Posts Tagged ‘Orhan Pamuk’

Au revoir, novelist Neil Gordon (1958-2017), who wrote about the purity of conviction, the reality of engagement

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The writer Neil Gordon has died, after a long battle with cancer on May 19 in New York City.

My acquaintance with him was slight, but memorable. We had a conversation over coffee in Paris, when I was a visiting writer at the American University of Paris, during Neil’s term as dean there.

But I knew another side of him. By one of those odd coincidences that are considered far-fetched when we read them in Dickens, Neil turned out to be the brother-in-law of a longstanding friend, the writer Eren Göknar. Neil was married to Eren’s sister, Esin Göknar, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, who had cared for him during his final illness. His brother-in-law, Erdağ Göknara translator of Orhan Pamuk, was a recent fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Neil was born in South Africa in 1958. His family emigrated two years later to escape the apartheid government. “His mother, Sheila Gordon, was also a writer, and his father Harley Gordon was a dedicated physician who cared for the underserved all his life,” Eren told me. “Sheila wrote a delightful book about Neil called Monster in the Mailbox, about his waiting and waiting for the monster he bought through a newspaper ad. Remember the ads for X-ray vision glasses in the back of comic books in the ’60s?”

GordonHe was primarily a historical and political novelist. He published four novels, one set in the history of the Holocaust and the state of Israel; (Sacrifice of Isaac) the second about Israel, America, and the arms trade (The Gunrunner’s Daughter); the third about the radical Left in America during the War in Vietnam (The Company You Keep), which was made into a 2012 film with Robert Redford and Shia LaBoeuf. The fourth about the story of the American Left, from the Spanish Civikl War to Occupy Wall Street (You’re a Big Girl Now).

He worked for many years at The New York Review of Books and was the founding Literary Editor of The Boston Review. He spent three years in Paris serving as dean, vice President, and professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris, where I met him. He returned to the U.S. and taught at the New School.

He wrote: “My courses, whether writing or literature classes, like my novels, focus on the intersection between individuals and the political history that surrounds them; on the representation of lived political and historical experience in fiction; on the mechanics of the sympathetic imagination; as well as on the forms of the literary, political, and cultural essay.”

He has a PhD in French literature from Yale, but he had his academic roots in Michigan, where he took his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and bagged two Hopwood Writing Awards along the way (like Humble Moi), and also met his future wife, Asin.

In 1994, he became the first literary editor of the Boston Review. A couple links to his work there: an essay on John Fante and a moving autobiographical reflection, “The Last Time I Saw Yaakov.”

From Joshua Cohen‘s eloquent tribute, over at the Boston Review:

Neil wrote four very fine novels (Sacrifice of Isaac remains my favorite), all thrillers mixing strong narratives, deeply-researched history, and serious political ambition. Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldy engagement. Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter (as it had distanced his young German friend Yaakov). So you will not be surprised to hear that Neil’s voice always sounded a little anxious.

Until our final phone conversation in February of this year. Neil was dying of cancer: his medical options had run out and while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he knew that he did not have much more time. What I heard this time was not anxiety but calm gratitude, all focused on the people—largely the people in his family—who had helped to enable him to have such a good life. He was free from worries about purity and survival and filled instead with an affirming sense of acceptance and an unambivalent love. Neil told me that he was, finally and deeply, happy.

He will be missed by many, but most of all his wife Esin, his daughter and son Leila and Jake Gordon, both born in New York City, a sister Philippa, a brother David, and nieces Sophie, Eve, Anne, Leyna and Dillon Lightman.

Translating Orhan Pamuk: “I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance.”

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Cahier’s illustrations by Rie Iwatake.

“Translators, like editors, are the lieutenants of culture,” my friend and former publisher David Sanders recently reminded me. I wrote about one of these lieutenants in my most recent post here. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to finally open Angry in Piraeus, the most recent offering from the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about it here and here, among other places). It had long languished in a pile of books and periodicals waiting for my attention. The excellent Cahiers Series is a project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and despite the international kudos, is still too little known.

Museum-of-InnocenceMaureen Freely, the author of this 37-page essay, is known for her translations of the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, but she is also a novelist in her own right. Her family moved to Turkey when she was a child, and Pamuk was a school chum – hence, the second career in translation. According to the Sylph Editions website, which publishes the Cahiers Series: “Angry in Piraeus is the story of the creation of a translator. In this cahier, Maureen Freely explores what it was in her childhood that led her to become a traveler across the spaces that exist between countries, languages, and forms. She offers rich descriptions of her itinerant upbringing in America, Turkey, and Greece, vividly evoking what it means to be constantly commuting between worlds – geographical, conceptual, linguistic, and literary – in search of a home, or a self, that is proving elusive.”

In Angry in Piraeus, she writes the delicate tightrope act between her stories and the stories of others, and the different worlds translation creates.”When I am questioned about my ‘fidelity’ to the text I live to serve, what I can never quite manage to explain is this: if I am to be faithful to anything in the opening passage of a novel, or a short story, or a memoir, it will be to its mood. It will be to the trance it sets up, the sız sız sız, the magic trick that takes the reader through the page and into the secret realm beyond.”


Author under fire.

Translation, she writes, is the “slowest, deepest, and most intimate form of reading.” Her relationship with her the childhood friend becomes strained as she translates from his Istanbul and into her own, and then back again – and as he becomes a controversial figure, widely hated in Turkey for his outspoken remarks about the Armenian genocide.

An Excerpt:

By the time I embarked on our fifth and last collaboration. The Museum of Innocence, I had been wandering through the labyrinths of his mind long enough to know their every twist and turn. I had come to accept that everything he wrote had to be anchored in some way in the streets of his childhood. I had also come to understand that, as good as he was at capturing voices, his stories came to him in images. In The Museum of Innocence these images are highly detailed, and meticulously positioned. That order is reflected, and at times even replicated, in his Turkish sentences. I can only imagine the delight he found in creating a text that embedded the conceits of the narrative at the molecular level. At a time in his life when the newspapers printed a new lie about him almost every day, narrative might also have offered some semblance of order. He was not, I think, surprised when I told him he could not exert the same sort of control over a translation. That did not stop him from trying. By that time, he had a lot of clout. I do not think I could have made it through that hellish year, had it not been for the daydream that was always waiting for me, every time I came up for air.

This was the Istanbul that I was slowly beginning to see again, if only to keep breathing. It wasn’t drained of colour, like Orhan’s city. It was golden, and the troubled bourgeoisie that I’d been translating for seven years was nowhere in sight. There were only the wild and beautiful bohemians who had brought me up. Their real-world counterparts were mostly dead and gone, or sacrificed to their bad habits, but in the 1962 of my daydream, they were still living recklessly and getting away with it, beautifully.

When at last I had sent Orhan’s museum off to the publisher, I went back into my own head for what felt at first like a luxury vacation. Little by little, I translated myself out of Orhan’s Istanbul and back into my own. And when I look back on what happened next, I can only think that I must have been using words differently after all those years in translation. I was no longer using the clipped, cut-glass language I had always trusted most. I was letting myself loop and curve across the page. I was, without knowing it, putting myself into a trance. Word by word, I conjured up Istanbul circa 1962. And when I had succeeded in putting myself back there, it turned out not to be the paradise I remembered: the gold was laced with jealousy, confusion, and terror.

 Do yourself a favor and order it here. You’ll even find out what the sız sız sız is.

Orwell Watch #10: Literary criticism, or cut-and-paste?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011


Joe Queenan, in his 2007 “Astonish Me,” describes his fixation with books that are called “astonishing.”  Hence, he’s got a lot of reading to do:

These are good times for the astonishable reading public. Among the masterpieces by Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, was The New Life, described by The Times Literary Supplement as ”an astonishing achievement.” Pamuk’s Nobel coincided with the premiere of a Court TV series based on James Ellroy‘s My Dark Places, a book that had been quite accurately described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as ”astonishing … original, daring, brilliant.” Not long before, Ayelet Waldman came out with Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which, while apparently not astonishing in and of itself, did include a character that the novelist Andrew Sean Greer described as ”astonishing.” Then, Abigail Thomas published A Three Dog Life, singled out by Entertainment Weekly as ”astonishing,” and an ”extraordinary” love story — ”Grade: A.” Personally, I find the Grade A business redundant; if a book is astonishing, you’re obviously not going to give it a B.

Which brings us to Ward Six‘s “Literary Blurb Translation Guide,” a guide to literary grade inflation.  Here’s some of the site’s shortlist:

“brilliant” = smarty-pants
profound” = written by old person
“taut” = limited vocabulary


“finely wrought” = namby-pamby
clever” = thinks it’s being clever
“luminous prose” = too many goddam words
“a tour-de-force” = threw it across the room
“a triumph” = huge advance
“unflinching artistry” = lots of boobs and stabbing
“grabs you on page 1 and won’t let go” = stuck reading it on long flight
“achingly beautiful” = really long sentences
“a story for the ages” = ripoff of Tolstoy
“best of the year” = only thing I’ve gotten around to reading
“deeply imagined” = makes no sense
“incredible range and breadth” = all over the place


“radiant” = already been blurbed by people more famous than me
“rich language” = not enough paragraph breaks
“goes straight for the heart” = sappy
“trenchant satire” = poop jokes
“a small gem” = will sell five hundred copies, tops
“you’ll feel forever changed” = you will never get those hours of your life back
“searing…glorious…a fury of dazzling transcendence” = I’m just stringing random words together now

Ward Six readers offered more:

From Sung“astonishing” = cover is glossy instead of matte

From Violentbore“bildungsroman” = main character is younger than me

Michael Garberich said “My favorite has always been ‘uproarious’ – You might not laugh, but you know you’re supposed to at some point.”

From Aaron“Deeply felt” = astonishingly narcissistic.

Here’s Russell:

haunting = someone dies

pellucid = someone drowns

galloping = someone gets thrown from a horse


It keeps you honest.  I have to admit to an over-reliance on some of the clichés these folks have targeted. As George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language“:

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Orwell Watch:  Collect the whole set!

Orwell Watch #9: “I take full responsibility for…”

Orwell Watch #8:  “I know you’re disinterested in this, but…”

Orwell Watch #6:  “Like” and the culture of vagueness

Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…

Orwell Watch #4: Jared Loughner:  Madman, terrorist, or both?

Orwell Watch #3:  Please. No “gifting” this Christmas.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Orwell Watch #1: Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

Norm Naimark, Orhan Pamuk on Armenian genocide, Turkish denial

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Pamuk: "Nobody dares to mention that. So I do."

“Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”

After Turkish author Orhan Pamuk made those remarks in 2005, rallies were held to burn his books and a hate campaign forced him to flee the country.  When he returned, the future Nobel laureate faced a criminal trial.

He stood his ground:  “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past.”

Norm Naimark would agree:  “A healthy national consciousness cannot abide nasty secrets hidden away in a locked drawer.”

For Turkey, there are practical consequences to the government’s official denial of genocide – scholars have been intimidated into doing research, denied access to research, and governments held hostage.

Naimark has edited a new volume of essays, just released by Oxford University Press: A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire. After reading this book, no one will be able to deny the Armenian genocide.  [Note:  If you want to see how bad it was, do an image search on google for “Armenian genocide” — I will not use those photos. They are dehumanizing.]

For Naimark, whose provocative Stalin’s Genocides was widely discussed and critically praised, a critical question is how, in fact, do these frenzies happen?

Context is everything.  “It is not too strong to state that war serves as a breeding ground for genocide,” he writes in his preface.  War provides justifications and possibilities.

“In the minds of Turkish nationalists, the Armenians’ traditional designation as gâvur (infidels) took on some of the elements of race prejudice and was reinforced by popular resentment of alleged Armenian wealth and treachery. That ‘Christians’ had driven the Ottomans out of southeastern Europe during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 and now threatened the integrity of the Anatolian lands of the Turks from outside and within made the Armenian threat even more dangerous from the Young Turk point of view.”  The Young Turk ideology claimed the racial superiority of Turks to Armenians.

Envy and greed also play a role.  A trigger is often rapid status reversals, “especially when class and ethnicity are both involved” as well as racial and religious prejudices.

Rarely does genocide fix itself exclusively on one set of victims – in this case, Anatolia’s Assyrians were also targets; so were Greeks.

According to Naimark, “the whirlwind of killing pulls in more and more victims and implicates an increasing number of assailants.”

Here’s what I find interesting:  Genocide happens at a number of levels of government, each with their own methods of implementation and decision-making.   “Every case of genocide is in some measure local,” he writes.

Naimark (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Recent research on mass killing indicates that the crime of genocide needs to be thought of as occurring at various levels of society: at the very top, where decisions are taken that lead to mass murder; at the ‘meso-level,’ where regional officials and their accomplices, the police and military, implement orders or interpret signals from the political leadership that lead to genocide; and at the most basic local level of society, where individuals participate in the killing, steal from the victims, move into their houses, or witness the depredations. Sometimes, locals try to save individuals and families, or protest against the deportation or murder of their neighbors, usually in vain.”

Genocide is not an “event” but a process – one that follows “unwritten rules of historical behavior.”  The deportation and killing of Ottoman Armenians began in the spring of 1915 and accelerated over the next six months – but it wasn’t truly finished until the early 1920s, in the face of outside stabilizing political events.

The end product was the destruction of the Armenian community in Anatolia – as in most cases of genocide, the events took place in full view of the international community,” writes Naimark. In this case, the great powers were at war, and Realpolitik trumped humanitarian considerations.

As a result is a haunting betrayal of responsibility: “The conscience of contemporary world society is haunted by images of doomed Armenian women and children, wandering aimlessly in the Anatolian plateau, mad with hunger and grief, and by photographs of rows of corpses of murdered Armenian men and boys, guarded casually by Turkish soldiers.”

And the perps? W.H.  Auden put it best:

All if challenged would reply
– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I. —