Saturday, February 12, 2011

Novel Musings

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur. That these disparate works can be classified under the common heading of a novel speaks volumes of the form’s chameleon-like nature. This is one of the reasons that, as Orhan Pamuk points out in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, it has become our dominant literary form: “Now, in every corner of the world, the vast majority of those who want to express themselves though literature write novels”.

It would take a brave soul, then, to “explore the effect that novels have on their readers, how novelists work, and how novels are written”. This is what Pamuk attempts in the six essays that make up this volume, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he delivered in Harvard in 2009. The title is derived from an 18th century essay by German litterateur Friedrich Schiller, “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”.

As Pamuk points out, Schiller’s use of the words “naïve” and “sentimental” differ from the ways in which we use them. “Naïve poets are one with nature….They write poetry spontaneously… [and] have no doubt that they will adequately and thoroughly describe and reveal the meaning of the world”. In contrast, the sentimental writer is emotional and reflective: “he is unsure whether his words will encompass reality….So he is extremely aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses, and the artifice involved in his endeavour”.  After more than three decades of being a novelist, Pamuk writes, he’s managed to find equilibrium between his naïve and sentimental sides. (Certainly, it’s instructive to re-read his The Museum of Innocence keeping this in mind.)

Things become woolly, however, when he elaborates on his conception of a novel’s “centre”: “a profound opinion of insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined”. Every novel, he says, has such a centre: the act of writing becomes a way to crystallize it, and that of reading, a way to uncover it. How this centre is different from what’s referred to as a novel’s theme or subject is not touched upon, and such musings leave one more mystified than enlightened.

Pamuk is more sure-footed when he updates E.M. Forster’s classic definition of flat and round characters in fiction. “People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels,” he says. “Furthermore, human character is not nearly as important in the shaping of our lives as it is made out to be in the novels and literary criticism of the West”. This is one of the few instances where Pamuk moves away from the verities of the novel in its 19th century realist avatar, one we are in thrall to till today.

With numerous references and allusions peppered through these lectures, what shines through is the dedication and passion of Pamuk, the reader. The excitement and insight with which he speaks of some of his favourite authors – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among others – is palpable. There is the additional pleasure of tracing how his reading informed his own journey as a novelist, from the traditional template of Cevdet Bey to the more experimental My Name is Red to an alliance of the two in The Museum of Innocence. Other personal reflections find a place too, some of which he’s touched upon earlier in his Istanbul and in his Nobel lecture. His decision to give up painting for writing in his early 20s, for instance, and how this led him to conceive of the novelist’s art as a form of painting with words.

Art, Picasso once said, is a lie that tells the truth. The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is a pleasant and informed excursion into the lies and truth of the novelist’s art.

No comments: