Reviewed by Rob Spence
Orhan Pamuk, Nobel laureate, is the kind of public intellectual that we need to cherish, especially in these dark days for his homeland, Turkey. This reissue of his 2011 book, based on his Charles Eliot Norton lectures delivered at Harvard in 2009, is a welcome addition to the now somewhat old-fashioned genre of guides for the intelligent lay-person. This is, to be sure, a book of literary criticism, but it does not indulge in incomprehensible academic jargon, and manages the delicate trick of offering genuine insight about a topic that has been covered many times.
Pamuk’s title derives from Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” Schiller, writing at the height of Romanticism, wanted to make a distinction between those writers who write spontaneously and unselfconsciously, inspired by whatever they feel, and those who stand somewhat at a distance, and are capable of a critical self-awareness of their status as writers as they write. Pamuk applies this distinction to both writers and readers, coming to the conclusion that most novelists, and most readers, adopt an approach that is a kind of hybrid of Schiller’s poles.
Because the book is a document of the lecture series, we are presented with a sequence of short chapters, each dealing with a particular aspect of the novel — indeed, Pamuk nods his appreciation to his Norton predecessor E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – which is then examined, often using classic European texts as a model. Pamuk is particularly fond of Anna Karenina, which he calls, unequivocally, “the greatest novel of all time” and returns frequently to the scene where the heroine is returning home at night by train, having met Vronsky for the first time. This passage acts as a touchstone for much of Pamuk’s exploration of his subject, which otherwise wanders down some unexpected pathways.
One section, entitled “Mr Pamuk, did all this really happen to you?” explores the naïve readerly assumption that the novel is necessarily autobiographical. Pamuk playfully inserts his own persona into his exploration of this assumption, giving us a charming portrait of his adolescence and early adulthood in Istanbul as a book-hungry and somewhat geeky young man. He also suggests that his early novel-reading experience was formative: “it was by reading novels seriously in my youth that I learned to take life seriously.” This correlation between reading and life (which is not in itself a particularly original notion) is explored thoroughly in the book, and, given the current situation in Pamuk’s native country, his words from a few years ago have a piercing resonance now:
Literary novels persuade us to take life seriously by showing that we have in fact the power to influence events and that our personal decisions shape our lives. In closed or semi-closed societies where choice is restricted, the art of the novel remains underdeveloped. But whenever the art of the novel does develop in these societies, it invites people to examine their lives, and it achieves this by presenting meticulously constructed literary narratives about individuals’ personal traits, sensations, and decisions. When we leave aside traditional narratives and begin to read novels, we come to feel that our own world and our choices can be as important as historical events, international wars, and the decisions of kings, pashas, armies, governments and gods – and that, even more remarkably, our sensations and thoughts have the potential to be far more interesting than any of these. As I devoured novels in my youth, I felt a breathtaking sense of freedom and self-confidence.
Pamuk’s elevation of the literary narrative to such a position will be questioned by some of his readers, no doubt, but he justifies it in his entertaining ramble around the topic. At the heart of his argument is what he repeatedly calls the “landscape” of the novel, the materials and techniques that the author brings to bear in order to present the narrative. Pamuk offers some insightful commentary on the ways in which some of his personal pantheon of authors work. He uses Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and the great Russians of the late nineteenth century as his exemplars. What is perhaps more enlightening than these passages are the ones, particularly in the closing chapters, where Pamuk demonstrates his own approach to writing, most notably in a section which describes the eccentric method by which he composed The Museum of Innocence.
Finally, Pamuk suggests that both reader and author are engaged in a search for the “centre” (or “center” as the spelling is resolutely American throughout). This is the mysterious core of meaning that all great novels must have. Try as he might, he cannot quite articulate what that centre is, and perhaps that is what makes us so endlessly fascinated by fictional narrative.
Rob Spence writes about books and other things at robspence.org.uk
Orhan Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels (Faber, 2016). 978-0571326136, 200pp., paperback.
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