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“the Necessity of Seeing the Full Landscape”: Orhan Pamuk on Literature and Happiness


The Turkish Nobel Prize winner talks about the circumstances where literature and life happily intersect.

After being awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 2006, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (1952) went on to be known around the entire world, a type of gift for those who would have had very few opportunities to know his oeuvre and perhaps beyond that, according to the non-written rules of the world-beyond-literature, Pamuk has also aroused the interest surrounding his biography, and other non-literary projects.

In this sense it is important to mention his Museum of Innocence, a place where fiction comes to life taking off from his homonymous novel. Pamuk set up a permanent exhibition in Istanbul where he gathered objects from his personal collection that were related to the novel. 83 cabinets which corresponded to the 83 chapters of the novel, each one safekeeping 83 emotions that develop in each of these parts.

When the writer inaugurated the museum in 2012, he offered an interview to Juan Cruz, for the Argentinian journal La Nación. Here he sheds light on those corners where existence and literature share territories and experiences and are sometimes unable to tell each other apart “Novels are simple models to find the meaning of life” he expressed.

We share some of the significant fragments of the dialogue, while we offer the reader this link where the full interview is found.

I believe that while we read we realise there is something that occurs beyond the story itself. While we read, the reader becomes a detective and seeks a deeper meaning in what he is reading. Borges speaks of this, using Moby Dick as an example. During the first reading it seems that Moby Dick is about some whale hunters. In a second reading, the story seems to be about a crazed captain. But Borges says the story is actually about something cosmic, something deeper. And he is right. All great novels go beyond. In the case of Agatha Christie’s novels, once we know who the killer is we do not read the same book again. But in truly great literary novels, it does happen. You can read them over and over to discover their truth, their heart. Moby Dick’s true readers know it is about life itself. What is the meaning of life? This is question the novel should transmit.

Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce, also seek the core. The human mind is made for this, for finding the meaning of life. The novels are simple models to find the meaning of life.

—Pamuk, has literature made you happy?

Literature has made me happy. But this is not the reason why I began to write. For me it was inevitable. I wanted to be a painter and I failed. But I still needed the solitude of an artist, and I loved reading so much I wanted to be a writer. I confess that writing a novel is a deliciously solitary process. Recently I spent a season without writing and I devoted myself to social life and to painting. I was honestly, very happy. But that is over now and I have resumed my literature. Novels give life meaning. Without text, life has no meaning. I always feel closer to trees than to the forest. And although I am worried about the tree, sometimes I feel the need to see the whole landscape.

Leonardo Sciascia once told me: “happiness is an instant”. In the Museum of Innocence, from the first line, you inquire about happiness, and your character concludes like Sciascia, although there he affirms that happiness is the sum of instants. I would like to know your idea of happiness after having written this novel and after creating the museum that now contains it. How does it feel?

Ok, I understand the question as: “Orhan, what is your happiness like when you are working in a museum or in the field of arts, and what is your happiness like when you write?” This is an issue I am profoundly concerned about. I know I am immensely happy when I paint. But when I write I feel more intelligent, committed to the world in a more profound way, I feel part of the world, and strangely enough, morally, responsible? The satisfaction that painting gives me, and I mention it in my latest books, is more naïve, it has less to do with composition and more to do with the surface. The pleasure of the colours, of creating images with the paintbrush’s point, checking how your hand sees things you had not even become aware of, how your hand creates visual effects without your mind ordering you to do so, in an automatic manner? That is an amazing job. I like that. When I paint like that it’s like I’m in the shower singing in the morning. Writing is like playing chess: we turn phrases around. It’s more cerebral. When I write it’s more serious, I am angry with myself and with the world, because the fact is you cannot change the world’s reality with words. And it angers you, you turn words around, you think of the consequences, you think in the totality of the world you wish to penetrate, while painting represents an instantaneous happiness.

—That is why you like to write novels? Because they give you serious happiness?

Of course I like writing novels; I’ve been doing it for 36 years. The happiness of writing is seeing, in the long term, the creation of an entire universe. In this aspect I am much more calculating. That is why the Museum of Innocence (the physical museum) is more a novel than a painting. It is an entire relationship deposit, of calculated thing. The painter in me made things joyfully in it, but at the end, the composition he had in mind was the work of the novel.

—To me the criteria to judge the beauty and seriousness of a novel is how precise it is at the moment of representing life. A novel, as I told you in New York, should answer certain questions: what is life? What are the values that determine and explain life? Are those values devotion, happiness, creativity, enjoying the consequences of your individuality, trying to be more like others or trying to be unique, friendship, loneliness. These are the issues a novel should explicitly or in an unspecific manner, latently, contain. And in this sense a novel is a moral issue, since you are wondering about these things.

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