Book Quote:

“I have been reading novels for forty years. I know there are many stances we can adopt toward the novel, many ways in which we commit out soul and mind to it, treating it lightly or seriously. And in just the same manner, I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel. We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fiber of our being.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (DEC 20, 2010)

The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, a collection of the 2009 Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard by Orhan Pamuk, is best described as a celebration of “our journey in this world, the lives we spend in cities, streets, houses, rooms, and nature, [that] consists of nothing but a search for meaning which may or may not exist.” More specifically, Pamuk takes his subject as the novel – the art of the novel – for “each sentence of a good novel evokes in us a sense of the profound, essential knowledge of what it means to exist in the world, and the nature of that sense.” While this may sound overwrought to some, to those of us who, like Pamuk, read voraciously, “even ecstatically,” there’s comfort in such passion; for us, this book is like having a drink with a long-missed friend.

The conceit of the book is a typography of temperaments borrowed from Friedrich Schiller’s essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. According to Pamuk’s gloss on Schiller, naïve poets write “spontaneously, almost without thinking, not bothering to consider the intellectual or ethical consequences of their words” while the sentimental poet–and here we should note that sentimentalisch encompasses a much broader conceptual range than the English word, sentimental, and so Pamuk wisely takes to renaming this type sentimental-reflective – is “thoughtful” and “troubled” and “exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the method and techniques he uses, the artifice involved in his endeavor.”  What’s important here is not so much whether the poetry (or for Pamuk’s purposes, the prose) flows from the pen in an uninterrupted stream of inspiration or whether the writer painstakingly deliberates over every word. The point is that the naïve novelist never doubts that words can adequately represent his fictional universe because meaning is immediate and incontrovertible for him. The sentimental-reflective novelist, on the other hand, is a bit of a brooder; he doubts not only validity of the meaning he invests in his world, but also his ability to express it at all.

However, I’d argue the distinction is really just a matter of perspective. Schiller, himself a sentimental poet, envied Goethe for, what seemed to Schiller, the ease with which Goethe was brilliant and at home in the world. Yet, I wonder if Goethe saw himself that way or if he was just as tormented and reflective as Schiller. But, no matter: Pamuk is only concerned with these distinctions in so far as they can inform us as to what happens when we read a novel. And while Pamuk, ever the sentimental-reflective novelist, admits to a similar envy of the light burden borne by naïve novelists, by the end of the book, he sounds much like a naïve novelist himself.

Novel reading involves a precarious triadic relationship between protagonist, author and reader. How these three pillars affect how a novel is experienced is loosely explored in the first three lectures: What Our Minds Do When We Read Novels; Mr. Pamuk, Did All This Really Happen To You? ; Literary Character, Plot and Time. While the details of a novel’s landscape are representations of a protagonist’s psychology – what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative” –the particular way of depicting those details are peculiar to an author and his or her personal experience (or imaginative capacity). At the same time, a reader encountering this author-protagonist shaped world must rebuild the world in her mind’s-eye and the shape of that world will hang on her own personal experience (or imaginative capacity). And if it wasn’t enough that the experience of a novel depends on three psychologies, different readers will have different experiences of the same book. And yet, amid all this subjectivity, the experience of a novel is hung on a perceptible, if somewhat elusive, essence that Pamuk calls the novel’s “center.”

However, before exploring the center of a novel and its relationship to the protagonist-author-reader triad, Pamuk devotes much of the fourth lecture (Words, Pictures and Objects) to consideration of the fascinating phenomenon of ekphrasis, the representation of visual art – paintings, sculptures etc. – through words. In the age of Internet, we take for granted that most people know what the Mona Lisa looks like even if they’ve never stood behind that velvet rope with the cellphone-camera waving crowds at the Louvre. But before the wide-spread distribution of photographs, and before travel became relatively fast, people relied on verbal descriptions (and perhaps rudimentary sketches) of masterpieces by those that had gone before them. The question becomes: is it actually possible to translate visual experience into words? And if so, what is my mind’s-eye visualization in relation to the original visual experience? Is something lost in the visual-verbal-visual transmission, like photograph digitized and then printed again?

Pamuk doesn’t set out to answer (or even really raise) these questions because this is a subject close to his heart; here we see him in his naïve aspect, content to assume that those distinct, irreducible moments (analogous to landscape paintings) that, according to him, make up a novel can be adequately painted with words. For Pamuk, the creative urge, itself, comes from “the thrill of expressing visual things with words.”

Here, I have to question the primacy Pamuk places on the visual. Pamuk argues that visual writers, writers who “impress us by filling our mind with indelible images, visions, landscapes and objects,” influence and effect us more than verbal writers, writers who impress us with “words, with the course of the dialogue, with the paradoxes and thoughts the narrator is exploring.”  Yet, some of the writers that have affected me most powerfully – Milan Kundera, Jose Saramago, Jean-Paul Sartre, along with Pamuk’s own example, Doestoevsky – could only be considered verbal writers. On the other hand, I have never read anyone (and still read!) as ecstatically as I read Tolstoy, a quintessentially visual writer.

Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of Pamuk’s fascination with objects and their descriptions is explored in his fifth lecture (Museums and Novels). Here, he describes his search for the real-life objects featured in The Museum of Innocence (interestingly, Pamuk is working on establishing an actual museum in Istanbul to house these objects). It seems like a strange undertaking at first glance, but as he describes the heart-breaking insufficiency that accompanies the unsettling realization that a novel we devoted much mental energy to is imaginary – and the “more powerful and persuasive the novel, the more painful the insufficiency” –his museum starts to look less like a self-indulgent, meta-fictional, art installation and more like an admirable attempt to reduce the suffering of his readers; by exhibiting the objects featured in the novel , readers can be reassured: at least some it actually exists.

But as we fill our homes with objects in order to give the meaning we invest in our lives tangible representation, The Museum of Innocence objects sublimate the experience of that novel, and its meaning, into something palpable. The sixth, and final lecture (The Center), sets out to describe this mysterious meaning of a novel. Of this center, he writes: “The center of a novel is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” While a novel’s center is as difficult to describe as it is to find, Pamuk tells us it is the “intuition, thought or knowledge” that motivates the creation of the novel. It’s born of the mystery the author wishes to explore before he sets outs. And just as the real pleasure of writing is pinning down an emerging novel’s ever-shifting center – figuring out really what it’s all about, for as E.M. Forster said, “How can I know what I think until I say it?” – the real pleasure of reading is the search for this center. But, as in life, the novel doesn’t readily give up its mysteries, and so part of the thrill of reading (and re-reading) is that the reader’s never sure to figure it out.

Chock full of literary examples and written with a real love and respect for the power of books to enhance and inform our lives, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of the novel. Conversational in tone, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is less comprehensive than Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster, less gruff than The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and less microanalysis than How Fictions Works by James Wood. However, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is well-deserving of a spot on the shelf beside these indispensable classics on the art of the novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (November 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction, y Award Winning Author

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