Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mr. Pamuk, are you a naive novelist or a sentimental one?

The title of Orhan Pamuk's 2009 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, comes, as he explains in his first lecture, from Friedrich Schiller's essay, "Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung" (On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, 1795-1796). The word 'sentimental' here is a false friend, as Pamuk explains. In Schiller's essay it is intended 'to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature's simplicity and power and has become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.' Pamuk writes about how Schiller had envied what he saw as Goethe's effortless brilliance -- his naivety -- which he saw in contrast to his own more complex tendency to think too much. Pamuk then goes on to reflect:

While reading "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" thirty years ago, I too -- just like Schiller raging at Goethe  -- complained of the naive, childlike nature of Turkish novelists of the previous generation. They wrote their novels so easily, and never worried about problems of style and technique. And I applied the word "naive" (which I increasingly used in a negative sense) not only to them but to writers all over the world who regarded the nineteenth-century Balzacian novel as a natural entity and accepted it without question. (p.18)

Surprisingly, then, in his Epilogue to the lectures, Pamuk writes:

When I was in my twenties and first read the essay by Schiller that informs this book, I wanted to become a naive writer. Back then, in the 1970s, the most popular and influential Turkish novelists wrote semi-political, semi-poetic novels that took place in rural settings and small villages. In those days, becoming a naive writer whose stories were set in the city, in Istanbul, seemed a difficult goal to achieve. Since I delivered these lectures at Harvard, I have been repeatedly asked, "Mr. Pamuk, are you a naive novelist or a sentimental one?" I would like to emphasize that, for me, the ideal state is one in which the novelist is naive and sentimental at the same time. (p. 189)

Which Pamuk do we believe, the one who speaks first or the one that writes afterwards? Or perhaps there is only the classic Pamuk predicament: that while he thought he despised these naive, childlike writers, all along he just wanted to become one of them -- that he wanted to become somebody else.

Friday, February 25, 2011

As I prepare to transform my thoughts into words

It is interesting that, according to his lectures published in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, the visual is so important to Orhan Pamuk, not only in the writing of his own novels but of the form, as he sees it, in general:

Here is one of my strongest opinions: novels are essentially visual literary fictions. 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. (p. 92) 

Certainly his own process of composition, as he describes it, would seem to bear this out:

When I write a chapter, a scene, or a small tableau (you see that the vocabulary of painting comes naturally to me!), I first see it in detail in my mind's eye. For me, writing is the process of visualizing that particular scene, that picture. I gaze out of the window as much as I look down at the page I am writing on with a fountain pen. As I prepare to transform my thoughts into words, I strive to visualize each scene like a film sequence, and each sentence like a painting. ( p. 93 - 94) 
Many of his novels -- at least those that have been translated into English -- do have a strong visual character. Here I am thinking of My Name is Red and The White Castle -- especially of its final, elliptical scene -- moments in Snow and, similarly, moments in The New Life -- where certain very visual images (particularly of objects) resonate throughout the writing -- as is also the case in his most recent novel, The Museum of Innocence, which might have been constructed, or at least yearned to have been constructed, out of the objects or images of these objects alone.

What is most fascinating about his stated opinion in these lectures is that Orhan Pamuk sees the visual primarily in terms of landscape painting. 'Most novelists,' he declares in his first lecture, 'sense that reading the opening  pages of a novel is akin to entering a landscape painting.' And, in the fourth: 'looking at a landscape painting is much like reading a novel.' From both these lectures and his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City, we learn that, in his youth, before turning to writing, Pamuk had wanted to be an artist: in fact, a landscape artist. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that he should see what he is doing in these terms. Snow, which he has described elsewhere as his first and only political novel, begins with a visual description of the landscape passed in a journey through a blizzard between Erzurum and Kars. After all, as Pamuk writes on the opening page, 'our traveller [had] glued his eyes to the window next to him.'

In all his novels, however, the voice of the narrator and/or the protagonist soon presses further forwards of any suggested landscape: the narrative moving quickly into the nebulous no-place and often distorting obsessions of the mind. The narrator interrupts Ka's journey in Snow with his reflections as soon as the eyes at the window have fallen asleep. On the first page of The Black Book, after a brief evocation of the streets of Istanbul, the narrator writes that Galip 'wanted to explore in full sunlight the willows, the acacias, the climbing rose in the enclosed garden of Rüya's tranquil sleep' and thus begins a labyrinthine journey through the obsessions of Galip and everyone he meets during his search for his wife in the landscape of Istanbul which he both sees and fails to see for itself. Even in My Name is Red -- which is the novel significant, as Pamuk claims in his Epilogue, for being the one during which he 'developed [his] ideas on the visual aspects of narration', the opening chapter 'I am a corpse' enlarges more upon the obsessions whirling around and through the rotting head of the corpse than the well or the landscape around it where, we have been told, the corpse has been thrown.

Significantly, the one novel of his, at least in English, that Pamuk doesn't get round to mentioning in the course of these lectures is the novel which promoted him to bestseller status in Turkey, although not yet in the West: The New Life: a novel whose intense, forward moving narrative blurs the division between scenes and suggests less a sequence of tableaux -- and much less a film in any conventional sense -- than the somnambulant obsessions and gothic distortions of dreams. 

For the record, it is also interesting to remember that this book, as we learn in Pamuk's Other Colours: Essays and a Story, was conceived and written, as if to provide some respite, during the two year hiatus it created in the writing of his more consciously visual novel -- at least in its intentions: My Name is Red.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The vivid illusion that the world has a center and a meaning

In the recent publication of Orhan Pamuk's 2009 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, he writes that when he was starting out as a novelist in his twenties, he was somewhat intimidated by the importance and role given to the notion of 'character' in E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, where the character of the protagonist with all his or her peculiar and artificial quirks is supposed to determine every other aspect of the novel, including the plot:

I sensed that human character was not nearly as important in real life as Forster said it was in literature. But I would then go on to think: If it's important in novels, it must be important in life too -- after all, I don't know much about life. [Pamuk's italics, p. 64]

It was only as he experienced more of life, and as he wrote his novels, that he found that despite aspiring to create great memorable characters such as Anna Karenina, it wasn't the peculiarities of character which interested him. Character, he discovered, was greatly over-rated. Pamuk explains that this view of character -- a view which is based on a highly artificial construction, and yet has, as he writes, 'aspects bordering on the mystical'  -- has come to dominate creative writing courses, where students are often taught lists of rules and dumped with assumptions that no one has thought to question. In the Epilogue to this collection of lectures he returns to these courses that seem to run on the edge of things, making do with the leavings of others: describing how Forster's book 'has been dropped from the syllabus in university English departments and exiled to creative-writing programs, where writing is treated as a craft and not as a spiritual and philosophical act' -- whether 'real or imagined,' he might have added, as he later describes the 'center' which, for Pamuk, turns out to constitute the generative heart of the literary novel.

One of the most carefully developed ideas in this series of his lectures is this one that literary novels, as distinct from genre novels -- whose purpose, it seems, is to make us feel at home -- are written to both suggest and conceal that they have a secret centre from which viewpoint the entire novel can be understood. Returning to Aspects of the Novel towards the end of the series, he uses Forster's idea of a guiding principle to investigate this aspect of literary fiction that he feels has been neglected by both literary critics and historians:
I have taken issue with E. M. Forster's idea -- the popular notion that, as the novel is written, the major characters take over and dictate its course. But if we must believe in a mysterious element in the writing process, it would be more appropriate to believe it is the center that takes over the novel. Just as the sentimental-reflective reader goes through the novel trying to guess exactly where the center is, the experienced novelist goes along knowing that the center will gradually emerge as he writes, and that the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his work will be finding this center and bringing it into focus. (p.157)
There is, he writes, no single centre to a novel; he even writes that this centre can be a masterful illusion:

The greatest literary novels -- such as Anna Karenina, In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, and The Waves -- are indispensable to us because they create the hope and the vivid illusion that the world has a center and a meaning, and because they give us joy by sustaining this impression as we turn their pages. (p.173)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

While thinking that work will never get done

At the end of his speech for the awarding of the Georg Büchner Prize, Thomas Bernhard, who would have turned eighty today (Austrian time), had he both decided and been able to live that long, writes:

The problem is always to get work done while thinking that work will never get done and nothing will ever get done... The question is: to go on, heedless of the consequences, to go on, or to stop, to call it a day... it is the question of doubt, of mistrust and impatience. (Bernhard's ellipses)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dracula and the iPhone

In chapter two of Bram Stoker's Dracula, we read the following description given to the eponymous Count of the estate in England he is purchasing through the young English solicitor's clerk, Jonathan Harker:

The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to mediaeval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep, and is close to an old chapel or church. I could not enter it, as I had not the key of the door leading to it from the house, but I have taken with my Kodak views of it from various points.

The notes at the back of the book explained that Kodak was 'a trademark name for the portable photographic camera invented by George Eastman in 1888 which has a continuous roll of sensitised film upon which successive negatives are made.'

According to David Roger's introduction to the novel, Bram Stoker first began taking notes for the book that came to be known as Dracula in 1890 -- that is, only two years after this version of the camera was invented. The novel was finished in 1896 and published the following year. Dracula abounds with relatively new technologies: journal entries are dictated onto phonograph (which, the notes tell us, was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877) and transcribed onto portable typewriters (which Jonathan's wife Mina praises as a very handy invention). The young solicitor's clerk writes his own entries in shorthand when incarcerated in Dracula's castle to escape the diabolical but traditionally schooled intelligence of the Count.

Even so, the Kodak stood out as I read the book, and not least for the reason that it has no real role in the plot. Jonathan Harker tells the Count that he has taken photos of the English estate with this Kodak, but there are no explicit references to these photos: it is not even clear that he brought them with him. The only relevant images referred to directly in the castle are maps. Jonathan, too, might have taken his Kodak along on his journey to Transylvania, but if he had he must not have got round to developing the photos, since we learn later in the novel that the characters find their way through Dracula's native country by following the descriptions transcribed from Jonathan's shorthand account of his first visit.

A collision of the very new with the ancient and little understood seems to be very much at the centre of the Gothic.

From googling, I have learned that the iPhone was released in mid 2007 -- that is, only three and half years ago. I've been thinking it's possible that, if Stoker had been working on Dracula now, he might have had Jonathan taking photos on his iPhone and, forgetting to upload them onto his computer or to print them out before his journey, finding that his iPhone battery has run out in the castle (which is still many centuries behind) and so, being unable either to show the Count the pictures of the English estate or to take photos of where he is for future reference, has him writing in phone text abbreviations in his boss's once trendy Filofax that is now little more than a leather-bound collection of dog-eared shopping lists for the firm -- very glad that this late 1980s bit of pre-computer equipment can come to his aid when all else fails.