Saturday, 16 June 2012

Lucian Freud

‘Awesome. A truly brilliant artist. No question about it,’ my friend declared, cutting a wedge from the disc of camembert, matured, like my grandmother, to a nice state of putrefaction. He placed the wedge on a cheese biscuit.  On it he balanced a red grape and, opening his mouth so wide that a watermelon could have been pushed through it, he pushed the cheese and the biscuit and the grape through it. ‘Absolutely,’ he continued while chomping it down to a mash. ‘I challenge anyone to say differently.’ He looked truculently around the room to spot anyone who might have the temerity to challenge him.

We were sitting in my friend’s family room at night. His girl-friend had prepared what she described as a slow-cooked French rustic chicken cassoulet (it was quite good, actually). We had eaten it to the accompaniment of a Pinot Grigo, which my friend said he hoped was to my liking (it wasn’t) because it was rather costly (it wasn’t, really, as I knew that he had bought it from a supermarket which was selling it for half its price). The label on the bottle informed that the wine showed ‘enticing aroma of citrus fruit and pear drops. On the palate flavours of green apple, white peach and elderflower combined with a crisp refreshing finish’.  The wine had more than a hint of an aroma of citrus in the sense it was very acidic and, I suspected, it not only cleansed my palate it probably also cleansed away the enamel on the back of my teeth.

The girl-friend was slumped in an armchair. She had cooked the cassoulet in a slow cooker and she was now reading a magazine. The effort was wearing her down. 

On my friend, on the other hand, the dinner and the Pinot Grigo had the effect that was equivalent to pouring a can of Red Bull to a bowl of amphetamines. My friend at the best of times is frothing with so much energy you want to push a cushion to his face to calm him down.  I have often wondered how he and his girlfriend, so different in temperament, get on. They have been together for almost three years. My friend has always held an inflated view of his abilities which, years of mediocre jobs—he has no difficulty in bullshitting his way into crap jobs, but because he is so crap at them he rarely manages to hold on to them for more than a few years—shows no signs of reversing.  In addition he is always over-keen to start some or the other scheme and will not take any advice until bitter experience renders it imperative. He fancies himself as a connoisseur of finer things in life about which he talks and talks, rarely silent for more than an inhalation at a time. (In a party or social occasion he will drone on about some or the other exhibition he has been to in the previous six months  to the everlasting dismay of anyone who has the misfortune of being within his hearing distance. He does not seem to realise, or care, that no one is interested in the Dada paintings he saw.) His current girlfriend, by contrast, is slow. She does everything slowly. While eating, for example, her hand is suspended for so long in the air that you wonder whether paralysis has struck.  She speaks slowly with such long pauses between words you could do your shopping in ASDA and come back and she would be only be three fourth of the way in her sentences. And she whispers, which is doubly annoying. You have to make efforts to hear what she is saying; which most of the time is of no great importance. She is a receptionist at a veterinary surgery and is on a warning because she falls asleep while on duty. She has arms like ham and no one will call her a knock out in the looks department. (I have sometimes wondered about their sex life. The girl-friend has a disproportionately large bosom, which, I suppose, is handy if you like to hold on to something during lovemaking. However I can’t really see her being very vigorous in bedroom. Serviceable, if unenthusiastic, f**k, is my guess. If my friend’s preferences of position and speed are the same as they were years ago when we, as teenagers, used to exchange notes on the matter, he probably still bangs away with great gusto (though not for very long, falling comfortably short of the British average of eight minutes till ejaculation), while she lies on her back, breasts splayed under her armpits, I imagine, thinking about—I don’t know—evening’s washing. When I was first introduced to her I had mistaken her outwardly calm demeanour to inner serenity. Now I think that she is incapable of thinking.

But I digress. This post is not about the myriad character defects of my friend and his girlfriend or lurid speculations about their sex life (or not only about them). This post primarily is about Lucian Freud.

 ‘He is a genius,’  my friend informed me in a manner of a policeman reporting to his superiors a discovery he thought showed his great skills in ferreting out clues others with less discerning minds ignored.

My friend had visited the Lucian Freud retrospective which was held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and now he was filled with an all consuming desire to tell someone about what he chose to believe was a unique experience, although, if newspaper reports are to be believed, his ‘unique experience’ was shared by thousands of others.

Now it is true that I won’t be able to recognize good art if it jumped on me from behind and kicked me in the arse. (I’d like to think that I am not an art-snob, but the reality is I’m just ignorant. I should like to think that if I made the effort I could do it; how difficult could it be? I have seen others doing it, so it couldn’t be very difficult.) So, I was not in a position to contradict my friend when he spewed out his learned views about Lucian Freud’s inventiveness and inquisitiveness, and how his style changed over the years. Apparently his early paintings were two dimensional, but of great clarity, on par with those of Jan Van Eyck, which, my friend begged me to consider, was very high praise.

‘I’ll show you what I mean,’ my friend said. He pulled out his lap-top and googled ‘images of Lucian Freud’s paintings’. He enlarged one of the images. 

‘See what I mean?’ he asked with the ecstasy of a Taliban on the eve of a suicidal attack on an American outpost in Afghanistan. ‘This is a painting, by the way, of Freud’s first wife, Kitty Gorman. Its title is “A Girl with A White Dog”. Look at her eyes. That is where the genius of Lucian Freud lies. You are immediately drawn to those eyes. There is something hypnotic about them. Yet, the eyes convey an inner anxiety, an inner turmoil. This is not a woman who is at her ease.’ (Do you see what I mean when I said earlier that it can’t be that difficult to be an art critic? All you need to possess is the skill to talk non-stop tripe. And in England, if you can speak with a posh accent, you are off to a good start. But perhaps I am oversimplifying. My friend talks crap non-stop and no one so far has employed him as an art-critic.)

‘May be she is not at her ease because she is conscious that one of her breasts is hanging out,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable if I was going to be painted with my breast on display, especially if it was not very shapely. It would make me feel uneasy.’

‘Is that all you can see in this painting?’ My friend asked.

I had to confess that it was the tit and not the eyes expressing inner turmoil that immediately caught my attention.

‘What else can you see?’ my friend asked.

‘Well,’ I said carefully, ‘I am no art critic, but the pose of the woman strikes me as artificial. She covers her left breast with her hand when it is already covered by her dress. She ought to be covering her right breast which has popped out, don’t you think?’

‘Do you see anything other than breasts? And I mean see,’ my friend cocked his head sideways and looked at me with an expression that conveyed pity and contempt.

‘The dog looks kind of cute,’ I said. ‘Perhaps the title of the painting should be “A White Dog with A Girl” and not “A Girl with A White Dog.”

‘Let me show you another painting,’ my friend said.

‘Oh God! Do you have to?’

My friend enlarged another image on his laptop. 

It showed an obese woman, naked, sleeping on a sofa. One of her arms was draped over the backrest of the sofa while the other hand was below one of her enormous breasts. Her massive gut hung dropsically over her crotch from under which her pudenda, dotted with black stubble, was just about visible.

‘What do you think?’ my friend asked.

‘Did Lucian Freud paint people with clothes on?’ I asked.

‘He did, but his specialty was nudes. Although he preferred to call them naked portraits rather than nudes.’

‘He felt that the word ‘nude’ implied an object whereas these were people,’ my friend said.

‘I see.’

‘So what do you think?’

‘I think,’ I said, looking at the rolls of fat Freud had depicted in a manner that demanded attention, ‘that clothes were the biggest invention of man. ‘Also’, I continued, looking at the computer image, ‘if that woman does not wake up any time soon, her right hand is going to turn gangrenous with all the weight above it.’

‘Do you want to know what it is called?’

‘Not really.’

‘It is titled “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”.’

‘Is that supposed to be deeply meaningful? Am I missing anything here?’ I asked.

‘Look,’ my friend said. ‘Look how realistic it is. The overweight benefit supervisor—so life-like’.

‘Firstly, calling this woman overweight is a bit like saying that the chicken in black bean sauce from your local Chinese takeaway is a bit salty. Secondly, you can’t say with absolute certainty that it is life-like unless you have seen the benefit officer in person. As God intended. Have you?’

‘It is immaterial. It is not necessary,’ my friend said. ‘You don’t have to be so literal.’ And he took Lord’s name in vain. ‘Freud’s paintings are brutal. They are not for the faint-hearted. If you want to look at something pretty buy a picture post-card.’

I looked in the direction of my friend’s girlfriend. She seemed comatose.  Her skirt had risen way above her knees. I looked at what was on display: her knees. They seemed huge and smooth and white from where I was sitting. I remembered a Kingsley Amis novel (but could not remember its title) in which the narrator compares women’s breasts to well shaped knees (or the other way round; I couldn't be certain; I read the novel many years ago). Looking at my friend’s girl-friend’s knees I thought that that Amis had made a very astute observation, as he did on so many other subjects (including but not limited to female anatomy) in his excellent novels. In certain light and from a certain angle, I concluded, the girlfriend’s knees could look like breasts (without the nipples, obviously). I wondered what Lucian Freud’s grandfather would have made of this observation and what it would have indicated to him about the state of my unconscious, although, strictly speaking, it ought to be Kingsley Amis’s unconscious, as I had merely remembered an observation from his novel. (But, I wondered, why did I remember that particular observation?)

Lucian Freud and his younger brother Clement shared, in addition to ancestry (and a lifelong dislike for each other), an irreverent view of their world-famous grandfather’s theory of mind and psychosexual development. Clement Freud once famously declared that he had not read anything written by Sigmund Freud. Lucian Freud, too, was, in private, scathing of Freud’s theories. However both of them apparently had warm, personal memories of the father of psychoanalysis. It is said that during the sittings of his subjects (it took him up to 12 to 18 months to complete a painting) Lucian Freud regaled them with personal anecdotes of Sigmund Freud.

But back to Lucian Freud’s paintings. After I escaped from my friend’s clutches, I went on the net and looked at many of the images of Freud’s paintings. 

Now I know that looking at an image on the computer is not the same as watching an actual painting, but it seems to me that Freud’s later paintings border on the grotesque. Every foible of the body, every defect of flesh, is exaggerated. None of the subjects looks happy. Or healthy. It is almost as if Freud held his subjects in withering contempt and through the ferocious strokes of his paintbrush tried to annihilate them.

In his long life Lucian Freud fathered several children from various relationships. I read in WikiPedia that there were a total of 14 children that he acknowledged as his own. The eldest, at the time of Freud’s death (at the age of 88) last year, was in her sixties, while the youngest was in his twenties. It is also generally acknowledged that beyond genes Freud contributed very little towards the upbringing of his children. One of his daughters, in an article in the Guardian a few years ago, observed wryly that three of his fourteen children were born in the same year. 

A number of his daughters posed for him naked in their adult years and claimed in interviews and articles in the newspapers that that was the only way to get to know their famous father. 

All of this assumes some interest (beyond salaciousness) only because of Freud’s famous ancestry. One wonders (again) what his grandfather would have made of all this. (It would appear that sexual promiscuity ran in the Freud family. Lucian Freud’s uncle Jean-Martin—Sigmund Freud’s eldest son, named after the French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot with whom Freud worked in Paris before he turned his attention to the human mind,—was a serial philanderer. Jean-Martin Freud (who, years later, published a memoir of his father, which apparently is the source of many of Freud biographies), had a series of affairs, including one with a patient of Freud. His marriage broke up around the time the Freud family fled Vienna on the eve of the Second World War. Jean-Martin, a very successful lawyer in Vienna, came to England with his son (he could not resurrect his career and ended up running a tourist shop next to Buckingham Palace); the wife went to first France and then to the USA with their daughter.)

Lucian Freud must be a great artist if the art critics, who ought to know what they are talking about, think he was a great painter. Certainly in his later years Freud achieved a cult status (no doubt enhanced by his reputation for being a recluse, and stories of his rampant libido).

(Lucian Freud in his studio, in 2005, with naked sculptor Alexandra Willimas-Wynn, the daughter of a baronet, who, at the time was rumoured to have been romantically involved with then 82-year old Freud)

Freud’s paintings fetched astronomical prices in recent years. The painting of the obese benefit supervisor (done in 1995), for example, was sold for more than 30 million pounds in 2008 (bought by Roamn Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea football club,—a real classy man), making Freud, at that time the highest selling living artist. When he died last year, he was said to be worth £ 125 million; and I read recently that his will was for £96 millions, beating the £11 millions in Francis Bacon’s will easily to a second position.

(Lucian Freud with Francis Bacon in happier times. The two had a fallout, later, and, at the time of Bacon's death in 1992, they were not on talking terms)

Lucian Freud was one of the eight grandchildren of Sigmund Freud, and, as per general consensus, the most talented. His was one of the most remarkable and interesting lives lived in the twentieth century. I however still did not wish to visit the exhibition of his paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It would probably have depressed me and filled me with despair for the human condition. I am a picture postcard man. I should buy my ‘art’ from Homebase.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Barry Unsworth

The British writer Barry Unsworth, who died on 8 June 2012, was one of those authors who, while undoubtedly one of my favourites, I have not read as many novels of his, or as often, as I perhaps should have.

The Sacred Hunger, the joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize, was the first Unsworth novel read. Several years after I first read it, my memory of this novel (based on the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century, the story of the mutinous crew on the slave-ship Liverpool Merchnt) is the clever yet subtle way in which Unsworth drew parallels between the past and the present. He refrained from making outright moral judgments and left it to the reader to figure these themes out for themselves.

At more than 600 pages The Sacred Hunger was a humongous novel and while I enjoyed reading it, I also found it a bit heavy going.

It was a while before I read another Unsworth novel. It was titled After Hannibal. This novel, based in Italy, Unsworth’s adoptive country for the last twenty years of his life, was a light-hearted yarn, which, nevertheless, had at its core a rather bleak message: most of the human endeavours turn out to be futile most of the time. In the novel Unsworth dealt with the ambiguities and capriciousness of justice. I liked After Hannibal, which, unlike The Sacred Hunger (which I remember being relentlessly grim), was very satirical in its tone; sections of the novel were very comic.

It was Pascali’s Island, one of Unsworth’s early novels, which I read next and which turned me into an Unsworth fan. Pascali’s Island is easily one of the best novels I have read. It was, according to Unsworth’s obituaries I read on the Net, Unsworth’s first foray into historical fiction. Pascali’s Island (also made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren) told the story of Basil Pascali, who lives on Aegean island, a remote post of the Ottoman Empire. It is the dying days of the Empire and Pascali, a spy of the sultan, has been sending reports to Istanbul for years, which, he knows, no one reads. Since nothing of any significance has happened on the sleepy island, Pascali, in order to ensure that he still has a job, has taken to embellish his reports, writing innovative stories about non-existent foreigners visiting the island. However, the arrival on the island of an Englsih archaeologist and a mysterious German trigger events beyond Pascali’s wildest imagination. I absolutely loved Pascali’s Island, suffused with black humour and reminiscent of vintage Graham Greene, for example, Our Man in Havana  (there was a Greene-like twist at the end, if my memory serves me right). Pascali’s Island, the first novel of Unsworth to be nominated for the Booker Prize, was a gripping read; it remains one of my all-time favourite novels.  This is a novel to be savoured again and again for its sardonic wit.

The next Unsworth novel I read was a smashing read, too. It was Losing Nelson. Losing Nelson told the story of a solitary man called Charles Cleasby, who is obsessed with Horatio Nelson. Cleasby’s life is an unending celebration of various events in the life of the hero. As the novel progresses, slowly, but unmistakably a feeling of unease begins to creep up on the reader. Slowly the reader realises that Cleasby’s interest in Nelson goes way beyond your garden variety obsession; that he might be losing the control over his mind. Superbly paced, perfectly controlled, and written in Unsworth’s simple yet elegant prose, Losing Nelson (with its surprising denouement) is simply breathtaking. Filled with historical details of Nelson’s life, the novel can be described as historical fiction; but it is more than that. It is a stunning psychodrama. One of the few great literary suspense novels I have read.

Losing Nelson was the last Unsworth novel to be set in England, the country of his birth. He wrote excellent novels after this (for example, Land of Marvels, no one of which was set in England. In an interview given a few years ago Unsworth said that he felt increasingly out of touch with day to day life in Britain. ‘It [England] seems to me in many ways a rather ugly little place, although this is the view of an outsider.’

Losing Nelson was the fourth novel of Unsworth I read and the fourth that I liked. I should have read more novels of this talented novelist. I am, therefore, at a loss to figure out why I did not read another Unsworth novel for several years.

Two years ago, while on a holiday, I read Land of Marvels, Unsworth’s 2009 novel. This was a historical novel, the backdrop of which was Mesopotamia, as the world stood on the brink of the First World War. Land of Marvels, with its several, linked subplots, was a richly imagined and cunningly plotted novel; and, as in his Booker winner, The Sacred Hunger, Unsworth drew subtle parallels between the period of the novel and what is happening in the region now. It was a extensively researched novel that managed the rare feat of being erudite and a page-turner—a thoroughly satisfying read. Land of Marvels was not only one of the best novels I read that year, it will easily figure in the top ten novels I have read in recent years.

After reading Land of Marvels I promised myself that I would read more novels of Unsworth more frequently, yet I have not read any in the last two years. A couple of his novels (Morality Play and Mooncranker’s Gift) have been on my shelf for years, and it’s time I picked up one of them.

Barry Unsworth was a sumptuously gifted writer who wrote many novels in his long writing career (17 according to WikiPedia). The five novels which I have read were accomplished, clever (without ever being irritating), richly imagined and superbly plotted. And his pellucid prose made them an added pleasure to read. Most obituaries of Unsworth I read described him as a writer of historical fiction. I do not think that such descriptions adequately convey the wide range of themes Unsworth pursued in his novels. While he undoubtedly had a passion for history, his novels were much more than that. Sometimes they were psychological thrillers, sometimes black comedies. Many of his novels conveyed serious moral messages without ever being preachy. And they were always readable.

A great writer has died.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Random Thoughts

I have written on this blog before what I think of the British Royal family.

Today marks the end of the four-day long jubilee to celebrate a woman, whose only achievement, insofar as I can see, is that she did not do the decent thing and died in time. She lives; she breathes; and has been doing it for the last 86 years, 60 as a queen.

Let me make this clear: I am not ideologically a Republican (anti-monarchist).  I do not have a principled view on the matter; indeed I believe that no principle is worth holding unless it is elastic enough to be bent any which way as the situation demands. I just don’t like the British Royal family. 

The kindest thing I can say about the queen is that she is not as irritating and stupid as her son and not as racially insensitive as her husband. 

Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, has a made a career out of making insulting, racist remarks about other cultures and races, which, we are urged to consider, somehow make him a quaint, eccentric man, instead of what he probably is: an arrogant, ignorant, unpleasant, racist man. 

Let me even not start on Charles. He is a meddlesome fool without a single intelligent idea in his head and tons of worthless opinion on matters he is incapable of understanding.  He is totally lacking in insight and will not take temperate advice from anyone.

Last weekend I went with some friends to a sea-side town where street parties were in full progress: fat people with collective IQ slightly above that of farmyard animals eating unhealthy food and getting drunk on cheap alcohol.

Mervyn King, the governor of Bank of England, I read somewhere, is not happy about the public holidays to celebrate the Jubilee, which, he apparently believes, is bad for the economy (presumably because the City of London will be closed). Great! We are in the middle of the worst recession since the last worst recession and we are closed for business for two days. That should help.

* * * *

Here is a joke. A woman buys a new Mercedes and drives off the show-room to her house. Halfway home she attempts to change radio stations, and is annoyed to discover that the radio is playing only one station. She drives back to the showroom where the salesman tells her that the car-radio is voice-activated and she needs to only state aloud what she wants, and the car will find it. The woman gets into her car and starts driving it back to her house. After a while she says ‘country’, and the radio changes to a station playing a Johny Cash song. The woman is happy. After some time she says ‘rock ‘n roll’, and, sure enough, the station is changed again and a Rolling Stone song comes from the speakers. The woman is very happy and carries on driving. After some time another driver suddenly joins the road from a side-lane forcing her to slam on her brakes to avoid a collision. ‘Idiot!’ the woman screams. Immediately the radio changes over to a David Cameron press conference.

What is the prime-minister of Britain like? We know already that he (through no fault of his own) was born in a multi-millionaire family and is married to a woman (who looks like a prize Shetland pony) who is also stinking rich (and, thanks to her family’s connection, does some Mickey Mouse job that pays her, like, half a million pounds a year). We also know that he does not read and his method of relaxing is watch inane American programmes and playing fruit-ninja on his mobile. And he is a hypocrite of the first order—so baroness Warsi (a thoroughly unpleasant woman) is promptly referred to the advisor on ministerial interests, but his mate Jeremy Hunt (a thoroughly unpleasant  man) is given a clean chit (probably because the inquiry into Hunt’s dealings with BSkyB will be too close for comfort). And he has friends who are facing criminal charges. And he talks as if he has taken elocution lessons in how to speak like a patronizing t**t.  Country is in safe hands.

* * * *

I shouldn't forget that this primarily a book blog. I am currently reading Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles, which could have been, going by what I have read so far, also titled: confessions of an incurable narcissist.  And it is all done with such mendacious humility it will turn all healthy stomachs. Fry seems to have been driven by a desire when he wrote his memoir to attract reviews that would describe it as ‘searingly honest’, ‘painfully candid’ etcetera. There is rather a lot in the first few pages about Fry’s so-called addictions, lying (like his so called mental illness) etcetera. (How do we know he is not lying now?) 

A few years ago Fry declared that he suffers from Bipolar Disorder.  Somebody should tell this overrated, overhyped man of meagre talents that he is just unstable, not bipolar. 

And now, at the Hay festival, Fry is whining about his ‘personal experience’ of depression and how he wanted to die while making QI (a thoroughly boring programme on British television). Good! Perhaps he can now empathize with the viewers who would have preferred painful death to watching Fry read out prepared witty remarks and inconsequential trivia on this programme.  

This is what Fry said, according to Daily Telegraph, in the festival:

‘It is unreasonable for me to be unhappy. I have had one of the luckiest careers of my generation. There is no one I have not met, nothing I have not done. I am overpraised and overpaid. I have no reason to be unsatisfied with my life and all it has given me, indeed most of the time I am happy – but there are times when I want to slash my throat.’

Do you see the faux-humility? Fry is overpaid (and overpraised). OK, I suppose he can’t do anything about being overpraised. If he really thinks he is overpaid, why does he accept the money? Fry’s statement above could be interpreted as follows:

Stephen Fry is an overrated (and overpaid and overpraised) British actor. Seems like he accepts these facts. Most of the time he is not bothered by them (because he is impervious to shame). Occasionally however he wants to slash his throat. Why doesn’t he do it then (slash his throat)? I shall tell you why. He doesn't (and won't ever) because he has no intention to. And he has no intention to because he is not f**king depressed in the first place. He is just a brazen publicity-hogger, who, like the ‘disease of depression’ he claims to be suffering from, just won’t go away. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

Book of the Month: The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk)

When the Swedish academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk—a choice that surprised many at the time—the academy made it a point to note in its citation that

 ‘in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city [Istanbul] [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’ 

In his Nobel lecture (which he gave in Turkish), Pamuk spoke (in allegorical terms) about the relationship between Eastern and Western civilizations.

In The Museum of Innocence, his first full length novel since his Nobel triumph (at whopping 728 pages it is a weighty work of fiction in more sense than one), Pamuk touches on the themes of the clash of Eastern and Western values, but that is not the main focus of the novel. The Museum of Innocence is a novel about obsession.

The setting of the novel is Istanbul in the mid-1970s. Istanbul and Turkey are still seeped in the traditional values. But times, they are a-changing. At least amongst the rich and the bourgeoisie of Istanbul. Women and men are mixing more freely; women have begun smoking in public places, during functions, and in the presence of family elders; and virginity is no longer the most prized possession of unmarried women. The sexual mores, amongst the bourgeoisie who have travelled to the West, are beginning to relax; however, the enlightened sections are still hesitant to embrace fully the laid-back Western attitude towards premarital sex. Some women might be prepared to go all the way, but only with their betrothed and only after they are sure—as sure as one can be in these matters—that the man intends to marry.

It is in this ambiance, of decadence existing cheek by jowl with poverty, that we meet the narrator and protagonist of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal Basmaci, the scion of a rich industrial family. The year is 1975. Turkey, almost five decades after it became a Republic, is still a poor country, steeped in customs and struggling to find the balance between tradition and modernity. Kemal is a rich man in a poor country. When the novel opens, we meet Kemal with his fiancĂ©e, Sibel. Sibel is a modern woman, and in keeping with the moneyed bourgeoisie of Istanbul, she consents to sleep with Kemal even before they are officially engaged. Kemal and Sibel have clandestine sex in his office in the evenings. Then one day, while walking down a street, Sibel notices a Jenny Colon handbag in a shop. Later, intending to give the bag to Sibel as a surprise gift, Kemal walks into the shop where his gaze alights on the young shop-assistant, a young woman named Fusun, who has just turned eighteen. This meeting would change Kemal’s life forever. Fusun, it turns out, is Kemal’s distant cousin. She is born into the poor branch of the family and, when young, used to visit Kemal’s house with her seamstress mother. Kemal’s family, which has never considered Fusun’s family to be in the same league as they, has severed contacts, when, a couple of years earlier, Fusun’s mother, Nesibe, brought shame on the family by allowing her then sixteen year old daughter to take part in a beauty pageant.

Right from the moment he sets his eyes on Fusun, Kemal is totally, hopelessly, irrevocably besotted with her. He cannot get her out of his mind. This obsession would haunt Kemal for the rest of his life and would come to affect not just him but those around him in a way no one could have anticipated. The bag Kemal buys from the shop—Sibel spots it instantly—is a fake Jenny Colon. This gives Kemal an excuse to return to the shop and, over the next one and half month Kemal and Fusun come to enjoy a passionate, if illicit, sexual relationship. Kemal’s family owns an apartment in another part of Isanbul, to which Kemal and Fusun escape in order to enjoy intense afternoons of sex. In the meanwhile Kemal’s family is going ahead full speed with his engagement with Sibel, which takes place in the Hilton. Kemal manoeuvres to invite Fusun’s family to his engagement (you are left wondering to what end, seeing as the wretched man cannot bring himself to break his engagement with Sibel, not after she has gifted him her virginity). If Kemal has plans to carry on carrying on with Fusun—and he obviously has, because in the midst of his engagement party, he finds time to assure Fusun that he would figure something out and begs her to meet him the next day—they are dashed when Fusun fails to come to their secret rendezvous the afternoon after the engagement. After futilely waiting for her for a week, Kemal strikes upon the bright idea of visiting the shop where Fusun works—where he is told that she has left the job—and then to Fusun’s house—where he is informed by the neighbours that the family has upped and left. The news plunges our lovesick hero into the kind of deep depression that, were he in the West, would immediately have brought him to the notice of mental health services and hefty doses of Prozac (or its precursor). However, since this is Turkey, the remedy is three months of quality time with Sibel in the family’s summer house. That regrettably does not bring about any improvement in Kemal Bey’s mood; into the bargain he manages to make Sibel depressed by confessing to her about his infatuation. Sibel may be modern enough to lose her virginity even though she is unmarried, but she is not about to jettison her class snobbery. She is terribly put out that Kemal has fallen for a mere shop girl. She interprets Kemal’s state of mind as infatuation, an illness she hopes can be cured with regular sessions of vigorous sex (with her) and staying away from the object of infatuation. She is wrong. Kemal is not infatuated; he is obsessed. As months go by and there is no change in Kemal’s state of mind, Sibel throws in the towel. She returns the engagement ring and breaks the engagement. The scandal provides enough material for high society gossipers to dine out on for months; the consensus being Sibel is the wronged party. Kemal, now that he is free and single again, renews his search for Fusun and, eventually, with the help of a common friend, traces her to a rundown part of Isanbul where her family has bought a building (not so poor, then). Only to discover that she is now married. In the year since Kemal last saw her, Fusun’s parents—knowing that no decent man would marry their daughter now that her hymen was no longer intact—have married her off to a man named Feridun. Feridun is so impoverished he can’t afford to buy or rent his own house and has moved in with the in-laws. Feridun is a screen-writer, but he fancies himself as a director of movies. He has a master-plan of making an art film in which Fusun is going to be the heroine. Kemal takes to visiting the family two to three times a week as if the prolonged intermission of one year did not happen. The family members too act as if Kemal is nothing more than a rich relation who happens to enjoy their company. Feridun and Fusun are hoping that Kemal would bankroll their film. Kemal is ambivalent about financing a film and letting Fusun act in it; however, sensing that his chances of seeing Fusun on an almost-daily basis would be greatly enhanced if he kept on dangling the carrot of a film in front of them, he keeps on dangling the carrot of a film in front of them. In this manner years pass. Kemal spends long hours at Fusun’s house as her mother natters, Fusun pouts, and her father asks Kemal his views on television programmes Kemal has no interest in. Slowly he loses touch with his former circle of rich friends. From time to time Kemal gets indignant when Fusun drops less than subtle hints that the only reason she is entertaining him is because of her hope that he would finance her husband’s film. He decides not to see her again forever, but returns to her house after two days. He also takes to purloining various objects in Fusun’s house which he thinks have an outside chance of having come in contact with Fusun’s body. The family is fully aware of the kleptomaniacal tendencies of their guest, but they manage to turn a blind eye (probably because Kemal always replaces the stolen article with a costlier version, and, at a later stage, takes to hiding bundles of Turkish currency at various places in the house). These pilfered objects, along with other junk Kemal collects from eccentric collectors of trivia, would go on to form Kemal’s museum of innocence. Kemal eventually does finance Feridun’s film; but it is not the art film Feridun has in mind, and it does not star Fusun. The film is a commercial melodrama which requires the main character to shed a lot of clothes, which, Papatya, a relatively unknown actress chosen for the lead role, willingly does. So taken in is Feridun by Papatya that he starts an affair with her. This gives the patient Kemal the chance to claim back Fusun and relive the glory of the 44days leading to his engagement all those years ago. Fusun’s father conveniently dies around the same time; Fusun divorces Feridun; surely, there is no obstacle in Kemal and Fusun getting together. But then fate has one final twist for Kemal.

The Museum of Innocence is the world’s longest case study of one man’s obsession with a woman. Kemal is bewitched by Fusun on approximately second or third page of the novel. In the next seven hundred pages the reader is repeatedly treated to long and zealous descriptions of Fusun’s spellbinding beauty and Kemal’s enamoredness with her. The problem for the reader is: in the absence of photographic evidence of this great beauty, he is unable to appreciate the life-changing impact Fusun’s pulchritude has on Kemal. Herein lies the other problem of the novel: despite the reams and reams of pages devoted to her, Fusun does not really come alive for the reader. At one point in the novel Kemal, while describing their lovemaking, lets it be known that he swallowed her whole breast (so they can’t be very big), which suggests that sex for them is fantastic—at least it is for him; the reader is not made a privy to Fusun’s thoughts on Kemal as a lover; at another point, the reader is informed that Fusun allows Kemal to enter her from behind (so you guess she is not afraid to try new positions despite being raised in a traditional Muslim country). But beyond these physical descriptions, there is nothing. The reader does not understand what makes Fusun tick. Her inner world remains unavailable to the reader, because Kemal, the verbose and self-centred narrator, is incapable of seeing beyond physical beauty. As a result the narrative becomes monotonous after a while. When you read for the 314th time how awestruck Kemal felt by Fusun’s spellbinding beauty (if you think ‘beauty’ is repeated too often in this review it is nothing as compared to its use in the novel), instead of savouring the delight along with the narrator, the reader is likely to think ‘not this again’; or when Kemal, at periodic intervals, unleashes (with the ruminative relish of an obsessive describing the objects he has to touch or avoid) page-long lists of everyday objects he has stolen from Fusun’s house because they have assumed unparalleled emotional significance for him by dint of theirs having been associated with Fusun in some way, it is about as interesting as reading a grocer’s list. It is difficult to appreciate repetitive descriptions of sensory impact Fusun’s charms come to have on the ever-so-receptive Kemal; they are obviously the result of Fusun’s personal appeal for him, but the reader remains in the dark as to their cause (unless you suppose that Kemal is a shallow person interested only in appearances).

Towards the end of the novel is a postmodern twist: a writer named Orhan Pamuk, whom the reader first meets briefly in Kemal’s engagement party (‘the tiresome Pamuks’) and the ‘23 year old chain-smoking’ Orhan even dances with Fusun. Years later Kemal approaches Orhan Pamuk to write the story of his great love for Fusun and the museum of innocence he is going to create, having taken inspiration from museums created by 17th and 18th century men in France and Italy who were obsessed about leaving behind traces of their lives; and Pamuk tells him that he too was smitten by Fusun. It requires some conceit to appear in your own novel for no other reason than giving a metafictional twist. Unconvincing, to say the least.

Where the novel succeeds is in vividly creating for the reader the world of the bourgeoisie of Istanbul in the 1970s, the world of restaurants where polite waiters politely serve the freshest fish and politely pour the most sumptuous wine for the third generation of patrons dining in the restaurant, the old Ottoman mansions converted into cinema halls as the once-rich families fall on hard times, and the ships and boats sailing down Bosphorus. Pamuk obviously loves the city he was born in, and his love shows in the evocative descriptions.

A word about the translation, by Maureen Freely. The translation is competent but curiously flat. The passion and fire and ardour that Kemal allegedly feels for Fusun, by the time it is translated by Freely, is transmuted into something completely unalloyed to index emotions. I do not know whether the translation does justice to Pamuk’s Turkish which, I remember reading somewhere, is rather convoluted. If that is the case, Freely should be thanked for breaking the original tale into bite-size morsels for the consumption of those (like me) lacking the attention span to read sentences that go on for two pages.

Reading The Museum of Innocence is like wading through a lake of treacle. The overwhelming feeling you are left with as you finally reach the end of this behemoth of a novel is of ennui.