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“Mr. Pamuk, did all this really happen to you?”

By Geoff Wisner

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, translated from the Turkish by Nazim Dikba, is based on a series of lectures delivered at Harvard by Orhan Pamuk as part of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lecture series.

Pamuk seems to have had a good time writing this book:

In 2009, after air flights in Rajasthan were canceled as a result of the global economic crisis, I traveled with Kiran Desai in a hired car across the golden-hued desert between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. On the way, amid the heat of the desert, I reread Schiller’s essay and was filled with the vision — almost a mirage — of writing this book. I wrote these lectures in Goa, in Istanbul, in Venice (while I was teaching at Ca’ Foscari University), in Greece (in a rented house across from the island of Spetses), and in New York. They assumed their final form in Widener Library at Harvard University, and in Stephen Greenblatt’s book-filled home in Cambridge.

As this note suggests, the key concepts of the book derive from the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” But neither “naive” nor “sentimental” means what we are accustomed to think it means.

To begin with, neither word is used pejoratively, as we almost always use them. To Schiller and Pamuk, “naive” signifies a direct and unsophisticated relationship to a novel or other work of art, either as the creator or the appreciator. As for “sentimental,” says Pamuk, “It suffices for us to note that Schiller uses the word sentimentalisch to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature’s simplicity and power and become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.” As Pamuk himself uses it, the emotion mostly falls away and “sentimental” means more or less “analytical” — the approach to literature by a well-trained graduate student in comp. lit, for instance.

As a rather cerebral writer, Pamuk shows a surprising appreciation for the (often) naive approach of the novel reader as opposed to the (usually) more analytical approach of the professional writer. The first of these lectures, “What Our Minds Do When We Read Novels,” begins with these words:

Novels are second lives. Like the dreams that the French poet Gérard de Nerval speaks of, novels reveal the colors and complexities of our lives and are full of people, faces, and objects we feel we recognize. Just as in dreams, when we read novels we are sometimes so powerfully struck by the extraordinary nature of the things we encounter that we forget where we are and envision ourselves in the midst of the imaginary events and people we are witnessing.

The confusion of novels and “real life,” Pamuk argues, is not a fallacy but the essence of literature. “We search for the novel’s secret center with utmost attention,” he writes later — a secret center that could be described as an insight or understanding about our lives.

This approach leads Pamuk to be sympathetic to the “naive” questions and ideas of his readers, like the one that he makes the title of his second lecture: “Mr. Pamuk, Did All This Really Happen to You?”

It’s okay, he tells us, to wonder if the author of a book had the actual experiences of his character. It’s okay to want to visit the places where the events of the novel supposedly took place. It’s okay to collect objects that remind you of literary characters (as Pamuk himself did for the characters of his novel The Museum of Innocence.) It’s even okay — for instance, while reading Anna Karenina — to be thinking in the back of our minds, “Look at me, I’m reading a classic of world literature!”

I am still mulling over one of Pamuk’s contentions, that the big bold characters of classic novels are an artificial construct of the European novel-writing tradition — that in fact there are no Anna Kareninas and Oliver Twists and Emma Bovarys, and never were.

Since I believe that the essential aim of the art of the novel is to present an accurate depiction of life, let me be forthright. 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.

Maybe so. But then, the lives of writers are notoriously more sedate than those of their characters. As Flaubert wrote, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Having said that, there are writers like Dostoyevsky and Malcolm Lowry and Yukio Mishima whose lives were as strange and dramatic as the characters they created. And modern life continues to toss up individuals so peculiar that few novelists could have imagined them.

Pamuk may also be overlooking the dramatic and symbolic nature of literary characters. People in novels may not behave as we do ourselves, or as we see other people doing. But they express in their actions the turbulent emotions, impulses, and fantasies that most of us keep inside, and in this way they have their own reality.

Published Jun 6, 2011   Copyright 2011 Geoff Wisner

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