April 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Guest Post: Orhan Pamuk and the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival

Guest Post by Catherine Batac-Walder

Pamuk signing.JPGNobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk flew to the UK to talk about his life and writing at the invitation of the chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten of Barnes, for the chancellor's lecture in this year's Oxford Literary Festival, which ran from March 22-30. The chancellor's lecture has been presenting international literary figures, including the late great poet and fellow Nobel winner Seamus Heaney last year, an event I regret missing.

The Sunday Times ended its sponsorship of the festival after nearly ten years, and FT Weekend took over as the new title partner. The festival also went "ticketless." As a festival-goer since 2009, I was hesitant to attend this year, recalling that even last year's festival was not like what it used to be. Many had voiced their disappointment about the fact that there was no marquee and personally, I felt there was something celebratory about the marquee, and without it, it was as though there was nothing special going on. Having known only lovely spring festival days, last year, it rained when we were in Oxford, and there was no marquee to shelter us when, ironically, it was needed the most.

So when it was announced that a new marquee would be set up outside the Sheldonian Theatre, I was more than eager to come visit Sheldonian first when we arrived on Saturday, March 29. When we arrived, A.C. Grayling was about to have a book signing, but I hardly noticed as I was already drooling over signed editions of Michael Scott's Delphi. Canadian novelist, poet, and critic Margaret Atwood was also in town as she was the guest speaker at the closing festival dinner at the Great Hall of Christ Church (the one used as Hogwarts Hall in Harry Potter films) that night. The Atwood dinner was a black-tie event and obviously not appropriate for my three-year-old; besides, I knew it would coincide with the Pamuk event that I had already planned to attend.

Still six hours to wait before the chancellor's lecture, from Sheldonian we took the obligatory walk amongst the dreamy spires, to Christ Church and then to the river to watch the punts and pedalos. We took our daughter to Alice's shop, a.k.a. "The Old Sheep Shop" in Through the Looking Glass, a.k.a. the shop where the real Alice, Miss Liddell, used to buy sweets. It is tiny, always packed, and a major tourist trap, as we've found in previous visits. Nevertheless we are always drawn back like children who wouldn't mind being lost in a sweet shop. Our daughter was enthralled, recognizing each Alice in Wonderland character she saw on every item.

After afternoon tea, I headed back to Sheldonian Theatre on my own to listen to Pamuk. The chancellor introduced him and interviewer Jason Cowley, who used to edit Granta and is now the editor of New Statesman. While it was quite an experience to have been there in person, I must admit I've heard more interesting and in-depth interviews with Pamuk elsewhere. The jump across topics - politics, religion, life, books, among other things - was dizzying.

Somebody in the audience asked Pamuk a question related to translation: if we who do not read his work in Turkish are missing anything? For a man whose work is translated into 46 languages and whose primary task is to write, he said translation is such a "vast geography," and he could only check English, but he worked closely and went over the work carefully with his translators. "If we know you'd miss a joke (in Turkish) we did our best to supply another joke," he said. He explained further that there is that anxiety of being a bad writer in translation, "you definitely lose a bit, alliterations, jokes that depend on the nature and structure of the Turkish language." (It brought to mind a tea and chat I had with Sophie's World author Jostein Gaarder while a graduate student in Oslo. He said some readers do get angry about some things in his books, and it turned out he didn't even write them as the translation was not accurate.) But oh, to read Pamuk in the original Turkish!

There was also a question about his museum that opened two years ago, conceived when he was writing The Museum of Innocence. He said of it, "We have quite a number of visitors, the museum is doing fine, it's open except on Mondays, and if you happen to be in Istanbul, please visit." [Editor's note: the spring issue of FB&C contains an article on bookish Istanbul, featuring Pamuk's museum.]

cover of My Father's Suitcase copy.jpgAs interesting as the many layers of stories in Pamuk's novels are, I am curious as to why some critics are not as interested in his lectures and nonfiction, which are the ones I like to explore. I brought two books of his with me -- he signed my copy of The Naïve and The Sentimental Novelist (Harvard University Press, 2010), and my copy of My Father's Suitcase (the Nobel lecture), one of only 1500 copies printed privately for Faber and Faber, is more precious now with his dedication in it. It is not every day when one gets to meet a Nobel Prize winner. It was nice to return to the festival after all.
     --Catherine Batac-Walder is a writer living in the UK. She has covered the Oxford Literary Festival for FB&C before, both in 2012 and 2013.

Images credit/copyright: Catherine Batac Walder.