Dec/Jan 2011

How He Sees It

For Orhan Pamuk, the novel is a visual medium

Adam Kirsch


The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures)

by Orhan Pamuk

translation by Nazim Dikbas

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"It was by taking novels seriously in my youth that I learned to take life seriously," writes Orhan Pamuk in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, a book based on the Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard in 2009. Fewer and fewer readers still seem to approach fiction in this spirit, not just as an entertainment but as a vale of soul-making, and the power of Pamuk's short book lies less in his theorizing about the novel than in his professions of faith in it. That faith is all the stronger, perhaps, because Pamuk—who won the Nobel Prize in 2006—did not discover his calling as a writer until relatively late. Starting at the age of seven, he writes, his "dream" was to be a painter, and it was not until twenty-two that he gave it up. This change coincided with a period of intense, almost monastic devotion to reading fiction, which he evokes in a Proustian passage at the beginning of the first lecture:

As I was slowly drawn into the world within the novel, I would realize that the shadows of the actions I had performed before opening the pages of the novel, sitting in my family's house in Beşiktaş¸ in Istanbul—the glass of water I had drunk, the conversation I'd had with my mother . . . —were slowly fading away. I would feel that the orange armchair I was sitting in, the stinking ashtray beside me, the carpeted room . . . were receding from my mind; and that a new world was revealing itself . . . sentence by sentence, in front of me.

Pamuk still believes that creating worlds is the novelist's real task and exploring them the best reason for reading fiction. But as any reader of his novels will know, he is also constantly aware of the fictiveness of his creations and of the difficulty of suspending disbelief. The title of the book, drawn from Schiller's classic essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry," suggests the division in Pamuk's own sensibility. Like many contemporary novelists, Pamuk envies the "naive" realism of "the nineteenth-century Balzacian novel," even as he disdains it. "Turkish novelists of the previous generation," who "wrote their novels so easily, and never worried about problems of style and technique," struck the young Pamuk as complacent, and he reacted against them by becoming what he calls a "sentimental-reflective novelist," who can "never forget that what we see is restricted by the novel's point of view." His novel My Name Is Red (2001) enacts this self-consciousness by telling its story from a number of unlikely perspectives—including those of inanimate objects and even that of the color red itself.

This kind of postmodern reflexivity is not new, of course, and anyone who has been exposed to narrative theory, or even read some Borges or Calvino, will be familiar with the issues Pamuk is talking about. In his epilogue, he writes that his models for these lectures were Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Lukács's Theory of the Novel, but Pamuk displays neither the theoretical rigor of the latter nor the urbane know-how of the former. What he offers instead are passionate intuitions about how novels should be read and written, couched in autobiographical and pragmatic terms: "The statement, 'That is how I have always done it!' could have been the subtitle of these lectures."

One of Pamuk's main contentions is that the importance of character in fiction has been greatly overestimated. "Let me be forthright," he writes: "People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels, especially in nineteenth and twentieth-century novels. I am fifty-seven years old as I write these words. I have never been able to identify in myself the kind of character I encounter in novels—or rather, European novels." That last qualification is significant, because Pamuk suggests that his mistrust of outsize literary characters is a reaction against the way earlier Turkish writers slavishly imitated the heroes they found in the English, French, and Russian classics: "Turkish critics of the 1950s and 1960s would proudly sing the praises of the provincial writers they admired by declaring, 'This novel shows that even in a poor Turkish village we may find a Hamlet or an Ivan Karamazov.'" By contrast, Pamuk boasts that in his own mature work, "I never titled any of my novels after its hero."

Pamuk's attack on character is, then, partly postcolonial in inspiration. Yet the irony is that his protest against the conventions of realism can itself seem provincial, behind the times. Balzacian realism may have been born in Paris, but so was the Barthesian critique of realism that killed it—S/Z appeared forty years ago, just at the time that the young Pamuk was immersing himself in the European classics. A similar distortion of perspective leads Pamuk to see contemporary American novelists as being far more self-assured, about both technique and audience, than they probably feel: "They take for granted the wealth and education of an established literary audience, feel little conflict over whom and what to portray, and—often a damning side-effect of this state of affairs—experience no anxiety about whom they write for, to what end, and why." There is a kind of reverse snobbery, as well as admiration, in this vision of American confidence. Yet in fact, the history of postwar American fiction could be written as a continual effort to expand the boundaries of "whom and what to portray" in serious literature: Some of the most celebrated novelists of the past fifty years, from Saul Bellow to Toni Morrison, have been self-consciously engaged in a struggle to bring excluded stories (of Jews, blacks, gays, immigrants) into the literary mainstream. And if even Jonathan Franzen, the best-selling realist, can be afflicted by doubts about whom he's writing for—as he has confessed in major essays for Harper's and the New Yorker—then the "anxiety" about audience that Pamuk mentions can hardly be foreign to American writers.

The corollary to Pamuk's denigration of character is his insistence that the novel is, or should be, essentially a visual medium. It makes sense that a writer who started out wanting to be a painter should think that "a novel exerts its influence on us mostly by addressing our visual intelligence—our ability to see things in our mind's eye and to turn words into mental pictures." Words, for Pamuk, are just vehicles for carrying those pictures from the writer's mind to the reader's, and writing is more a matter of l'image juste than le mot juste. "When I am writing a novel . . . the first step is always the formation of a picture, an image, in my mind." This essentially pictorial conception is at the heart of much contemporary fiction, in part because of the influence of film.

Yet as Pamuk acknowledges, there are great novelists who can't be read in this way—he names Dostoyevsky, but Austen is equally uninterested in visual specificity. Even Tolstoy, who can make us see things so simply and concretely, is not as strictly pictorial a writer as Pamuk suggests in his discussion of a scene in Anna Karenina, where Anna keeps interrupting her own reading to look out the window of her train carriage. "Tolstoy does not tell us what Anna's feelings are as she rides on the St. Petersburg train," he argues. "Instead, he paints pictures that help us to feel these emotions: the snow visible from the window on the left . . . the cold weather, and so on." But in fact, Tolstoy does tell us exactly what Anna's feelings are: "It was unpleasant for her to read" because "she wanted too much to live herself."

A novelist who exalts appearance and dismisses character might seem destined to view the novel itself as a kind of game, a play of illusions. Yet Pamuk continues to keep faith with his younger self in seeing the novel as a repository of truth, or even Truth. "Modern man reads and needs novels in order to feel at home in the world, because his relationship to the universe he lives in has been damaged," he writes, a formulation that makes the novelist what D. H. Lawrence called him: "superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher and the poet." We read novels to discover "a profound opinion or insight about life," which Pamuk calls "the center." Details earn their place in a novel "because they indicate a secret center, and the reader searches for this center while proceeding through the book." To read in this way—almost desperately, in search of the wisdom and aid we need to navigate our own lives—often seems like a dying discipline. Pamuk's book is a reminder that, without this almost metaphysical faith, great fiction can't be truly appreciated or written.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet.

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