked back and forth past the suitcase without ever actually touching it. I was already familiar with this small black leather case, with a lock and rounded corners. When I was a child, my father had taken it with him on short trips and had sometimes used it to carry documents to work. Whenever he came home from a trip, I’d rush to open this little suitcase and rummage through his things, savoring the scent of cologne and foreign countries. The suitcase was a friend, a powerful reminder of my past, but now I couldn’t even touch it. Why? No doubt because of the mysterious weight of its contents.
I am now going to speak of the meaning of that weight: that weight is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room and sits down at a table or retires to a corner to express his thoughts—that is, the weight of literature.
When I did finally touch my father’s suitcase, I still could not bring myself to open it. But I knew what was inside some of the notebooks it held. I had seen my father writing in them. My father had a large library. In his youth, in the late nineteen-forties, he had wanted to be an Istanbul poet, and had translated Valéry into Turkish, but he had not wanted to live the sort of life that came with writing poetry in a poor country where there were few readers. My father’s father—my grandfather—was a wealthy businessman, and my father had led a comfortable life as a child and a young man; he had no wish to endure hardship for the sake of literature, for writing. He loved life with all its beauties: this I understood.
The first thing that kept me away from my father’s suitcase was, of course, a fear that I might not like what I read. Because my father understood this, too, he had taken the precaution of acting as if he did not take the contents of the case seriously. By this time, I had been working as a writer for twenty-five years, and his failure to take literature seriously pained me. But that was not what worried me most: my real fear—the crucial thing that I did not wish to discover—was that my father might be a good writer. If true and great literature emerged from my father’s suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed a man who was entirely different from the one I knew. This was a frightening possibility. Even at my advanced age, I wanted my father to be my father and my father only—not a writer.
A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man—or this woman—may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or, if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at a black wall. He may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete—after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.
As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding words to empty pages, I feel as if I were bringing into being that other person inside me, in the same way that one might build a bridge or a dome, stone by stone. As we hold words in our hands, like stones, sensing the ways in which each is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes from very close, caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around, year in and year out, patiently and hopefully, we create new worlds.
The writer’s secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where that comes from—but stubbornness, endurance. The lovely Turkish expression “to dig a well with a needle” seems to me to have been invented with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love—and I understand it, too. When I wrote, in my novel “My Name Is Red,” about the old Persian miniaturists who drew the same horse with the same passion for years and years, memorizing each stroke, until they could re-create that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew that I was talking about the writing profession, and about my own life. If a writer is to tell his own story—to tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people—if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and give himself over to this art, this craft, he must first be given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favors the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels most lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing, when he thinks that his story is only his story—it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him the images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build. If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my life, I am most surprised by those moments when I felt as if the sentences and pages that made me ecstatically happy came not from my own imagination but from another power, which had found them and generously presented them to me.
I was afraid of opening my father’s suitcase and reading his notebooks because I knew that he would never have tolerated the difficulties that I had tolerated, that it was not solitude he loved but mixing with friends, crowds, company. Still, later my thoughts took a different turn. These dreams of renunciation and patience, it occurred to me, were prejudices that I had derived from my own life and my own experience as a writer. There were plenty of brilliant writers who wrote amid crowds and family, in the glow of company and happy chatter. In addition, even my father had, at some point, tired of the monotony of family life and left for Paris, where—like so many writers—he had sat in a hotel room filling notebooks. I knew that some of those very notebooks were in the suitcase, because, during the years before he brought me the case, he had finally begun to talk about that period in his life. He had spoken about those years when I was a child, but he had never discussed his vulnerabilities, his dreams of becoming a writer, or the questions of identity that had plagued him in his Paris hotel room. He’d spoken instead of the times he’d seen Sartre on the sidewalks of Paris, of the books he’d read and the films he’d gone to, all with the elated sincerity of someone imparting important news.
When I became a writer, I knew that it was partly thanks to the fact that I had a father who spoke of world writers much more than he ever spoke of pashas or great religious leaders. So perhaps, I told myself, I would have to read my father’s notebooks with my gratitude in mind, remembering, too, how indebted I was to his large library. I would have to remember that, when he was living with us, my father, like me, enjoyed being alone with his books and his thoughts—and not pay too much attention to the literary quality of his writing. But as I gazed so anxiously at the suitcase he had bequeathed to me I also felt that this was the very thing I would not be able to do.
Sometimes my father would stretch out on a divan, abandon the book or the magazine in his hand, and drift off into a dream, losing himself for the longest time. When I saw this expression on his face, which was so different from the one he wore for the joking, teasing, and bickering of family life, when I saw the first signs of an inward gaze, I would understand, with trepidation, that he was discontented. Now, many years later, I understand that this discontent is the basic trait that turns a person into a writer. Patience and toil are not enough: first, we must feel compelled to escape crowds, company, the stuff of ordinary life, and shut ourselves up in a room. The precursor of this sort of independent writer—one who reads to his heart’s content, who, by listening only to the voice of his own conscience, disputes others’ words, and who, by entering into conversation with his books, develops his own thoughts and his own world—was surely Montaigne, in the earliest days of modern literature. Montaigne was a writer to whom my father returned often, a writer he recommended to me. I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who—wherever they are in the world, East or West—cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms with their books; this is the starting point of true literature.
But once we have shut ourselves away we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people’s stories, other people’s books—the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors—and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signs that dark and improvident times are upon us. But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is.
My father had a good library, fifteen hundred volumes in all—more than enough for a writer. By the age of twenty-two, I had perhaps not read them all, but I was familiar with each book. I knew which were important, which were light and easy reading, which were classics, which an essential part of any education, which forgettable but amusing accounts of local history, and which French authors my father rated highly. Sometimes I would look at this library from a distance and imagine that one day, in a different house, I would build my own library, an even better library—build myself a world. When I looked at my father’s library from afar, it seemed to me to be a small picture of the real world. But this was a world seen from our own corner, from Istanbul. My father had built his library mostly on his trips abroad, with books from Paris and America, but he had also stocked it with books bought at Istanbul’s foreign-language bookshops in the forties and fifties.
In the seventies, I did begin, somewhat ambitiously, to build my own library. I had not quite decided to become a writer; as I related in my book “Istanbul,” I had come to suspect that I would not be a painter, as I had hoped, but I was not yet sure what path my life would take. There was inside me a relentless curiosity, a hope-driven desire to read and learn, but at the same time I felt that my life was in some way lacking, that I would not be able to live like others. Part of this feeling was connected to what I felt when I gazed at my father’s library: that I was living in the provinces, far from the center of things. This was a feeling I shared with everyone in Istanbul in those days. There was another reason for my anxiety: I knew only too well that I lived in a country that showed little interest in its artists—whether painters or writers—and offered them no hope. In the seventies, when I took the money my father gave me and greedily bought faded, dusty, dog-eared books from Istanbul’s old booksellers, I was as affected by the pitiable state of these secondhand bookstores—and by the despairing dishevelment of the poor, bedraggled booksellers, who laid out their wares at roadsides, in mosque courtyards, and in the niches of crumbling walls—as I was by their books.
As for my place in the world: in life, as in literature, I felt, fundamentally, that I was not “at the center.” At the center of the world, there was a life that was richer and more exciting than our own, and, like all of Istanbul, all of Turkey, I was outside it. In the same way, there was world literature, and its center was far away from me. Actually, what I had in mind then was Western, not world, literature, and we Turks were certainly outside it. My father’s library was evidence of this. At one end of the room, there were Istanbul’s books—our literature, our local world, in all its beloved detail—and at the other end were the books from this other, Western world, which bore no resemblance to ours, a lack of resemblance that caused us both pain and hope. To write, to read, was like leaving one world to find consolation in the otherness of another, in the strange and the wondrous. I felt that my father had read novels in order to escape his life and flee to the West—just as I did later.
Books in general, it seemed to me in those days, were what we picked up to escape our own culture, which we found wanting. And it wasn’t only by reading that we could leave our Istanbul lives and travel West; it was by writing, too. To fill those notebooks of his, my father had gone to Paris and shut himself up in a room, and then he had carried the notebooks back to Turkey. As I gazed at my father’s suitcase, it seemed to me that this was part of what was causing me disquiet: after working in a room, trying to survive as a writer in Turkey for twenty-five years, I was galled to see my father hide his deep thoughts in this suitcase, to see him act as if writing were work that had to be done in secret, far from the eyes of society, the state, the people. Perhaps this was the main reason that I felt angry at my father for not taking literature as seriously as I did.
In fact, I was angry at my father because he had not led a life like mine—because he had never quarrelled with his life, and had spent it happily laughing with his friends and his loved ones. But part of me also knew that I was not so much “angry” as “jealous,” that the second word was more accurate, and this, too, made me uneasy. I’d ask myself in a scornful, angry voice: What is happiness? Is happiness believing that you live a deep life in your lonely room? Or is happiness leading a comfortable life in society, believing in the same things as everyone else, or, at least, acting as if you did? Is it happiness or unhappiness to go through life writing in secret, while seeming to be in harmony with all that surrounds you?
But these were ill-tempered questions. Wherever had I got the idea that the most important measure of a good life was happiness? People, papers—everyone acted as if it were. Did this alone not suggest that it might be worth trying to find out if the opposite was true? After all, my father had run away from his family many times—how well did I know him, and how well could I say that I understood his disquiet?
So this was what was driving me when I first opened my father’s suitcase: Did my father have a secret, an unhappiness in his life that I knew nothing about, something that he could endure only by pouring it into his writing? As soon as I opened the suitcase, I recalled its scent of travel and recognized several notebooks that my father had shown me years earlier, though without dwelling on them for long. Most of the notebooks I now took in my hands he had filled when he was in Paris as a young man. Although, like so many writers I admired—writers whose biographies I had read—I wished to know what my father had written, and what he had thought, when he was the age I was now, it did not take me long to realize that I would find nothing like that here. What disturbed me most was when, now and again, in my father’s notebooks, I came upon a writerly voice. This was not my father’s voice, I told myself; it wasn’t authentic, or, at least, it didn’t belong to the man I’d known as my father. Beneath my fear that my father might not have been my father when he wrote was a more profound fear: the fear that, deep inside, I was not authentic. If I found nothing good in my father’s writing, if I found him to have been overly influenced by other writers, I would be plunged into the despair that had afflicted me so strongly when I was young, casting my life, my very being, my desire to write, and my work into question. During my first ten years as a writer, I had felt these anxieties keenly, and, even as I battled them, I had feared that one day I would have to admit defeat—just as I had done with painting—and give up writing as well.
So these were the two things I felt as I closed my father’s suitcase and put it away: a sense of being marooned in the provinces, and a fear that I lacked authenticity. For years, I had, in my reading and my writing, been discovering, studying, and deepening these emotions, in all their variety and their unintended consequences, their nerve endings, their triggers, and their many colors. Certainly my spirits had been jarred by the confusions, the sensitivities, and the fleeting pains that life and books had sprung on me, especially as a young man. But it was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (in “My Name Is Red” and “The Black Book”) and the problems of life on the periphery (in “Snow” and “Istanbul”). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, own them, and make them a conscious part of our spirit and our writing.
A writer talks of things that we all know but do not know that we know. To explore this knowledge, and to watch it grow, is a pleasurable thing; the reader visits a world that is at once familiar and miraculous. When a writer uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he is aware of it or not, putting great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one another, that others carry wounds like mine—and that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that we resemble one another. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a center.
But, as can be seen from my father’s suitcase and the pale colors of our lives in Istanbul, the world did have a center, and it was far away from us. I know from experience that the great majority of people on this earth live with the same feeling of inauthenticity and Chekhovian provinciality, and that many suffer from an even deeper sense of insufficiency, insecurity, and degradation than I do. Yes, the greatest dilemmas facing humanity are still landlessness, homelessness, and hunger . . . but today our televisions and newspapers tell us about these fundamental problems more quickly and more simply than literature ever could. What literature most needs to tell and to investigate now is humanity’s basic fears: the fear of being left outside, the fear of counting for nothing, and the feeling of worthlessness that comes with such fears—the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kin. . . . Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know that they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies, and nations outside the Western world—and I can identify with them easily—succumbing to fears that lead them to commit stupid acts. I also know that in the West—a world with which I can identify just as easily—nations and peoples that take an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their glory at having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.
So my father was not the only one: we all give too much importance to the idea of a world with a center. Whereas the impulse that compels us to shut ourselves up in our rooms to write for years on end is a faith in the opposite, the belief that one day our writings will be read and understood, because people the world over resemble one another. This, as I know from my own and my father’s writing, is a troubled optimism, scarred by the anger of being consigned to the margins. The love and hate that Dostoyevsky felt toward the West all his life—I have felt this, too, on many occasions. But if I have grasped an essential truth, if I have cause for optimism, it is because I have travelled with this great writer through his love-hate relationship with the West and I have beheld the world that he built on the other side.
All writers who have devoted their lives to their work know this reality: whatever our original purpose, the world that we create after years and years of hopeful writing will, in the end, take us to other, very different places. It will take us far from the table at which we have worked in sadness or in anger; it will take us to the other side of that sadness and anger, into another world. Could my father not have reached such a world himself? Like the land that slowly begins to take shape, rising from the mist in its many colors like an island spied after a long sea journey, this other world enchants us. We are as beguiled as the Western travellers who voyaged from the south to behold Istanbul rising from the mist. At the end of a journey begun in hope and curiosity, there lies before us a city of mosques and minarets, a medley of houses, streets, hills, bridges, and slopes—an entire world. Seeing this world, we wish to enter it and lose ourselves in it, just as we might in a book. After sitting down to write because we felt provincial, excluded, marginalized, angry, or deeply melancholic, we have found an entire world beyond these sentiments.
As I gazed at my father’s suitcase, it occurred to me that he might also have discovered this kind of happiness in the years he spent writing. I should not prejudge him. I was so grateful to him, after all. He had never been a commanding, forbidding, overpowering, punishing, ordinary father. He had always left me free, always showed me the utmost respect. I had often thought that if I had, from time to time, been able to draw on my imagination, whether in freedom or in childishness, it was because, unlike so many of my friends from childhood and youth, I had no fear of my father. On some deeper level, I was able to become a writer because my father, in his youth, had also wished to be one. I would have to read him with tolerance—to seek to understand what he had written in those hotel rooms.
It was with these hopeful thoughts that I walked over to the suitcase, which was still sitting where my father had left it. Using all my will power, I read through a few manuscripts and notebooks. What had my father written about? I recall a few views from the windows of Paris hotels, a few poems, paradoxes, analyses. . . . As I write, I feel like someone who has just been in a traffic accident and is struggling to remember how it happened, while at the same time dreading the prospect of remembering too much. When I was a child, and my father and mother were on the brink of a quarrel—when they fell into one of their deadly silences—my father would turn on the radio, to change the mood, and the music would help us forget it all faster.
So let me change the mood with a few sweet words that will, I hope, serve as well as that music. The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.
A week after he came to my office and left me his suitcase, my father paid me another visit; as always, he brought me a bar of chocolate (he had forgotten that I was forty-eight years old). As always, we chatted and laughed about life, politics, and family gossip. A moment arrived when my father’s gaze drifted to the corner where he had left his suitcase, and he saw that I had moved it. We looked each other in the eye. There followed a pressing silence. I did not tell him that I had opened the suitcase and tried to read its contents; instead, I looked away. But he understood. Just as I understood that he had understood. Just as he understood that I had understood that he had understood. But all this understanding went only as far as it could go in a few seconds. Because my father was a happy, easygoing man who had faith in himself, he smiled at me the way he always did. And, as he left the house, he repeated all the lovely and encouraging things he always said to me, like a father.
As always, I watched him leave, envying his happiness, his carefree and unflappable temperament. But I remember that on that day there was also a flash of joy inside me that made me ashamed. It was prompted by the thought that maybe I wasn’t as comfortable in life as he was, maybe I had not led as happy or footloose a life as he had, but at least I had devoted mine to writing. You understand . . . I was ashamed to be thinking such things at my father’s expense—of all people, my father, who had never been a source of pain to me, who had left me free. All this should remind us that writing and literature are intimately linked to a void at the center of our lives, to our feelings of happiness and guilt.
But my story has a symmetry that immediately reminded me of something else that day, bringing with it an even deeper sense of guilt. Twenty-three years before my father left me his suitcase, and four years after I had decided, at the age of twenty-two, to become a novelist, and, abandoning all else, shut myself up in a room, I finished my first novel, “Cevdet Bey and His Sons.” With trembling hands, I gave my father a typescript of the still unpublished novel, so that he could read it and tell me what he thought. I did this not only because I had confidence in his taste and his intellect; his opinion was very important to me because, unlike my mother, he had not opposed my wish to become a writer. At that point, my father was not with us, but far away. I waited impatiently for his return. When he arrived, two weeks later, I ran to open the door. My father said nothing, but he immediately threw his arms around me in a way that told me he had liked the book very much. For a while, we were plunged into the sort of awkward silence that often accompanies moments of great emotion. Then, when we had calmed down and begun to talk, my father resorted to highly charged and exaggerated language to express his confidence in me and in my first novel: he told me that one day I would win the prize that I have now received with such great happiness. He said this not because he was trying to convince me of his good opinion or to set the prize as a goal; he said it like a Turkish father, supporting his son, encouraging him by saying, “One day you’ll be a pasha!” For years, whenever he saw me, he would encourage me with the same words.
My father died in December, 2002.
Comment on this article here.
Translation from the Turkish by Maureen Freely. © The Nobel Foundation, 2006.
May 7, 2010
The Mother of Mother's Day
January 28, 2010
Securing Your Pet's Post-Rapture Future
January 13, 2010
December 21, 2009
Ho, Ho, Hollywood
December 14, 2009
Bad Dream Girls
July 16, 2009
The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
July 16, 2009
Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve Blues
December 23, 2008
Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
November 25, 2008
Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
November 16, 2008
October 29, 2008
October 26, 2008
The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
October 11, 2008
Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
October 4, 2008
Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
SoMA's archive here
Copyright © 2018 SoMAreview, LLC. All Rights Reserved