Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist

This essay appeared last weekend in The National, and was written in Istanbul earlier this month in the lovely common room, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, of the Hotel Niles.

In Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence the protagonist Kemal Basmacı, finding a new unity and clarity in his experience of the world after he falls in love with a shopgirl, speaks of love as “another way of knowing”. In his new book The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, it is Pamuk’s contention that the very nature of the novel itself – in search of the revelations of both an objective standpoint and perspectivism, delighting in ambiguities and secrets, and sifting the essential from the inessential in new and surprising ways – allows us “another way of knowing”.

Pamuk’s title, one notices, emphasises the word novelist and not novel, suggesting that this is a book about the processes of literature rather than the end-product. Its six linked essays, offered up in a tone simultaneously conversational and schoolmasterly (they were originally a set of lectures that Pamuk gave at Harvard University in 2009), are preoccupied with what kinds of knowledge and expectation writers bring to the writing of novels and readers to the reading of them. Like all novelists, Pamuk loves dividing the world of novels into two, the better to illuminate the whole. Here, the principle of partition that he relies on derives from the eighteenth-century German writer Friedrich Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”.

The word “sentimental”, at first glance and in English, appears allied with rather than opposed to “naive”, so that title needs some explanation. Briefly, naive poets are for Schiller the naturals of literature, confident in their ability to understand the world, writing as if there was no gulf between the world and language, seemingly innocent of literary technique, of the artifice that makes art seem real. The totally naive writer is both liberated and limited by his naivete: he cannot change anything about his work but must always just “receive” it as if from without.

The sentimental writer, on the other hand, is the kind of artist who is deeply reflective and self-conscious, bringing doubt and skepticism to his reading of both world and work. He knows that art is always the result of certain decisions made in the realm of style and technique. “Being a novelist,” declares Pamuk, “is the art of being both naive and reflective at the same time”.

Readers can be divided into similar categories. Some may believe that novels are transcribed directly from their author’s experience. Such readers aren’t given to introspection about how their own act of reading brings the book to life. Others of a more theoretical temperament may be acutely aware of, and take pleasure in, the moves and patterns that the writer deploys to produce the experience of the text. Reading involves a different kind of creation from writing, and it is the reflective reader who approaches his task with ambition and awareness. And so for the both-naive-and-sentimental novelist, Pamuk seems to imply, the sentimental reader is more precious than the naive one, even if the latter group is usually bigger in size.

This is quite an interesting theoretical map, illuminating, for instance, the difference between literary and genre fiction, or the relationship between art and reality. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Pamuk’s novels is the way their narrators confidently braid theory and argument into story. One recalls the grizzled painter of miniatures in My Name Is Red explaining the divergent view of the human subject in Ottoman and Venetian art, or Kemal’s meditations on what love has done to his awareness of temporality, and on Aristotle’s theory of time.

Yet if there is a criticism to be made of Pamuk’s book, it is that it spends too long at the level of abstract argument and generalized assertion. It is not animated enough by the particularities and close reading that distinguishes the literary criticism of, for instance, Milan Kundera, another novelist who constructs grand theories about the novel. Pamuk the theoretician is, paradoxically, more compelling in his novels, where ideas might be thought of a secondary layer under the primary one of story.

The triads of nouns that are such a distinctive mark of Pamuk’s sentences, for instance, seem slacker here than in his fiction (“As our mind performs all these operations simultaneously, we congratulate ourselves on the knowledge, depth, and understanding we have attained”), and a poetics of composition and reception is articulated for long stretches without actual novels being summoned to the scene.

For instance, Pamuk offers some valuable points about how novelists actually verbalize a set of compelling images -- indeed, how they are obsessed with visuality. For Pamuk the roots of novelistic writing lie not so much in story per se as in richly imagined point of view (“The defining question of the art of the novel is not the personality or character of the protagonists, but rather how the universe within the tale appears to them”). He also observes that the novel is actually at its most political not when it works through explicitly political themes but simply when it successfully realizes the effort “to understand someone” in all their individuality and their difference.

But readers may feel that they have already been schooled in these notions by his novels, and that a certain conversational register that works in the lecture theatre becomes less satisfying when transferred to the page. Rather, it is when we come across the odd ringing assertion (Anna Karenina is “the greatest novel of all time”) or the mischievous putdown (“Zola is the sort of writer who thinks, ‘Oh, Anna is reading – so while she does that, let me describe the compartment a bit’”) that the text really hums.

Although the book is perfectly competent, and a pleasure to read, the demanding reader will feel that it is only in the last chapter, “The Center”, that Pamuk really hits his straps. This is where he advances his most interesting claim, namely that all real novels have a veiled locus. “The centre of a novel is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” Further, it is important that this center be hard to reach, because “if the center is too obvious and the light too strong, the meaning of the novel is immediately revealed and the act of reading feels repetitive,” as with genre fiction.

The center, crucially, is something that is not only searched for or perceived by the questing reader, but it is also the motor that determines the novelist’s own perception of his text as he works through successive versions of it. And although it is the center, it sometimes arrives last and not first in the process of composition, being, in Pamuk’s striking image, “maneuvered into place” as the work’s form and colours become clearer and brighter.

This is a matrix of ideas that only a novelist could plausibly express and defend. If such a thought appeared today in academic literary criticism from anyone other than, say, Harold Bloom, it would seem too fanciful, unprovable, woolly, conceived in a dream and not at the desk. But literary criticism is impoverished if it does not leave room for progress through metaphors such as this one, if it advances single-mindedly through rational argument. Many searching questions are activated when Pamuk asserts, for instance, that “the difference between The Arabian Nights...and In Search of Lost Time is that the latter has a center we are very aware of.”

It is as if Pamuk himself is roused by these ideas, for the writing in this last chapter has a higher pitch, and a continuous epigrammatic energy (“Because Anna Karenina could not read the novel she held in her hands, we read Anna Karenina the novel”). The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist would have been a more balanced book if Pamuk had placed his idea of the novelistic center itself at the center of his book. But, appearing where it does, it ensures that Pamuk exits the stage on a high.

And here are two old posts on books by novelists about the novel: VS Naipaul's A Writer's People and Javier Marias's Written Lives.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Three new Indian literary ventures: Pratilipi Books, ForbesLife magazine, and Tender Leaves library

Here are some things happening in Indian literature and the book business that I think you should know about -- perhaps you do already, and I was the last to find out:

The bilingual literary magazine Pratilipi has been, to my mind, for some years the best literary magazine in India, and it has recently ventured into book publishing with a set of nine varied books, including an anthology of Hindi poems in translation, a special on The Village (see the recent magazine lead story "Towards A Village-Less Future"), three books in Hindi, and three Swedish novels in translation, the cover of one of which I've put up here. I saw some of these titles at the Jaipur Literary Festival, and they're beautiful books. You can buy these books in select stores, or easier still, order them all online at Flipkart.

ForbesLife India is a new quarterly Indian magazine of stylish feature-writing (usually present in Indian journalism far more as intent than in reality) offering, in its inaugural issue, an excellent lead essay on how 21st century human beings could be "the first immortals", a lovely essay on home schooling by Manjula Padmanabhan, and some other very satisfying pieces, as also lovely design and layout.

And last, Tender Leaves ("It's more than just a library!") is a brand new online library service, offering a range of reading plans to subscribers, a growing library of titles, and free home delivery. The service is confined, in these early days, to readers in Pune, but it has plans to expand to other Indian cities soon. Should you wish to borrow a copy of my new book India: A Traveller's Literary Companion from the library, you'll find you'll receive a signed copy for Tender Leaves readers.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On Patrick French's India: A Portrait

A slightly different version of this essay appeared in The National last weekend as "Your Mother, Your Sister, And All" .

As with the proverbial three blind men before an elephant, unable thanks to the vastness of its size and the diversity of its parts to make a reasonable guess as to the reality of the whole, all books about India “get” some things about the country and miss others. Each observer distinguishes or incriminates himself in his own way, and, for the reader, the task lies in making a reckoning of exactly what they see and what they choose to make of it. Advertised as “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people” (the adjective alone is worth investigating), Patrick French’s India: A Portrait sets itself up from the very beginning alongside the most ambitious books written about the country.

Whole cupboards of non-fiction are now published every year about Indian politics, society, culture, religion, philosophy and business. Indology is a crowded market, buzzing with grand claims. French’s own contribution to the literature of Indocentrism is the somewhat nebulous: “India is a macrocosm, and may be the world’s default setting for the future.” But for most part French is sharper than this, and, indeed, he often has a merciless way with cant, whether the jargon-laden calls to war of Maoist revolution or the play-it-safe boilerplate of the Congress Party. Cutting up his book into three major axes of inquiry entitled Rashtra, Lakshmi, and Samaj, French deploys impressively the grasp of history and social context and the love of bright detail that he last displayed in his 2008 biography of VS Naipaul.

The only clunky section of French’s text appears right at the beginning. French’s long essay on Indian politics requires him to make a survey, for reasons of context and continuity, of events from the time of independence onwards: nation-formation and constitution-framing, the crisis of succession post-Nehru, the Emergency, the rise of dynastic politics. Here, even French’s talent for elegant synthesis and summary, often finished off with brief, probing glosses  – Jawaharlal Nehru’s classic The Discovery of India is “a fine, slanted and sometimes romantic version of history”– is not enough to reanimate an extensively reported period of national history, the personalities, contours and faultlines of which are familiar to even the casual reader on India.

Once it has emerged from this impasse, though, French’s narration begins to pick up steam, every page delivering something valuable. One of his most diverting studies is that of nepotism in Indian democracy. As a case study he takes the Lok Sabha or the Indian parliament, home to 545 elected MPs. With the assistance of a team of researchers, French attempts to figure out just how many of them might be considered to be what he called hereditary MPs or “HMPs” – that is, MPs with a strong family, if not directly filial, connection to politics.

He finds that almost 30 per cent of MPs fall into this category, including two-thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under. Thus, he demonstrates just how much weight a family name carries when it comes to the restocking of Indian democracy with new blood. Sixty-three years after its ambitious inauguration, then, Indian democracy remains semi-feudal. “I am not suggesting that a ‘hereditary MP’ is a bad MP,” French says, concluding tidily, “merely that this system excludes the overwhelming majority of Indians from participation in politics at a national level”. With a new law mandating that 33 per cent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women about to come into effect in the 2014 general elections, the situation could grow worse as the mothers, wives and daughters-in-law of India are catapulted into the hustings. “India’s next general election,” warns French, “was likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty.”

A pair of brief but trenchant sketches of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh sets off a convoy of polished portraits, the strength of which holds the diverse strands of the book together. The double-sided method that French employs is to let his subjects, when they open up to him, to speak for long stretches in their own voice, and to gird this with a few paragraphs of telling detail sourced from books, reports, and personal observation.By throwing together the famous, the modestly well-known, and the anonymous in complex formations, French achieves an effect of intimacy with both the powerful and the powerless that justifies the word “intimate” in his subtitle.

A Congress functionary in Uttar Pradesh, Yusuf Ansari, talks revealingly about the complexities of local politics and the weaknesses of the Congress Party at grassroots. The Indian telecom baron Sunil Mittal, head of Bharti Airtel, recalls, in a passage that is almost novelistic, wandering about street markets and trade fairs in east Asia in the eighties, looking for a business opportunity, before finally picking on phones as a growth area for the future. A fatalistic, enfeebled low-caste labourer in Karnataka who spent 21 months in chains, unable to put on underwear or trousers, after failing to pay off a debt to his employer, puzzles over his own story after he is freed. Nor far away, in the buzzing metropolis of Bangalore, a construction worker takes French around the pathetic camp thrown together for him and his colleagues by a company erecting premium apartments.

In Kashmir, the lapsed terrorist and political protestor Shakeel Ahmad Bhat (aka the “Islamic Rage Boy,” who made it to newspapers worldwide in 2007) speaks heartrendingly about outrages visited on his family by police in his childhood, a black-and-white that he still inhabits despite, or perhaps because of, his troubles. Elsewhere, in the closing sections of a forceful critique of Naxalism, French visits Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail to meet one of the movement’s masterminds: the recently arrested Kobad Ghandy. He asks the ideologue how he can continue to believe in Maoism after the arbitrary snuffing out of hundreds of thousands of lives in Mao’s China. Ghandy acknowledges there have been mistakes, but valiantly defends the “philosophy” of the movement. “When taken to an extreme,” remarks French acidly, “idealism is little more than a form of prejudice.”

French’s ear for the exact registers and locutions of Indian speech, reported without smirks or condescension, elevates his work above most other books of reportage on the country, eliding the distance from one’s subjects that often appears in the work of other writers and turning his narrative into an impressive act of ventriloquism in the manner of the Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or Sonia Faleiro’s recent Beautiful Thing.  Late in the book, an army officer is heard saying, as he describes a face-off between two colleagues, “The 2IC, the second-in-command, started abusing him when he was giving a report, saying your mother, your sister and all.” In such instances it is not the space granted to the subject as much as the attention to cadences of his voice that humanizes him.

Elsewhere, French remarks, inhabiting an Indian idiom instead of merely marking it, “Of the 38 youngest MPs, 33 had arrived with the help of mummy-daddy”. In a diverting passage on Indian school textbooks, he notes the resonant pan-Indian neologism “byhearting”, or committing to memory. One begins to feel that working on India has made an Indian of French. But this notion falls away when, interviewing one of the administrators of the famed dabbawalas of Mumbai, who declares he won't speak without a fee of Rs.5000, French asks for a receipt. Even so, India: A Portrait stands alongside the Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer’s Inhaling The Mahatma and the novelist MG Vassanji’s memoir A Place Within as the most linguistically rich and morally inquisitive books written by writers not native to India about India in recent years.

And an old post from 2008: "On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul".

Thursday, March 03, 2011

In Mumbai and Bangalore this weekend

I'll be speaking about "The Pleasures and Riches of Indian Literature" at the launches of my anthology India: A Traveller's Literary Companion in Mumbai tomorrow and in Bangalore on Saturday. In Bangalore, Anjum Hasan and Jayant Kaikini will read from their stories in the book.

The Mumbai event is at Crossword, Kemp's Corner, at 6.30 pm tomorrow, and the Bangalore event at Crossword, Residency Road at 7pm on Saturday. If you live in either of these cities, I hope you'll join me.

The introduction to the book is here, and an interview about fiction as a lens on landscape here.