The Dream Cities of Istanbul and Providence

A seat is now empty, but the train moves on. Let us follow Randolph Carter, and journey in search of cities lost in time and dreams.

As part of my research for the Traveler’s Companion, I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. This isn’t the place to talk about Pamuk’s stature as a writer. It is Pamuk’s Istanbul that I am concerned with here, the city of his childhood in the 1950 and 60s, and how this can be related back to a Lovecraftian experience of Istanbul in the 1920s.

Pamuk evokes a city of winter, of darkness, of shadow, of twilight, of gloom and poverty. He lingers lovingly over every detail of the slow ruin of the grand old mansions lining the Bosporus. Pamuk’s city is permeated with an aching consciousness of loss, huzun,  a Turkish word he re-interprets as a communal melancholy suffered by Istanbul residents, arising from a deep awareness of their city’s fall from greatness.

Lovecraft’s twilight city, his dream Providence, is a fleeting glimpse filled with ‘the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what had once had an awesome and momentous place.’

These are two very different writers confronting the same vision, and both writers assert the primacy of their dream city over the reality, to the point where reality shadows the dream. At the time of writing Istanbul, Pamuk had never left the city, and indeed had returned to live in the same apartment building that he lived in as a child. He felt the city fed his imagination and he would lose too much if he left. Lovecraft stayed in Providence and on College Hill, apart from a short unhappy stint in New York. He could not abandon the city that stood at the center of his craft. His tombstone reads, simply, ‘I am Providence.’

Pamuk also collected newspaper columnist jottings, some of which he shares in a chapter of Istanbul. Here is an admonition from our period, 1929, a final word on lost places and lost times:

“Like all the clocks that adorn our city’s public spaces, the two great clocks on either side of the bridge at Karaköy don’t tell the time so much as guess it; by suggesting that a ferry still tied to the pier has long since departed, and at other times suggesting that a long-departed ferry is still tied to the pier; they torture the residents of Istanbul with hope.”

H.P. Lovecraft's grave, Providence

H.P. Lovecraft’s grave with the dedication “I am Providence”. Photo taken on HPL’s 100th birthday; note the brain-shaped fungus, lovingly laid. (Providence, 1990)

 

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