Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Happily ever after?

I promised to tell you whether Kemal finds happiness.

Kemal, as you will recall, is the scion of a wealthy Westernized Turkish family, and the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk's newest novel The Museum of Innocence. When we left him, he had just become engaged to the aristocratic Sibel, although madly in love with young shopgirl Füsun. He dreams of happiness.

A blurb on the jacket of the book, from the Financial Times, opines: "Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina." I think not.

Pamuk is (or can be) a writer of the first order, but Humbert, Emma, and Anna have more compelling stories to tell. Kemal spends the 400 middle pages of the book and eight years of narrative time moping about like a lovesick schoolboy, penduluming from elation to despair. One just wants too kick him in the rear and say, "Get on with it." He's a hard character to sympathize with. What Sibel and Füsun see in him I'll never know.

His last words (the last words of the book) are "Let everyone know I lived a very happy life."

And so, from a 728-page novel whose theme is happiness, what do we learn about that much sought-after goal in life?

Kemal says that "Happiness is being close to the one you love, that's all." "Propinquity," my father used to say, is the basis of love, and Kemal certainly cultivates propinquity. But when he hasn't contrived to be in Füsun's presence he's sitting around in a lonely bachelor apartment sniffing her purloined hairpins and cigarette stubs, which strikes me as the affliction of a seriously unbalanced man. If this is happiness, who needs it?

Kemal's wealth doesn't make him happy. Nor does his physical health. Is it contentment, then? Is happiness being content with what one has, with whatever life throws one's way? Maybe. But contentment seems to be a personality trait, something that to a large extent one is born with. We all know people who skip through life with a smile on their faces and take everything in stride, and others who are chronically glum.

Kemal and his friends drink a lot, presumably because it makes them happy. One would hate to concede that happiness is chemical, but surely that's part of it, innate or imbibed. And that's about all we learn from Pamuk.

And what do we learn from Nabokov, Flaubert and Tolstoy? That happiness is elusive. That stories without pathos seldom rise to the level of great literature.