Seeing the forest through Orhan Pamuk's trees

by Alicia Anstead

Editor's Update: On Dec. 14, Christopher Lydon, of Radio Open Source, interviewed novelist Orhan Pamuk about museums -- both the "word museums" of Pamuk's books, and an actual museum the author is building in Istanbul. Listen to this interview with one of the front-ranking global novelists and learn about the teachers who expanded his character and filled his soul.

Do you long for literature? If so, maybe you saw Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate writer, give the last of his hefty Norton Lectures at Sanders Hall on Nov. 3. I missed the fun -- grrrrr -- but a novelist friend of mine told me about Pamuk's presentation, which only deepened my craving for beautiful language. Here are two excerpts from my friend's email. I reckon that if I'm hankering for a literary moment in my day, maybe you are, too.

"When we first contemplate writing a novel," Pamuk told his packed Sanders Theatre audience, "we are searching for its secret center." He said that writing a novel resembles traversing a forest from one side to the other, examining every tree the author passes to see if it will lead to that secret center where the meaning of the experience resides. Readers will do the same thing until they have found the secret center in serious fiction. Pamuk cited Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Proust and Dostoyevsky as authors who taught him where the center is in their work. All the components in their work -- the trees in their forests -- are placed there to indicate the way to the center that will reveal itself to the searching reader.


The writer and reader play chess together, said Pamuk, until both have located the center. He likened the search to a children's board game with many paths, but only one leads to the rabbit at the center of the labyrinth. The greatest novels, he said, powerfully create the hope and illusion that the world has meaning. In our efforts to understand literature, contradictory views are valid. When we are open to all possibilities, we can believe simultaneously in many things.

[Caption: We read novels assuming them to be as real as life. And, says Orhan Pamuk, "We wish the novel we're reading would continue forever." Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard]