Orhan Pamuk
Harvard University Press ($22.95)

by Spencer Dew

In the 2009 Norton Lectures at Harvard, collected in this volume, Orhan Pamuk articulates what he calls “the most important things I know and have learned about the novel,” exploring issues of form and technique but also the ethical and political functions of literature. He frames his theories through the notion of “a center,” “a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined,” acting as a core to both the process of constructing and the practice of reading novels. “Novelists write in order to investigate this locus, to discover its implications, and we are aware that novels are read in the same spirit,” he says.

Such universalizing claims are, Pamuk says, rooted in a kind of humanism, a “Montaigne-like optimism,” the “belief that if I frankly discuss my own experience of writing novels, and what I do when I write and read novels, then I will be discussing all novelists and the art of the novel in general.” While explicitly autobiographical—he stitches, for instance, his developing notions of the novel to specific experiments performed in the crafting of each of his books—The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist is also invested in exploring the divide between novelistic practice in “the West” and novelistic practice in what Pamuk terms “closed or semi-closed societies.” He argues that the ethical and political values of the novel are more immediate and more revolutionary in these “closed” settings as opposed to in the “naïve” West, where novels have become just another commodity, another entertainment in both production and consumption.

Pamuk’s title comes from Friedrich Schiller’s distinction between naïve and sentimental poets, one Pamuk reworks into a divide between those writers and readers “who are not at all concerned with the artificial aspects of writing and reading and a novel”—the “naïve”—and those “readers and writers who are fascinated by the artificiality of the text and its failure to attain reality”—the “reflective”—though one use of these categories is to advance the argument that the ideal, for a novelist, is “being both naïve and reflective at the same time.” It is here where social context comes into play. Pamuk, a Turkish citizen, speaks from within one of those “closed or semi-closed societies, where individual choice is restricted.” In such “closed” societies, novelists are struggling to answer questions about method and meaning for existing in the world, while in the West, novelists are characterized by the “lack of constraint, for the confidence and ease with which they write—in short, for their naïveté,” Pamuk argues that this is a result of “the recognition shared by writers and readers that they belong to the same class and community, and from the fact that Western writers write not to represent anyone but simply for their own satisfaction.”

Representation, as an issue, is more than a concern with physical objects and the roles they can play in literary narratives (though Pamuk explores this at length in order to plumb his deeper interests); rather, that novels represent human lives in detail, thus prompting an experience of empathy for others and an examination of one’s own self, is, for Pamuk, an “ethical point” of great importance. The reading (and writing) of novels “relates to freedom, to imitating other lives and imagining oneself as another person,” and, as such, is inherently political.

According to Pamuk, novels lead to “a breathtaking sense of freedom and self-confidence,” putting emphasis, as they do, on “our world and our choices”; they make the seemingly banal, the domestic, the internal, the individual “as important as historical events, international wars, and the decisions of kings, pashas, armies, governments, and gods,” and they demonstrate that “our sensations and thoughts have the potential to be far more interesting than any of these.” There is a political use to this, a political effect. Indeed, the very act of imagining others is, Pamuk argues, political, yet such a reading of literature as political should not be confused with that “limited genre” that Pamuk calls “the political novel.” Ideological platforms, when given the role of shaping artistic representation, involve “a determination not to understand those who are different from us,” while the novelistic enterprise must do the opposite. “But,” says Pamuk,

the extent to which politics can be included in novels is boundless, because the novelist becomes political in the very effort to understand those who are different from him, those who belong to other communities, races, cultures, classes, and nations. The most political novel is the novel that has no political themes or motives but that tries to see everything and understand everyone, to construct the largest whole. Thus, the novel that manages to accomplish this impossible task has the deepest center.

If representation of human life leads to political and ethical effects, Pamuk’s notion of a “center” at the core of the writing and reading of all novels imparts to literature something like a religious effect. “The reason we turn to literary novels, great novels, where we search for guidance and wisdom that might confer meaning on life, is that we fail to feel at home in the world,” Pamuk argues. Disconnected from a meaningful sense of the universe, we turn to novels in an “effort to believe that the world actually does have a center.” What novels provide—alongside “views of the world” and “ethical sensibility” is “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.” This is not to say that there is some immutable center to our world, merely that we have a hunger for such a thing. “For the modern secular individual,” Pamuk writes, “one way to find a deeper, more profound meaning in the world is to read the great literary novels.”

As autobiographical document, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist charts “the emotional and intellectual heart of my work as a novelist,” chronicling the development of Pamuk’s skills, theories, and even his humanity. This text, then, also stands in defense of Pamuk’s oeuvre, shedding light on specific practices (the use of physical objects in the writing and text of a novel, for instance) while also advancing a broader claim about the “new forms and novelistic techniques” he and other writers “outside Western cultural centers” have been innovating. There is, indeed, a mysterious center to this text, as well—one constructed, like Pamuk’s novels, around something unspoken, a tantalizing lacuna. Many Americans, unless they are already followers of Pamuk’s work, may dismiss this slim volume as so much oddly unfashionable criticism—so much reading of one scene from Tolstoy, so much of what seems like dancing around the political issues at play—but one is also left with the sense that Pamuk’s theories may well be discussed and debated “outside Western cultural centers” for years to come, and that his vision and his style, while resolutely not that of the contemporary American moment, are—for precisely that reason—of urgent interest elsewhere.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011