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10.7.14

À mon chevet: 'Snow'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
"I see this landscape at night, in darkness, through a window. Outside there are two blind white walls, as tall as the walls of a castle. Like two castles back to back! There is only the narrowest passageway between them, which stretches into the distance like a road, and when I look down this road I am overcome with fear. The road where God does not exist is as snowy and muddy as the roads in Kars, but it's all purple! There's something in the middle of the road that tells me 'Stop!' but I still can't keep myself from looking right down to the end of the road, to the place where this world ends. Right at the end of this world, I can see a tree, one last tree, and it's bare and leafless. Then, because I'm looking at it, it turns bright red and bursts into flame. It's at this point that I begin to feel very guilty for being so curious about the land where God does not exist. Then, just as suddenly, the red tree turns back to black. I tell myself, I'd better not look again, but I can't help it, I do look again, and the tree at the end of the world starts burning red once more. This goes on until morning." [...]

[Ka] thought about Necip's landscape -- he could remember his description word for word, as if it were already a poem -- and if no one came from Porlock he was sure he would soon be writing that poem in his notebook.

The man from Porlock! During our last years in school, when Ka and I would stay up half the night talking about literature, this was one of our favorite topics. Anyone who knows anything about English poetry will remember the note at the start of Coleridge's Kubla Khan. It explains how the work is a "fragment of a poem, from a vision during a dream"; the poet had fallen asleep after taking medicine for an illness (actually, he'd taken opium for fun) and had seen, in his deepest sleep, sentences from the book he'd been reading just before losing consciousness, except that now each sentence and each object had taken on a life of its own in a magnificent dreamscape to become a poem. Imagine, a magnificent poem that had created itself, without the poet's having exerted any mental energy! Even more amazing, when Coleridge woke up he could remember this splendid poem word for word. He got out his pen and ink and some paper and carefully began to write it down, one line after the other, as if he were taking dictation. He had just written the last line of the poem as we know it when there came a knock at the door. He rose to answer it, and it was a man from the nearby city of Porlock, come to collect a debt. As soon as he'd dealt with this man, he rushed back to his table, only to discover that he'd forgotten the rest of the poem, except for a few scattered words and the general atmosphere.

As no one arrived from Porlock to break his concentration, Ka still had the poem clear in his mind when he was called onstage.

-- Orhan Pamuk, Snow (translation by Maureen Freely), pp. 142-43
Anyone would be happy to have written a book as good as My Name Is Red, but the problem is that you then have to write the next book. Perhaps inevitably, Orhan Pamuk's follow-up novel, Snow, is not as brilliant and all-consuming as his masterpiece five years earlier. Instead of Istanbul, the action unfolds in a distant part of Turkey, Kars, on the border with Armenia, which allowed Pamuk to put his finger on a part of history that is not recognized as having happened in Turkey, the Armenian genocide, a term that the President of the United States is still unable to pronounce for fear of offending our Turkish allies. For speaking about the Armenian genocide in public, Pamuk faced official charges of "insulting Turkishness," although most of the charges were eventually dropped. (The political brouhaha may have played a part in Pamuk winning the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.) In an example of life imitating art, a group of Turkish nationalists was suspected of plotting to assassinate Pamuk.

Snow also features an interplay of narration, not as complex as that in My Name Is Red but in which the author becomes directly involved with his characters. The exploration of the mystery of writing -- while the main character, Ka, "lived his life in the way that came naturally to him, as a true poet, I was a lesser being, a simple-hearted novelist who like a clerk sat down to work at the same time every day" -- is brilliant. The passage quoted here is one of my favorites, and I hope that the phrase "the man from Porlock" will enter the lexicon to mean anything that dispels fleeting artistic inspiration. Here is how Coleridge described it: "At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast."

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