Half of my book Istanbul is about the city; the other half chronicles the first 22 years of my life. I remember my huge disillusionment when it was finished. Of all the things I had wanted to express about my life, of all the memories that I considered the most crucial, only a few had found their way into the book. I could have written another twenty volumes describing the first twentytwo years of my life, each one drawing from a different set of experiences. It was then that I discovered that autobiographies served not to preserve our pasts, but to help us forget them.
I was born in Istanbul in 1952. My grandfather was a successful civil engineer and businessman who made his fortune building railroads and factories. My father followed in his footsteps, but instead of making money, he kept losing it. I was educated in private schools in Istanbul, and after studying architecture for three years, I dropped out, enrolled in a journalism course, and set out to become a writer. Between the ages of 7 and 22, I dreamed of being a painter. During my childhood and early youth, I painted with a happy and passionate sense of purpose. But by the time I stopped painting at the age of 22, I knew that I had no choice but to devote my life to art. At the same time, I had no idea why I gave up painting at the age of 22 and began to write my first novel, Cevdet Bey and Sons. It was to explore that mystery that, years later, I wrote Istanbul.
When I look back on my life up to the age of 54, I see a person who has worked long hours at a desk, in both happiness and in misery. I have written my books with care, patience, and good intentions, believing in each and every one. Success, fame, professional happiness… these did not come to me easily. Today my novels have been translated into 55 languages, but the hardest thing was finding a Turkish publisher for my first novel. It took me four years to find a publisher to take on Cevdet Bey and Sons. This despite the fact that it had won a national prize for unpublished novels …
In 1982 at about the same time that I published my first novel, I married Aylin Türegün, and because we had both grown up in the same affluent, westernised Istanbul neighbourhood, walking the same streets and before we ever knew each other attending the same schools, I used to tease her by saying I had ‘married a girl from my village’. Our daughter was born in 1991, and we named her after Rüya, the heroine of The Black Book.
I have made my living exclusively from writing. Between 1985 and 1988, I was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, while my wife was working on her doctorate at the same university. I was greatly impressed by the richness of America’s libraries, bookstores, and museums. My wife and I were divorced in 2002. She and our daughter remain my best friends. In 2006, a month before I won the Nobel Prize, I began to teach at Columbia University for one semester a year.
For me, a good day is a day like any other, when I have written one page well. Except for the hours I spend writing, life seems to me to be flawed, deficient, and senseless. Those who know me well understand how dependent I am on writing, tables, pens, and white paper, but they still urge me to ‘take a bit of time off, do some travelling, enjoy life!’ Those who know me even better understand that my greatest happiness is writing, so they tell me that nothing that keeps me far from writing, paper, and ink will ever do me any good. I am one of those rare happy creatures who have been able to do what they most desired, and who have been able to devote themselves to that task to the exclusion of all else.
I spent my childhood in a large family surrounded by uncles and aunts. My two first novels, Cevdet Bey and Sons, and Silent House, are family sagas. I enjoy describing crowded family gatherings the meals they eat together, the feuds, and the quarrels. But with the passage of time, as our fortunes dwindled and our family dispersed, it gradually ceased to be a source of protection or a centre to which I felt obliged to return. Every night, when I curl up in bed and pull my quilt over me, I am swept away by a sweet fear that walks between solitude and dreams, the beauties of life, and its cruelties, and it is then that I shiver in the same way I did when I listened to scary stories, or read fairy tales, as a child.
In Silent House, it was through my grandmother’s monologues that I tried to penetrate this world between sleep and wakefulness. There are traces of that same world in The White Castle, which also explores the shadows between dreams and reality, imagination and history. But it was in The Black Book, which I began in 1985, that I felt I found my own voice. I was 33 years old at the time, living in New York, and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. I spent all my time in my room in the Columbia Library, reading and writing. During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed in with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture. The Black Book was a book that took me a very long time to plan, a book that I wrote without knowing exactly what I was doing, feeling my way forward like a blind man. I am still surprised that I was able to finish it.
The New Life is a lyrical exploration of the thing I first discovered in The Black Book, this time not in Istanbul, but in Anatolia. My Name is Red is the novel that perplexes my mother: she always tells me that she cannot understand how I wrote it …There is nothing in any of my other novels that surprises her; she knows that I drew upon the stuff of my own life. But in My Name is Red there is an aspect that she cannot connect with this son she knows so well, this son about whom she is certain that she knows everything… This must, in my view, be the greatest compliment to any writer can hear: to hear from his mother that his books are wiser than he is.
What has surprised me the most was the popularity of Snow. In the beginning I thought this was down to growing interest in political Islam, the clash of East-West stereotypes and their reflections in everyday life. But now I have come to think that what sets the book apart is what transpires in the Hotel Asia when the political activists are furiously preparing their statements. But in so thinking, I may have again misread my readers’ minds. In the early nineties, when I was known only in Turkey, and Turkish journalists would sometimes ask me in a hostile way why people liked my books, and why I was so widely read, I’d come up with all sorts of reasons that I liked a great deal, but now I don’t believe a single one of them. Later on, when I slowly came to be read all over the world, foreign journalists and literary critics began to ask the same question. I write the books I myself would like to read. And sometimes I take this to mean that everyone in the world shares my feelings. This attempt to explain the popularity of my books is probably as misguided as all the others. Even so, talking about one’s books is as pointless as talking about one’s life. In the end, a writer will see his life as more important than his books. But it is those books that give life its meaning and value. From the age of 22, when I began to write novels, I have never been able to separate my life from my novels. I think that the books I shall write in the future will be thought more entertaining, and more important, than my life. I take this to mean that a person must look ahead to the moment of his death, that he must resign himself to that moment. Despite this, it still seems that there is a lot of time left.
Because as I write these words at the age of 54 in April 2007, I know that my life has long since passed its midpoint, but, having written for thirty-two years now, I believe that I am at the midpoint of my career. I must have another thirty-two years in which to write more books, and to surprise my mother and other readers at least one more time.
Translation from Turkish by Maureen Freely
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.