Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Orhan Pamuk on readers and writers

[Did this review for The Hindu earlier this year]

In one of the essays that make up The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk mentions that after reading memoirs and conversing with other novelists, he came to realise that “compared to other writers, I put more effort into planning before I put pen to paper...I take somewhat greater care to divide a book into sections and structure it”.

This tone of this revelation is not self-congratulatory – it’s the tone of critical analysis, based on the understanding that there are different approaches to writing, each with its own strengths and limitations. If Pamuk takes some pride in his meticulousness, there are also times when he appears to express a melancholy envy for authors who are less self-conscious and to whom writing comes more easily.

The Nobel laureate’s repeated use of the words “naive” and “sentimental” in this book derives from Friedrich Schiller’s 18th century essay “Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung”, which distinguished between two types of poets: the “naive” ones who write spontaneously and unselfconsciously, almost as if they are being dictated to by an unseen power; and the “sentimental” ones who are painfully self-aware, reflective, questioning everything around them, including the artifice of their own writing. Novelists can be similarly classified, Pamuk proposes.

But it would be a mistake to think of this divide as a clear-cut one: the creative process is a mysterious and multilayered thing, in which “deliberate effort” and “natural, unforced talent” constantly overlap with and inform each other. For instance, if you read Pamuk’s own novels, you’ll probably agree that much of his work has a formal, cerebral quality that can have a distancing effect (an early book, The New Life, is a good example of this). But in the best of his writing – Snow and My Name is Red come immediately to mind – this quality coexists with an easy knack for humour, fluid use of language and a sense that the author succeeded in fully immersing himself in the world of his creating.

Of course, a novel hardly exists in isolation; it acquires a new life when readers respond to it, and readers can be categorised as naive and sentimental too. Extreme examples of the former are the literal-minded sorts who always read a text as an autobiography or as a disguised chronicle of the author’s experiences; on the other hand, there are completely sentimental-reflective readers who think all texts are constructs and fictions. “I must warn you to keep away from [both types of] people, because they are immune to the joys of reading novels,” writes Pamuk, tongue firmly in cheek. But somewhere between these two extremes lies the ideal reader, and as you turn the pages of
The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist you begin to think that Pamuk himself must be very close to being one such.

Among the many pleasures of reading a good novelist’s reflections on his art is the pleasure of discovering that this writer is himself a passionate and opinionated reader, and that he responds to certain books and authors in the same way as “ordinary” readers do.
Pamuk's descriptions of the effect that his favourite novels have had on him – “sometimes twilight would pervade and cover everything, the whole universe would become a single emotion and a single style” – are eloquent and moving. He uses great works of literature like Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick to illustrate important aspects of the reading and writing process (everyone, from Homer through Cervantes to Naipaul, is grist to his mill) and reflects on the novelist’s use of the tools available to him – character, plot, time and objects. What operations does the mind perform while we read, he asks. How do novels provide a rich second life for their readers? He also writes – somewhat enigmatically, not always with clarity – about the “secret centre” that a great novel should have, which the reader should – consciously or unconsciously – be seeking.

In such passages, some of Pamuk’s reflections can be arcane, especially if your level of engagement with literature isn’t as intense as his. But it’s a measure of the scope of this book that it allows this highbrow writer to show a charmingly down-to-earth side – when, for example, he compares the experience of following a soccer game on radio to reading a novel and transforming the writer’s words into mental pictures; or when he remarks that a reader like him has no hope of finding any kind of accessible meaning in James Joyce’s notoriously difficult novel Finnegan’s Wake.

Speaking of the artistic calling that he almost took up before becoming a full-time writer, Pamuk admits, “I have always felt more childlike and naive when I paint, and more adult and sentimental when I write novels.” It was as if – he says in a very revealing passage – he wrote novels only with his intellect, but produced paintings solely with his talent. However, he also reflects that with age and experience, he may have found “the equilibrium between the naive novelist and the sentimental novelist within me”. His best novels are certainly a testament to this, and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist is a good companion piece to them, a window into the mind of a very special writer and reader.

1 comment:

  1. Jai: This post does in a way answer the question I asked you-Do good writers depend on a formulaic aproach or do they depend on a flash of brilliance that helps them produce good works?

    My guess is that there are no easy answers to this. Like with everything else, writing requires effort, but at the same time, one cannot deny the creative aspect to the process.