The December 25 issue of The New Yorker did the world a favor by including parent memoirs by both Julian Barnes and Orhan Pamur. Though the reminiscences have different purposes and different audiences in mind, they make similar and important statements about the relation between writers and their worlds.
Pamur’s piece, “My Father’s Suitcase,” is the lecture he delivered at Oslo upon being presented with the 2006 Nobel. It’s rather suspenseful, recounting the days he spent deciding whether to open the suitcase his father left behind in his study, a suitcase he knew contained his father’s notebooks and writings. His father had had a toe in literary waters, authoring some translations of Valery into Turkish and spending some time in Paris among the intelligentsia in his time. Pamur’s ruminations on the matter lead him not only into matters of the relationship between father and son, but into descriptions of what it means to be a writer in general, in particular a Turkish writer in the twentieth century.
What were the implications for his own self-regard and his relationship with his parent if the writing were good? Even excellent? What if it were poor? They’d have to talk about it. What if he didn’t open the suitcase at all? Insult or cowardice or both?
Pamur’s thoughts turn from his father to what he calls the second being inside of him, the being that he says writers spend their careers try ing to discover, the being they spend their hours, days, years with when they close the door, turn away from the outer world, and put pen to paper. For a time, that being within seems to merge with his father, and he talks of happiness. His father, apparently, was a gregarious man, not at all solitary as a writer needs to be. Or as Pamur needs to be. He seems happy in ways that Pamur is not. How, then, can he have produced high-quality work. But what if he did?
Pamur finally opens the suitcase, and the results are anticlimatic, but, paradoxically, the explorations of the writerly process as well as of his own the relationship of his father to his profession and to his humanity are–at least for this reader–supremely rewarding. One of the best quotes of the year so far–a writer’s goal is to tell other peoples’ stories as if they were his own and to tell his own stories as if they were other peoples’. I’m not sure what it means, but it sounds terrific to me.
Barnes’s work seems excerpted from a longer piece. I hope so, and that the rest of the work is better, because I was disappointed. He’s one of my favorites, and I hate to see him represented by inferior work.
It’s called “The Past Conditional,” subtitled “What Mother Would Have Wanted.” That’s a clever conceit, and Barnes’ quippy look at what it means to divine the wishes of the dear departed are momentarily entertaining. His older brother, for example, contends that such statements are meaningless. The dead have no wants, only the living do, so we shouldn’t be pretending to satisfy that which cannot exist. Beyond the grammatical hi-jinks, though, there’s little of substance. His description of growing up in a rather odd household with a stuffy father and a communist mother smacks of the Kaufmann and Hart drawing room comedy You Can’t Take It With You. The give and take among Barnes and his siblings about the existence of God and the place of church in society skip surface of significant thought compared to the insights and tugs of mind and soul found in his fiction. He does escape this level of banality near the end when he imagines God watching him during adolescent masturbation, and, perhaps approving. “Nor,” he says “did I have the imagination to conceive of my dead ancestors equally smiling on my actions: Go on, my son, enjoy it while you’ve got it; there won’t be anything like that when you[‘re a disembodied spirit; we wish we’d done more of it in our time, so have another one for us.”
Despite their divergent tone and goals, both these pieces illustrate what Joyce called the “transmutation of life into art,” and they demonstrate that no one who knows or is related to an artist is safe from being immortalized in a form unrecognizable to anyone except the artist. The result, whether compliment or condemnation, may never approximate the Platonic model. I’ll always remember Parnum’s father as a likable, chummy, second-rate writer who made it possible for his son to write. I’ll believe that Julian Barnes’s older brother is coldly logical and intellectual. I’ll never meet any of them to confirm or deny the truth. But this isn’t a court of law. This is art, and the evidence is not subject to scrutiny of a jury. Excuse me now, I’ve got my own relatives and friends and life to transmute.