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)

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