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.

1 comment:

Aditya Mani Jha said...

Firstly,I don't think Anna Karenina is even the greatest novel written by Tolstoy. :P

Secondly, terrific piece... really excited about this book.. Pamuk's other non-fiction works, "Istanbul" and the essays in "Other Colors" are as stimulating as his novels. The formal clarity and intricacy of structure of both "My Name Is Red" and "Snow" (remember the "snowflake" poems?) is scary good at times... Pamuk would be the man to talk about what makes a novel "tick", I guess..

And finally, thanks a ton for your article in my campus mag Scholars' Avenue (IIT Kharagpur) :)