Istanbul: Memories of a City

by Orhan Pamuk

Hardcover, 2005




London : Faber, 2005.


A portrait, by turns intimate and panoramic, of one of the world's great cities, by its foremost man of letters. Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale, Pamuk invents an ingenious form to evoke his lifelong home, the city that forged his imagination. He begins with his childhood, his first intimations of the melancholy awareness of living in the seat of ruined imperial glories, in a country trying to become "modern" at the crossroads of East and West. Against a background of shattered monuments, neglected villas, ghostly backstreets, and, above all, the fabled waters of the Bosphorus, he charts the evolution of a rich imaginative life, which furnished a daydreaming boy refuge from family discord and inner turmoil, and which would continue to serve the famous writer he was to become. --From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member pipester
A compelling mixture of personal memoir and the cultural history of the author's beloved city. Pamuk alternates his own story with accounts of Istanbul as seen by western writers and painters, reflecting both his own and the city's complex relationship with western sensibilities. The city has its own melancholy that increases through the 50's, 60's and 70's as the last vestiges of Ottoman glory disappear and the city swells with poor immigrants. The photographs are fascinating and evocative, but of poor quality in the paperback edition. If the hardcover has better quality photos, it would be worth searching out.… (more)
LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Hüzün and the melancholy city. Quite lovely, and even if this İstanbul ın which I fınd myself now, and which, by not paying proper attention to my Schengen visa requirements and being forced to flee Europe I have doomed forever to be "my" İstanbul, is no longer the city Pamuk writes about, that's kind of nice, actually - the sadness and overwhelming weight of the civilization of the past on the people becomes another layer, another glad rag, with which the modern, modestly resurgent city and its visitor have to decide how to contend.

This book doesn' have the elaborate artfulness of My Name is Red - not to say that it ısn't literary or that craft wasn't a concern, but it's a peculiarly weightless, translucent sort of craft, and Pamuk clearly didn't want frippery to get in the way of the record, of finally setting down some things that happened in - with space set aside for the de rıgueur speculation about history and memory and forgetting - the way that they happened. Apparently his father died as he was writing the book, and you can see that influence in the book's family-memoir aspect. The bildungsroman stuff about beıng a writer, I dunno, the individual interpolations are always interesting, I guess, but mostly we've heard that one before.

I've had this book recommended to me more than once by the locals, and without presuming to know İstanbul, I will say that if people here nowadays seem to be a little more game, have a little more pluck, if there's a little more goin' on than Pamuk's long, diffident, Protean struggle with the past, the hüzün is still there, and if people are fond of it it may just be a new permutation - nostalgia for the time when notalgia was our defining trait. It's also likely, as Pamuk says, that they feel the sadness more than all those slow-river inscrutable orientalist-cliche brown people because hell, this was the Ottoman Empire. One thing that deserves more thinkıng about with Turkish history in general and hüzün ın particular is what parallels can be drawn with Japanese history and those orbiting concepts, natsukashii and shikata ga nai.

Also,he says the same thing as me about how all good art makes you want to put your mouth all over it. So I'm endeared to him for that!
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LibraryThing member YorickBrown
Orhan Pamuk is a lifelong resident of Istanbul, and in this book he tells both the city's history and his own. It's a terribly difficult book for me to write about because there's a lot going on: he doesn't just write a history of Istanbul, but also a history of Istanbul writers and painters (both Turkish and Western), of himself as an Istanbullu, of himself as an Istanbul writer and painter, of certain buildings or classes of building or times of day that he finds evocative, of the different moods that these buildings and times of day evoke. There's a lengthy discussion of hüzün, which is a peculiar sort of Turkish melancholy that the residents of a city can feel collectively because of the knowledge that they have been the capital of three empires but are now marginalized and impoverished.

And, there are the times when Pamuk addresses himself directly to the audience and hints at his deeper purpose in telling the story. That purpose, as I understood it, is to describe the artistic lives of Orhan Pamuk and of Istanbul, but through tangential stories that show their richness as well as their deep interconnections.

Reading this book is like listening to the ramblings of your favorite uncle, if your favorite uncle were Turkish, and a Nobel-winning novelist.

Original post on "All The Things I've Lost"
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LibraryThing member MargMcM
If you're curious about Instabul or Orhan Pamuk, begin with this lovely memoir.
LibraryThing member lenabq
This is a beautiful book about an even more beautiful city. Read it!
LibraryThing member Clio112
One of the best books I have ever read. I love the honesty that emerges through his writing. When a book can change my outlook on life than it qualifies as one of mine best books. I no longer see decay and squalor as ugly and reprehensible. But a part of the natural order of things and dignified. By far this book was one of the best introductions to that thought-provoking megapolis of Istanbul.… (more)
LibraryThing member midlevelbureaucrat
An interesting combination of history, memory, and memoir written by the 2006 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. I loved the writing style. The book bogged down here and there, but ended with a flourish. The portrait painted of Istanubul in its post-imperial melancholy, trapped forever as not entirely east nor west. A city that lives today in black and white, not in color. Through it all, Pamuk engages the mindset of the Istanbullus as one with their city, and himself as forever tied emotionally and physically to this conflicted place. I enjoyed this book for the portrait of a place I've known nothing about, and for his infusion of his memories to tell the story of a place and of a people.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Orhan Pamuk begins his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, with a meditation on his doppelganger, the other Orhan in his life when he was a young boy. This is both an indication of the budding artist within and a metaphor for the city without, the city in which he was to grow up and live. Capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition and juxtaposing it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and city. Augmented by literally hundreds of photographs of city, family and history this is a unique look at one of the great centers of civilization.
The memoir is colored by melancholy, a word rooted in the Greek melankholia referring to pensive reflection marked by a dark or sad outlook. The Turkish word for melancholy is huzun and it has an Arabic root with a much more nuanced meaning that spans thoughts of both material pleasure and spirtual loss. According to Pamuk:
"The huzun of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." (p 91)
It is this feeling that Pamuk tries to capture in his discussions and digressions on his own experience of Istanbul and that of the others, often from the West, who have observed its life. So we encounter comments and thoughts from writers as diverse as Levi-Strauss, Ruskin, Flaubert, Gide and Gerard de Nerval. But there are also the insights of local writers like the novelist Tanpinar who, influenced by the French poet Theophile Gautier, wrote in a poetic and painterly mode of the vistas of Istanbul and extolled "the painterly style of writers like Stendahl, Balzac, and Zola" (p 227).
While Pamuk discusses the view of Istanbul "Under Western Eyes" (pp 234-44) he also finds the source of this melancholy in the ruins of the old city as seen both in his personal experience and through his reading of Tanpinar and others. He also meditates on the impact and meaning of the Bosporus to himself and his family. The city becomes a dream to which its denizens could aspire. "We might call this dream -- which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighborhoods beyon the city walls -- the 'melancholy of the ruins'" (p 253)
The sum of all these thoughts and more is a brilliant and evocative image of the Istanbul that encourages the reader to read more and the traveller to visit and see for himself. This reader found in this memoir everything that he had come to expect from Pamuk's fiction melded with a passion for family, literature and city. It has become another favorite of mine from the pen of this great writer.
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LibraryThing member aylin1
Orhan Pamuk’s art reflects his view of Istanbul. When he was young, he sought joy and found it in painting a pretty view. There came a point when he matured that such painting no longer brought him the same type of simple pleasure he found in finishing a work. The pain and frustration he felt when struggling with a painting led him to abandon painting rather than explore new and unknown territories with his art. He is however a true artist and his gift finds mature expression in words if not paint. His medium remains Istanbul.

He walks through back streets of Istanbul to escape pain in his own life- where art is discouraged as a profession as it does not put bread on the table. This is a far cry from the civilization of art and abundance that thrived not so long ago on the very streets he walks. This contrast creates a gentle melancholy that hangs in the air of the city and seeps into the hearts of it's inhabitants.

In his walks, Pamuk is not most drawn to the remaining monuments of the Ottoman empire preserved by the country, but to sad ghosts that are forgotten in back streets that lean and are propped up and patched by the families that inhabit them.

Pamuk’s love for his city is pure in that it does not transform the object of his affection. He loves the city for what is and not for a (westernized) ideal of itself. It is the readers view of those back streets and of their place in the city that are transformed.
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LibraryThing member lamour
I selected this book because I plan to go to Istanbul this fall. I have heard that it is a beautiful, exciting city. After reading Pamuk's descriptions of his hometown, I am wondering who to believe. Although he obviously loves the place of his birth, his descriptions of its decrepit buildings and gloomy streets do not make traveling there enticing. His word paintings of the Bosphorus and the ships & ferries that plied its waters are vivid and it does seem to be a waterway worth seeing.… (more)
LibraryThing member librarianshannon
I can hardly bring myself to give a Nobel Prize winner a two out of five stars, but compared to his other works, this text lingers too long in the "huzun" melancholy mist of his home city. More of a tome, a reference manual, for the ancient place, the chapters drag through facts and figures. It would have been more pleasant to read about his upbringing in such a place - while he continues to discuss how Istanbul is always read and painted by Westerners, he then misses his chance to write the story of the sad little boy who grew up walking it's cobblestone streets.

I read this while in Istanbul and must admit that little has changed over the centuries. While he and the Western authors and painters he relies on to tell his story accurately depict a beautiful place with nothing to offer, it's hard to sympathize with his overwhelming need to hold on to a city that's past and present are decaying simultaneously.

A side note, don't eat the meatballs in Istanbul.
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LibraryThing member fawaz004
A very interesting book. Orhan Pamuk is able to take you on a journey into the history of Istanbul. Mixed with his own childhood recollection of the history of this wonderful city, Orhan Pamuk examines the psyche of the people living in the remains of a fallen civilization. This book is extraordinary. Must read for anyone who has been to Istanbul.… (more)
LibraryThing member sjberberich
i didn't get into this book right away - i'd like to try again, though.
LibraryThing member Praj05
Pamuk ardently loves Istanbul come what may. His warm abode.A place where his childhood memories are masked in every paved stones and town structures.Fated to this predestined city his aspirations molded into becoming a writer and not an artist.

I'll etch a comprehensive review when my age is equivalent to that of Pamuk’s 58 years. On behalf of my 30 years of being on this planet, I vocalize my immense repulse for melancholic reminiscence. I sternly adhere to selective amnesia when it comes to my past barricading the battlegrounds of nostalgia and ruthless gloominess. It sensed similar to one of the obligatory elocutions of "my old days" by an elderly relative at my frightful family reunions or the nerve wrecking yakking with previous acquaintances.
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LibraryThing member Marcella2010
This book is a memoir of Istanbul from Orhan Pamuk's perspective. This book is so thorough that I used it when planning a trip to Istanbul. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Istanbul or those who want a deep understanding of the city and its citizens.
LibraryThing member tmph
Oh, what a delight. One gets to spend time with Pamuk and with his city. Any interest whatsoever in the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or Istanbul today, then this is a must read.
LibraryThing member carladp
Took me forever to read, but the author's writing was addicting, in small doses. The melancholy of living among the ruins of a lost empire was well portrayed, as was the angst of a young man.
LibraryThing member M.J.Meeuwsen
Great impression of Istanbul and its 'hüzün'. Especially, chapter 35 'First love' is simply moving.
LibraryThing member konastories
Joy's review: an interesting memoir of Orhan Pamuk and a love letter to the city he has lived in his entire life. He reflects on the photography and history on slums and shipping on commerce and art of Istanbul between and within stories of his family's declining fortunes and his parent's volatile marriage. I'd say it's a must read if you're visiting that part of the world.… (more)
LibraryThing member quiBee
This is a memoire of a city and a memoire of someone growing up in the city and the effect the city had on him and on all his fellow citizens.
Orham Pamuk is a noted Turkish author and he writes beautifully.
He goes over the history of Istanbul and the melancholy that inflicts it, the ruins and memories of an empire lost.
I don't know how current the description is, since it was published 10 years ago, but it was a very interesting evocation of time and place as the author was growing up.
The book has many black and white photos of old time Istanbul.
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LibraryThing member MeisterPfriem
Pamuk tells us about his memories of the Istanbul of his youth and of growing up in this city that formed him and that is now lost. He describes watching in the 50s and 60s with friends the fires of the ancient wooden houses burning down with a „pleasurable spiritual ache“ that had its root, he says, in the guilt and loss they felt at the destruction of the great Ottoman culture „we were unprepared to inherit in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city.“ He prefaces the book with a quote by Ahmet Rasim: ‘The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy’. This immediately reveals the ambiguity of this melancholy for which the Turkish word is hüzün and which is neither as Pamuk explains a solitary melancholy nor the same as tristesse but a shared melancholy a melancholy peculiar to the Istanbul of his youth (may one still encounter it today in neglected side-streets?), the hüzün „we absorb with pride and share as a community.“ Pamuk says - rightly I think - that the landscape painters of the Romantic in particular wanted to awake in the viewer the same feelings that the landscape evoked in the artist. So looking at Istanbul’s streets in the winter evening light, the little shops, the ferries belching their smoke, the ruins, the old falling-down mansions, … evokes „the hüzün in which we see ourselves reflected, the hüzün we absorb with pride and share as a community.“ But then again, as he says, describing the city’s essence says more about „our own states of mind: The city has no centre other than ourselves.“ Pamuk would not have become the writer he is had he grown up in any other place. (II-18)… (more)
LibraryThing member vguy
This book sticks in my craw. Took it with me on a bus tour of Turkey. Certainly elegant and learned but its main effect was to help me sleep on the bus. Much talk of 'huzun', the melancholy that pervades Istanbul according to Pamuk. Well, many other places seem a lot more melancholy to me; Istanbul is vibrant and strikes me that way every time I visit (first time was 1972, not long after Pamuk's overcast youth). We spend much time in the company of various Turkish intellectuals and some minor Western ones such as Gautier. How few Turkish intellectuals i have ever heard of; oddly enough Pamuk is just about the only one. All very elegant and closely observed and cleverly referenced, but it had the same effect on me when I picked the book up again 6 months later. Was equally unable to get through "My Name is Red".
Incidentally, Library thing has the title wrong: it's "Memories OF A City", perhaps that's the U.S.version.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Mr. Pamuk is far more interested in Istanbul, and in his own life, than I am. Yet the excellent writing held me and kept me turning the pages. It's sentimental mood appeal to me. He tells the story of his childhood, mingled with the story of Istanbul, a city he clearly loves. He gives us a insider view of this most intriguing city, which I visited a few years ago. And the many photographs greatly enhance the book and bring a concreteness to the story. I wish there'd also been a map!

My main problem with this book can be summed up by the author's assertion on Page 295 that “What is important for a memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account, but its symmetry.” Was he really so aware as a child as he paints himself to be?

The book is dated; the picture it paints of Turkey isn't the Turkey of today. But it's still worth the read for its portrayal of a city in transition, straddling east and west as (perhaps) only Istanbul can.
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LibraryThing member Steve38
A wistful, loving memoir of growing up in Istanbul. An impressive example of psychogeography. Orhan Pamuk would not be the writer he is today without his attachment to his city of birth. An encouragement to us all to go out and wander aimlessly through the streets with observant eyes looking for nothing in particular but lighting on the everyday and seeing it through our own unique eyes.… (more)


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