… There’s a reason why the language of Proust has a tense called the passé simple. It’s because the passé isn’t simple, because a ‘simple’ (by which the French also mean “single”, as in aller simple, a one-way ticket) past is an oxymoron, and because some grammatical tenses, like the passé simple, exist to order experience rather than to express it. Perhaps the tense should really be called the passé simplificateur: the simplifying, reductive, unifying past: necessary for filing purposes, and a few chronological necessities, but not much beyond that. It is the tense concerned only with the doneness of things. But things are never done, especially for writers, for whom, like all of us but more so (more so because they write about it), events die only to start new lives as consequences, stories, memories. Nothing is lost. That’s why writers write. Or maybe everything is lost, and that’s why they write. Nostalgia has both bases covered: the doneness of things, and the ongoingness of things, and it is between the doneness and the ongoingness that the inside of our lives takes place.
Orhan Pamuk is one of the great writers of pastness, and joins a strain of past-foraging creative nostalgists that includes Proust, Georges Rodenbach, the Stefan Zweig of The World of Yesterday, and more recently Sebald. Pamuk understands the tenses of the heart and mind, and knows that we don’t always have a grammar for them. In his book Istanbul: Memories of a City, he writes:
In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense.
This porous, mixed-up and unlinear tense is as subtle and true to the way we live as anything we find in Proust. It is Time imagined more as an estuary – with its constant land/water level-shifts, its inter- mingled elements, its rises and falls, its drain-and-glut, its cross-currents and backstitching, its mud and silt and overlapping inbetweenness – than the usual Heracleitan river.
This would be a useful tense to have at our disposal, and we can certainly envy the Turkish for having it. Perhaps the subjunctive mood is the closest we have in English – for dreams and rumours and feelings, and for all that is counterfactual, unpragmatic, aspirational. It is one of what grammarians call the “irrealis” moods. The word Irrealis alone is a recommendation, and it gets even more poetic: Jussive, Desiderative, Dubitative, Volative . . . so many ways of expressing what was but isn’t any more, might be but isn’t yet, will be but not now; and also what never was, revisited as if it had been, and what never existed, available to the mind as if it were always there. It is the mood of the long-gone and the not-yet, the might-be and the never-was. With that great rich overspilling palette at our disposal, who – really? – can be content with the usual moods, the mere “realis”?
Nostalgia and its bandmates – melancholy, morbidity, introspection – get their bad reputations mostly because they are individual and isolating, preoccupations of the atomised self. Though his characters have their fair share of these, Pamuk has something larger and more expansive to convey, which he calls Hüzün. The word, originally Arabic, is used in the Koran to express the sadness of those who have become distant from God in their pursuit of earthly things. In modern Turkish, it means something more numinous, secular and encompassing, and Pamuk seeks out the Hüzün “unique to Istanbul”. It is a sense of loss, of the distance between one’s great past and one’s diminished present, strikingly similar, as Pamuk defines it, to Rilke’s comment on Rome: the “museum-atmosphere it breathes, the abundance of fragments of the past (on which a tiny present nourishes itself)”. Its attraction to Pamuk, however, lies in the fact that it is something collective and binding, and thus affirming. The city, says Pamuk, bears its Hüzün “with honour”. It is what the native feels, as distinct from the visitor’s or the tourist’s view which might superficially resemble it – the sort of exoticised desuetude the romantics projected onto Venice, or the Symbolists onto Bruges. This may look like a small difference but it is not: it is a way of belonging, and not a way of being looked at from the outside….It is says Pamuk, “a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state, but a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.” The “us” in question is not a universal “us”, as the Western reader imagines themselves to be, but the Istanbullu. Whether or not the city’s inhabitants recognise what Pamuk means, or possess that ‘state’ he imputes to them, it is a sense of loss that he wants to share with them, and, through his writing, with us. He would not be the first writer to want to share something that isn’t there….
Pamuk calls the second chapter of Istanbul “The Photographs in the Dark Museum House”, and remembers a childhood – bourgeois, westernised, secular – where living rooms were “little museums” full of photographs, trinkets, bibelots from various epochs and generations. “Never having seen them put to any other use I assumed pianos were places for exhibiting photographs,” he writes…. It is in his grandmother’s house that the young Pamuk intuits something of the way in which pasts and presents relate dynamically to each other:
To watch my uncle pose a maths problem and at the same time to see him in a picture taken thirty-two years earlier; to watch my father scanning a newspaper and trying, with a half- smile, to catch the tail of a joke rippling across the crowded room, and at that very same moment to see a picture of him at five years old – my age – [. . .] it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so we could weave them into the present.
We are a long way here from the passé simple. Pamuk’s creation of a museum in Istanbul might seem like a deeply eccentric affair, but it is a logical one, implicit in his writing from the beginning. In the late 1990s, after years of scoping out possible places to buy, Pamuk bought an old house in the Cukurcuma area of Istanbul. “The Museum of Innocence” opened in 2012, and was conceived as the brick-and-mortar panel of a diptych whose fictional counterpart is Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence….
The two projects – novel and museum – were braided together from the start, and Pamuk is careful not to give one imaginative (as distinct from chronological) precedence over the other. The novel tells the story of Kemal, a wealthy, westernised Istanbullite, engaged to a woman of his own milieu, who begins a relationship with a poor cousin, Füsun. It’s no spoiler to say that the relationship is broken off, but that Kemal cannot let go. For the next eight years he finds pretexts to visit Füsun’s family, each time making off with small objects to store and languish over. By the end of the book, and after reversals and re-reversals, Kemal has amassed a museum full, and becomes the curator not just of the past but of all the pasts that might have been. This is in a sense what creative nostalgia is, the nostalgia that allows us to imagine a different world, rather than merely pine for a world that was, or maybe wasn’t: just as the future can take a series of different turns depending on what happens, so the past can do the same….
Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence launched with “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in 2012 and won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2014. The manifesto is, we might have guessed, not at all modest, but it is about the modest. Item three reads: “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company or species.” Item eight goes:
The resources that are channelled into monumental, symbolic museums should be diverted into smaller museums that tell the stories of individuals. These resources should also be used to encourage and support people in turning their own small homes and stories into “exhibition” spaces.
At the end of his manifesto – his version of Vorticism’s BLAST! and BLESS! – he has a section entitled “WE HAD” and “WE NEED”…. The museum’s catalogue is a work of literature in itself, and tells the story of its creation in parallel with its fictional “original”.
To trace the story of Pamuk’s museum as place and as novel is to follow the thread that for him links past and present, fiction and reality…. With museums like this, nostalgia has a bright future.