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Orhan Pamuk: Sometimes, to teach a novel feels like a betrayal of literature

I teach comparative literature at Columbia University. At the start of every semester, if I plan to discuss one of my own novels in class, I always tell my new students an old story about writing and teaching.

It’s a very popular (but possibly apocryphal) anecdote about Vladimir Nabokov. In 1957, he was proposed for an appointment at Harvard University as professor of Russian literature. Not everyone welcomed the idea. “If Russian literature is to be taught by Russian greats,” the Harvard linguist Roman Jacobson reportedly told his colleagues, “then we must get elephants to teach at the faculty of zoology.”

My students laugh, and then I turn to the matter at hand. “This semester, I will stand before you as an elephant, but I will also try my best to be a professor.”

Elephants don’t know what it is that makes them elephants. They just are. Similarly, novelists do not consciously dwell on what they do when they write their novels. The things they mean to describe and express when they write, the territory they wish to cover, may be very different from those elements that readers and students focus on. The author of a novel is not always the best placed to interpret it, and eventually others may become more familiar with the text than he is.

Most of my bright students at Columbia are fully aware of these paradoxes, so I don’t have to spend too much time on the subject, though I do later occasionally warn them: “I am going to speak now not in my capacity as a professor, but as the elephant in the classroom.”

I may explain, for example, that one of the reasons I wrote “My Name Is Red” is that until the age of 22, I wanted to be a painter, but failed.

“With this novel,” I say, “I tried to construct a narrative inspired by the contrast between what a painter envisions, and the way his hand can sometimes move of its own accord.”

Then the professor steps in: “That contrast is similar to the difference between being a novelist and being a professor teaching the art of the novel.” Which leads to the question of what John Berger, himself a novelist, terms “ways of seeing,” and then to the East-West dichotomy, Persian miniatures, Renaissance art and history.

Or about another of my novels, “Snow,” I may say: “As the elephant in the classroom, I can tell you that everything that happens to the protagonist Ka over the first 200 pages is almost exactly what I experienced myself when I went to the Turkish city of Kars, in 1999, where the book is set. I wanted to write a political novel that would contain an entire nation, just like Graham Greene’s novels set in poor and troubled third-world countries.”

Though I try to resist the temptation, I have been inclined in class — even more so than my students — to see my own “novels of a nation” as introductions to the cultural norms and particular afflictions of Turkey, the Middle East and the entire Muslim world. Because I am interested in “theory” and the field called cultural studies, I sometimes end up “theorizing” about my own work.

“In this passage, our author is aiming to explore the history of the streets and shops of Istanbul.”

Or: “In Islamic societies, where men and women rarely get to interact unless they are already married, boys and girls will develop an alternative language with its own special grammar of silent glances, frowns, moments of deliberate immobility and pointed questions: ‘Would you like another meatball?’ ”

But how much emphasis should I place on Turkish history, the transformation of Istanbul, or Islam and secularism, so that the logic of my novels will be more accessible to my students? After a lifetime spent battling against political pressures on literature, devoting classroom time to social context or political ironies instead of literary nuances makes me feel like a traitor. Whether I am teaching my own novels, or “Anna Karenina,” “Mrs. Dalloway” and “The Red and the Black,” I sometimes feel that no matter what I do, I am actually betraying true literature — a feeling that stays with me like a kind of heartache.

Ten years of teaching experience have shown me that the best way to avoid these anxieties and contradictions is to steer away from theory and social context and re-discover the intricacies of the text itself with my students — be it my own work or someone else’s. So at the start of every class, I devote some time to poring over the pages I’ve assigned for that day.

“Let’s analyze what’s been happening here,” I’ll say. “Why do you think Ka is arranging the meeting at the Hotel Asia?” “What key events from this section should we discuss?” “What do you think is the dominant mood in these pages?”

Like most educated upper-middle-class Turkish men, I have an authoritarian streak in me, and even though I enjoy teaching through dialogue, I can’t always resist just telling students the “facts” about my novels. And yet I also marvel at a student reminding me of the oddities of a novel I’d written years ago, and wonder if I’d even meant any of it.

Whenever I set theory and social context aside in favor of a “close reading” of novels, seeking out their subtleties and internal symmetries, I discover just how much I have forgotten about my own books. One day, just before class was due to start, a student saw me frantically skimming through “Snow” outside the classroom. “That’s what happens if you don’t bother to do your reading!” he joked.

He had that teasing, mischievous expression I sometimes see on students when they spot little things in my novels that I hadn’t even realized I was doing, or when they don’t agree with what I say is the logic of a novel and point out its contradictions and ambiguities. But after years of giving lectures on my own work, my students have taught me to think this comforting thought whenever I catch that expression on their faces: “Maybe they’d rather have an elephant in the classroom than a professor.”

Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. This essay was translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap.

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