Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist - Orhan Pamuk

I have to confess - I hadn't actually read any of Pamuk's books before I began reading this one. I started reading The White Castle once (a gift from a friend), but gave up half way because it was so damn boring and I couldn't understand a thing. 

This book was actually born as a series of lectures that Pamuk gave. I suppose it's because of that that the tone is lightly conversational. He quotes extensively from his favourite books and authors, and also from his own books. 

The novel is divided into six chapters, each representing one of the six lectures that he gave as part of the series. Of these, the last four chapters may be seen by aspiring novelists as advice of some sort. 

The third chapter is on character, plot and time. Contrary to received wisdom, Pamuk says that the author should not allow characters to dictate where the novel goes. In fact, he says, characters are just products of the narrative. They are formed by the landscape, by the plot, by the things that happen to them. The novelist must try to get into the shoes of each of her characters, and see the world through the character's eyes.

He also says that a plot is just a sequences of points, of "nerve endings", of critical moments in the novel. Similarly time may either be objective or subjective. The novelist may choose to let the readers have an objective view of time, by setting the actions against real life events that we know happened. Or, the timeline may be seen through the subjective eyes of the protagonists - and their perception may not be accurate.

The fourth chapter is on words, pictures and objects. Pamuk used to be a painter. He enjoyed painting - it was something that came naturally to him. But at the age of twenty-three, he decided to give up painting and become a writer instead. Perhaps this former association is the reason he repeatedly uses the metaphor of painting throughout the book.

He differentiates between visual writers and verbal writers. Visual writers are the ones who are able to form pictures through their words. They convey strong images to the reader. The reader visualizes the story as a series of images. Whereas verbal writers are the ones who appeal to the reader through narratives, through facts rather than images.

Pamuk claims that all writers are jealous of painters. Painters, you see, have the ability to step back from their painting at any time and view it from a fresh perspective. Writers don't have that luxury. Not unless they stop writing and start re-reading their book from the beginning. Writers must struggle on, lost amongst the words that form the endless forest of their novels.

His obsession with museums finds a mention in the fifth chapter. Novels, he says, are like museums. While museums are dedicated to preserving objects, novels help us preserve our everyday life, our conversations, our likes and dislikes, our society, our culture.

The sixth chapter deals with the 'center' of the novel. "The center of the novel," he says, "is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined." Each novel has a center, and the reader reads the novel in an attempt to find this center. The writer may know the center before starting the novel, or the center may be found during the course of writing the novel.

In relation to this, he states an interesting theory about why we read novels. Even the most secular of us reads novels in order to find the meaning of life (and by novels he is talking about literary novels, of course). In our real life, we are unable to find meaning, a center. But by finding the center of novels, we are able to feel a sense of achievement, as if we have found the meaning of life!
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4 comments:

Soul of The Violin said...

Do read My name is Red :) :) A request

Hameed said...

Awesome book this, has made me a different reader. These days I am acutely aware of my need to find the center of a novel. Novels have begun affecting me more profoundly than life events. My reading has become slow and deliberate. More than anything, I think it has made me more insecure about my writing, I fear it lacks a soul, a center.

Devika Rajeev said...

@Anuj: Have heard Snow is the best of them? Will try - I'm apprehensive about getting through it! :D

@Hameed: Hmm... I wasn't so affected by it. Maybe because I was looking it more from the writer's perspective than the reader's. But the insecurity thing - I agree. It requires so much effort to write!

Rahul said...

Have finished reading the book. Indeed, it is a great piece of writing about writing, especially the art of the novel. The strength of this book is that it gives precise words to feelings that we as readers have always experienced while reading novels but have never expressed. The first and the last chapters are especially relevant in this sense, as they are also reflections of a great craftsman at work who has attempted to lay bare the finer details of his craft. Those who are familiar with the writers and works that Pamuk uses to explain his views shall find the book more endearing. Indeed, a great book.