Family, Country, Novel

by Said Dağlı

On Cevdet Bey and His Sons, Orhan Pamuk’s first novel, Said Dağlı has written a detailed contemplation. He talked about the interplay between family, country and novel.

It is 21 July 1905, in the last years of the reign of Abdul Hamid II. He is targeted by an unsuccessful assassination at the Yıldız Mosque after the Friday Selamlik Procession. It is not known who is behind this assassination attempt, but it is known that nothing would be the same anymore. This event, nevertheless, does not affect Cevdet Bey. He, a rare Muslim tradesman in Istanbul, is always distant to politics. What he dreams of is not a constitutional monarchy but a happy and reputable family. What he cares about is not the Unionists but a house with a garden in Nişantaşı. Yet, he doesn’t know that the story of his family is analogous with the history of his nation.

A photograph showing the Selamlik Procession. July 18th, 1908.

The prologue of Cevdet Bey and His Sons, written by Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, narrates one entire day of Cevdet Bey, struggling with daily errands, people around him and his brother’s state of health. It is the third day after the Sultan was attacked and four years before the Sultan was overthrown. This prologue, lasting more than 70 pages, is a reminder how this family was started in Nişantaşı by an eager tradesman but doesn’t narrate the details how he buys the house, gets married and raises his children. Yet, careful readers, I believe, can reckon that this family is almost coeval with the second constitutional monarchy, which is the predecessor of the Republic.

Generations and Politics

Despite the relatively short prologue, novel tells the stories of Cevdet Işıkçı’s children extensively. As it is the last years of Mustafa Kemal’s rule as the president of the young republic, both the Turkish bureaucracy and the Işıkçı family are experiencing a stagnation and a series of disturbances. Moreover, in the second half of the 1930s, the possibility of a war in Europe frightens this young republic, suffering from combat fatigue of WWI. Fear of military coups in the third generation followed the abovementioned disturbances and stagnations.

Novel narrates the grandson of Cevdet Işıkçı, Ahmet, in the epilogue. His distant uncle Ziya, who is a military officer and decided to be a ghost chasing this family, tells him about the ghost chasing this country: a military coup. Once again, the story of Işıkçı family intersects with the national history.

Ziya wants something from this family and military wants something from the country. But, what they want and how they claim this right is ambiguous and uncertain. Just like Cevdet Bey (trying to start his family when Abdul Hamid II is about to be dethroned) and his sons (trying to protect the future of the Işıkçı family when Mustafa Kemal is on his deathbed and a war is coming), the political environment disturbs Ahmet’s dreams about his own marriage and his life (in an apartment built in place of the house with the garden in Nişantaşı), this time an upcoming military coup.

Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the cover of the novel
Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları, authors first novel has never been translated into English.

Orhan Pamuk’s First Novel: Cevdet Bey and His Sons

Orhan Pamuk wrote Cevdet Bey and His Sons in four years, from 1974 to 1978, and published in 1982 as his first novel. It was awarded by Milliyet Publishing Novel Awards in 1979 and Orhan Kemal Novel Awards in 1983. As it is his first novel, it is not surprising that it has an autobiographic side. He borrowed so much from the story of the Pamuk family. Despite his other novels, Pamuk didn’t want to translate Cevdet Bey and His Sons because of, he says, his stubbornness. He admits that he is a little ashamed as this novel is his first and it is an imitation of what European literature calls family novels. These might be the reasons why he is so stubborn about the English translation.

Although this novel narrates three generations of the Işıkçı family, it is also a fictional history of Turkish modernization and a short story of Nişantaşı as a wealthy and exclusive neighborhood. All these are embodied by the house in Nişantaşı built by Armenian stonemasons and bought by Cevdet Bey from a widowed Jewish woman. It represents the integrity of the family when all Cevdet Bey’s sons are living there with their nuclear families. Furthermore, it represents the separation of family when it is demolished to be rebuilt as an apartment block.

I have said that this narration has an autobiographic side: there is this Pamuk Apartment in Teşvikiye Street, Nişantaşı. I’m not sure whether Orhan Pamuk could have witnessed the transition of detached houses into apartment blocks in his neighborhood but he tells how Nişantaşı has been changing and dissolving for years. Thus, the house (and the household) of Işıkçı family, in a sense, represents the dissolving and trasnforming Nişantaşı.

Cevdet Bey and Fathers of Tanzimat Novel

Pamuk mentiones Anna Karenina of Tolstoy in “Country, Family, Novel”, the afterword of the novel. It is a novel depicting the whole society and Pamuk traced it when he was writing Cevdet Bey and His Sons. Pamuk contrasts Anna Karenina from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which also influenced Pamuk, as Mann’s novel is more of a single family’s story. Having Anna Karenina and Buddenbrooks mentioned in terms of methodological approaches, I think there is also a strong contextual bridge between Cevdet Bey and His Sons and the Tanzimat novel. A Muslim tradesman in Istanbul reminds Ahmet Mithat’s Müşahedat (Observations), father-son relationships (or the absence of this relationship) reminds Nâmık Kemal’s İntibah (Rebirth), etc.

Despite these similarities, there is a distinction between Tanzimat novelists and the author of Cevdet Bey and His Sons. Orhan Pamuk has a different approach to these themes. When Ahmet Mithat narrates a Muslim and hardworking tradesman, he has a moralistic tone, which he doesn’t try to hide. He praises this tradesman. When Nâmık Kemal narrates the fatherlessness and separation from family values, he ends it in the calamity. Both novelists have a nationalist and religious motivation, and they want to educate the society by means of novel.

Pamuk, on the contrary, doesn’t praise the Muslim tradesman and doesn’t take the separation from family values as a reason for calamity. Yet, he acknowledges, although these themes have been discussed at a distance for a long time, it is feared to confront them. That’s why, they will continue to be narrated, just like Cevdet Bey and His Sons does. So, what Pamuk does is not to educate the society but to reveal what we have not confronted.

A photograph of Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk, the author of Cevdet Bey and His Sons

Country, Family, Novel

There is a transitive relationship, as Pamuk asserts, between the Işıkçı family and the Pamuk family. A bilateral psychology in search of the secure-happy environment of an extended family while being impatient for a creative loneliness is told for both Refik Bey, son of Cevdet Bey, and Orhan Pamuk himself. Besides, this kind of a bilateral psychology, in a more daring sense a dichotomy, is also visible between being in a traditional Ottoman family (Alaturca) and being in a modern bourgeoise family (Alafranga). Cevdet Bey complains about his family saying that he has aimed to have an Alafranga family, yet, it has ended up being Alaturca. [p: 105] Orhan Pamuk, on the other hand, describes his family as a half-bourgeoise and a half Ottoman family. [p: 575] All these family-related issues, crises and metamorphoses, are embodied by the houses (of the Işıkçı and the Pamuk family) in Nişantaşı.

All these transitions between past and future, individual and community, İstanbul and Ankara, cities and rural areas, the Işıkçı family and the Pamuk family, etc. constitutes the very basis of this novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons. Above all these, what grabs my attention most is the interwoven nature of and the transition between family and country. The essence of Pamuk’s novel (and most of the Tanzimat novels as well) is a travel from family to country and from country to family. Introspects about loneliness, individualism, idealism, being alafranga or alaturca, being a nationalist or a revolutionist etc. are examined in individual level, family level and country level. In this sense, the title of Pamuk’s afterword tells a lot: “Country, Family, Novel”. [p: 575]

Further Readings

For those who are interested in Orhan Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, I want to provide some introductions for three articles reviewing this novel from three different aspects. Although these are not comprehensive studies about this novel, I believe they can be seminal for future research.

Entrepreneurship in Cevdet Bey and His Sons

First of all, the Muslim entrepreneurship in the novels narrating the late Ottoman period is interesting to investigate. Umut Dağıstan’s “An Entrepreneurship Tale on the Basis of the Novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları by Orhan Pamuk” discusses the entrepreneurship and socio-economic relations of the Muslim Turks with the example of Cevdet Bey and his offspring. “Modernization, Westernization and identity problems parallel to these concepts,” Dağıstan says, “are always in the commercial life for Cevdet Bey, or for the Muslim-Turkish entrepreneur of the time”. His being the only Muslim tradesman in his neighborhood and other Muslim’s insolent opinions about him are remarked. In this sense, anyone interested in social, cultural and economic relations of the late Ottoman Muslims in Istanbul can utilize this article as well as the scholars of economics and entrepreneurship.

Anxiety of First Novel

Orhan Pamuk, as I said above, admits that he is a little ashamed of his first novel. Işıl Britten, therefore, analyzes the anxiety of writing the first novel. It compares Pamuk’s Cevdet Bey and His Sons and Thomas Mann’s Bruddenbrooks. This article, “TheAnxiety of Writing the First Novel: Houses as Symbols in Cevdet Bey ve Oǧulları and Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie“, mentions Harold Bloom’s discussion about belatedness. According to Bloom, writers can be anxious as they think that all can be said has already been said. We know that Mann’s Bruddenbrooks influenced the author of Cevdet Bey and His Sons. However, it is important to note that Bruddenbrooks was also the first novel of its author. It is,therefore, intriguing to compare and contrast these two novels.

Vocabulary in Cevdet Bey and His Sons (Turkish)

Nilüfer Yıldırım wrote “The Vocabulary in the Novel Cevdet Bey and his Sons by Orhan Pamuk”. She aims to detect and interpret the elements of vocabulary in this novel. Therefore, It determines the total number of different and recurring words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, etc. The weakness of this study, I believe, is that Yıldırım doesn’t interpret the findings in most cases. For example, the number of words with literal meanings in the novel is 5.5 times as high as the number of words with figurative and connotative meanings. Yet, it is ambiguous what one should judge from this finding. There is one exception in this study, in terms of interpretations. Yıldırım examines the use of specific words and makes inferences. For example, male names in the novel are much higher than female names. Yıldırım, therefore, argues that Pamuk tried to make the audience feel the existence of patriarchy.


Britten, Işıl. 2018. “The Anxiety of Writing the First Novel: Houses as Symbols in Cevdet Bey ve Oǧulları and Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.” Trakya University Journal of Faculty of Letters 8 (15): 90-102.

Dağıstan, Umut. 2017. “An Entrepreneurship Tale on the Basis of the Novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları by Orhan Pamuk.” Proceedings of the Multidisciplinary Academic Conference: 63-71.

Pamuk, Orhan. 2019. Cevdet Bey ve  Oğulları. Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Publications.

Pamuk, Orhan. 2019. “Ülke, Aile, Roman”, In Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları, by Orhan Pamuk, 575-580. Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Publications.

Yıldırım, Nilüfer. 2018. “Orhan Pamuk’un  ‘Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları’ Romanında Söz Varlığı.” Uluslararası Türk  Lehçe Araştırmaları Dergisi (TÜRKLAD) 2 (1): 301-318.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept