Monday, May 30, 2011

The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist

My review which was in the Reads Monthly section of The Sunday Star yesterday :

What actually happens when we read a literary novel? And what is in the mind of an author when he writes one? These are the central questions addressed by Orhan Pamuk in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist. And since the Turkish writer is both an avid reader and the Nobel Prize winning author of several internationally acclaimed novels (including Snow, My Name is Red, and The White Castle), he is extremely well-qualified to do so.

The title of the book is taken from the famous essay by Friedrich Schiller . Pamuk’s “naïve” novelists, he says, are unaware of the techniques they are using, and they write spontaneously as if carrying out a natural act, as opposed to “sentimental” or reflective novelists “who are concerned with artificiality of the text and its failure to attain reality”. I have to say though that I did not find the distinction a particularly useful scaffold for Pamuk’s arguments, particularly as the author himself admits that all great novelists ultimately have to be a blend of both. At times, his discussion seems rather abstract and academic, perhaps not surprisingly, as these six linked essays were initially delivered in the form of lectures at Harvard University in 2009.
On Naive and Sentimental Poetry

But it is when he writes more anecdotally and personally that he is at his best. Anyone who has fallen passionately in love with reading will recognize themselves in Pamuk’s descriptions of his younger self, encountering the great works of fiction for the first time, discovering in them important truths about life, and acquiring from them “a breathtaking sense of freedom and self-confidence”. Pamuk draws on the classics for his examples, including Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Pamuk captures the special magic of the literary form. He describes how the words on the page become invisible as we look through them onto an entire landscape with the ability “to oscillate between the long view and fleeting moments, general thoughts and specific events, at a speed no other literary genre can offer.” We can simultaneously see, he says “the broader picture, the whole landscape, the thoughts of the individual, and the nuances of the character’s mood.”

More than once he refers to the “intense and tiring effort” required to read a literary novel, and he lists a whole lot of different things that the reader actually has to do simultaneously to connect with the text. We observe the scene and follow the narrative, and transform the words on the page into images. Our memory labours intensively to hold all the threads of the story and what we know of the characters. We appreciate the style, make judgments about the moral choices the characters make, and congratulate ourselves for being able to read “a difficult” novel.

As we read, we are constantly wondering, he says, how much of the novel tells of real experience and how much is an act of imagination, and also how much of the author’s own life is invested in the fiction. Indeed, he devotes a whole essay to the topic, but concludes, not surprisingly, that “the novel is not completely imaginary nor completely factual.”

But even as we are deriving pleasure from the surface details of the novel, we are searching at a deeper level for “motive, idea, purpose”, in fact what he calls “a secret centre”. Reading literary fiction, he says, is the act of determining the real centre of the novel, “whose source remains ambiguous but which nevertheless illuminates the whole.” It is the slow uncovering of this centre that gives the reader full satisfaction.

Popular genre fiction, he says, typically lacks this centre, and is read largely for comfort. But he does single out some genre writers (including Patricia Highsmith, John Le Carre, Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick) as authors whose work can be read at a deeper level.

Pamuk is perhaps at his most controversial when he talks about the creation of character in the novel. He suggests that over the past 150 years our curiosity about characters has taken up much more space in the novel than it has in life, and that “It has sometimes become too self-indulgent, almost vulgar”. He believes that “People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels” , and reckons that human character is not nearly as important in shaping our live as it is made out to be in the novels and literary criticism of the west. This certainly is food for serious thought.

He goes on to attack the idea of the character-driven plot, where the author seems to expect that “… the hero like a prompter on stage will whisper to the novelist the entire course of the novel.” This approach, taught extensively on creative writing courses, “merely goes to show that many novelists begin to write their novels without being sure of their story, and that is the only way they are able to write.” He says that in his own writing his protagonist’s character will be formed, as a real person’s is, by situations and events.

Much of what is written about literature in academic circles is made inaccessible to the ordinary book-lover and writer by the jargon of literary theory. This book can be enjoyed by both the enthusiastic reader and by writers, and should serve to spark deeper discussion of the craft of the novel - whether or not one chooses to agree on all points with Pamuk.

And of course, perhaps more importantly for fans of Pamuk’s work, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist gives an intriguing insight into the preoccupations and approach to writing of one of the world’s most important authors.

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