SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Analysing the novel
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
Orhan Pamuk: Quicksilver intellect.
At the Jaipur Literary Festival I was one of the couple of hundred people who could not get a seat to listen to Orhan Pamuk in the crowded front lawns of Diggi Palace. It was even better I thought, a sort of sweet penance, to actually stand through the hour on the sidelines to listen to an admired author in person. It was all fine till we came to the Q&A. A few lucky ones were selected from the sea of hands that rose from the audience. And like a trained handler of large audiences, Pamuk bit into each one of them, cutting them short, rephrasing their questions impatiently, hurrying on to the next. One somewhat long-winded but patently sincere questioner was waved disdainfully into stammering silence. Perhaps Pamuk did not intend to be rude at all and I am certainly not suggesting that there was a touch of Ottoman arrogance about it. Perhaps it was only a combination of his somewhat didactic manner, his heavily deliberated sentences and a quicksilver intellect, eager to get on with things. In any case, the spell was broken and I found myself wishing that at least I should have been seated.
Nevertheless, I picked up his latest book, though I could not muster up the courage to have it signed by him. The Naïve and The Sentimental Novelist contains Pamuk's brilliant Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 2009 and is modelled on the tradition set by E.M. Forster'sAspects of the Novel and The Theory of the Novel by Hungarian critic Gyorgy Lukacs. Reading it, several other immensely readable works by novelists on the art and craft of fiction came to mind: John Gardner's essays, Irving Wallace's The Writing of a Novel and John Steinbeck'sJournal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. In Pamuk's lectures the words “naïve” and “sentimental” are not used as ordinarily understood in English. The analogy is drawn from an 18th century essay by the German poet Schiller: “Naïve poets are one with nature; in fact, they are like nature-calm, cruel and wise. They write poetry spontaneously, almost without thinking, not bothering to consider the intellectual or ethical consequences of their words and paying no attention to what others might say…….the sentimental (emotional, reflective) poet is uneasy….so he is exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses, the artifice involved in his endeavour.” Pamuk extends this analogy, and deepens it in the process, to novelists and novel readers, analysing the processes that go into reading a novel - following the narrative, absorbing the atmosphere, wondering how much is real and how much imagined, searching for what he calls its “secret center” - and in constructing it. The result is a fluent 200 pages on his literary craft and absorbing reflections on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce and Mann.
In his lecture titled “Mr. Pamuk, did all this really happen to you?”, the author addresses that question that every writer faces from his readers, the question that forced Flaubert to exclaim, when repeatedly asked who Madame Bovary was modelled on: “I am Madame Bovary.” While Pamuk says clearly that he is not Kemal, the hero of his huge novel The Museum of Innocence, he is also aware that it is impossible to convince readers of this fact and also that partially he wants readers to believe that he is Kemal. The novelist expresses his own experience, his way of seeing things, through the experience and the reactions of his characters and it is this power that brings the text to life in the imagination of the reader. When a perceptive reader tells Pamuk: “I know you so well, you'd be surprised,” he is overcome with guilt and embarrassment. It was not the writer's factual details or even his personal habits and views that the reader was referring to but “a deeper, more intimate, more secret thing.” Pamuk realises that the reader had come to know his sensory experiences: “how I feel when I inhale the scent of rain-soaked earth, when I get drunk in a noisy restaurant, when I touch my father's false teeth after his death, when I regret that I am in love, when I get away with a small lie I have told……” and it is this knowledge of intimacy that embarrasses him in front of the reader. This ambiguity between the real and imagined is but one of the fascinating characteristics that makes the novel the unsurpassable genre that it is and it is clear that the more the novelist succeeds in blending his naïve and his sentimental sides, the better the novel.
Pamuk also takes head-on the issue of character against plot. “Novelists do not first invent a protagonist with a very special soul, and then get pulled along, according to the wishes of this figure, into specific subjects or experiences. The desire to explore particular topics comes first. Only then do novelists conceive the figures who would be most suitable for elucidating these topics.” The plot is nothing but a line that connects several thousands of small points, “large or small spheres of energy” or what Nabokov called “nerve endings” that make up the novel. Each of these nerve endings, even if they be a mere description of landscape, or the snowflakes outside Anna Karenina's train window, “should be an extension of the emotional, sensual and psychological world of the protagonists.”
As I finished reading these fascinating lectures, including his ruminations on the similarity between novels and museums — his actual Museum of Innocence is nearing completion in Istanbul — I realised I like meeting Orhan Pamuk on the written page. I only wish I had managed to slip him a note on the crowded front lawns in Jaipur saying that it is the readers, be they naïve, sentimental or occasionally long-winded, who make the writer.