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Orhan Pamuk: "Tradition and modernity, family are my subjects."

The Books Interview.

Your novel Silent House, which has just been translated into English, was published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. How did it feel to return to the book after so long?

There was some nostalgia in revisiting it. I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.

The little fishing village described in the book has developed into a fancy summer resort for the new rich. At that time, it was outside Istanbul. Now it’s part of the city.

The book is set in the late 1970s, immediately before the military coup of 1980, when the country was poor and the promise of change – political and social change –was not visible. Something I have learned from rereading it is that there was more frustration among people like my characters than we have in Turkey today but the political struggles – the reaction to modernity, whether it’s Islamist or nationalist, anti-western or anti-establishment – are still around.

Because of the belated appearance of the book here, will English-speaking readers have a distorted picture of the trajectory of your career?

No, “distortion” is too strong. Let me put it this way: all my novels represent the same dilemma, Turkey’s grappling with modernity. Tradition and modernity, family: these are my subjects.

Has Turkey settled the political anxieties that this novel deals with?

Authoritarianism, an unrealistic occidental imagination – these issues will never be settled. Turkey will continue to take Europe as a model; it will continue to pursue its search for democracy.

Will the tensions between east and west, modernity and tradition, always be your themes as a novelist?

These themes are not my starting points, really. I just want to portray daily life. Silent House is a portrait of a family. But the radically secular, pro-western ambitions of the first generation of that family are certainly modelled on [those of] the founders of the Turkish Republic.

Idealism, unrealistic idealism, is always contrasted with the reality of the people, of the man in the street. The details of daily life are always more convincing than the political fantasies of the earlier generations.

We’ve talked about themes. How would you say this novel compares formally or stylistically to others you’ve written?

This novel is Joycean or Faulknerian, in the sense that it’s narrated from various first-person points of view. I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular. The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.

What advantages does writing in the first person give you?

First, ethically speaking, being a novelist consists of the act of being humble. You’re trying to see the world through the eyes of others.

Novels are political because in them we try to identify with people who are not like us. And, in that sense, I like the first-person singular because I have to imitate accurately the voice of someone who is not like me. The third-person singular gives me an authority over a character. The first-person singular helps me to get under the skin of that character but it’s harder.

You mentioned Faulkner. What is it about him that you admire?

John Updike once wrote that all Third World writers are influenced by Faulkner. The influence of Faulkner is based on the fact that he wrote about his little corner of the United States in Mississippi. He represented this different, strange country with deeply inventive, experimental prose. And it worked. What makes Faulkner so dear to non-western writers is that he showed that you can write about the strange place you’re from and be inventive, personal, daring – yet still be authentic and read all over the world.

Is the same true of Joyce, who is also a big influence on you?

Yes, of course. Faulkner follows Joyce, though Joyce was more concerned with language. Faulkner was more social.

Orhan Pamuk’s “Silent House” is published by Faber & Faber (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide