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Practitioner to theorist

, April 19, 2016, 0 Comments

Orhan-Pamuk-Practitioner-theorist-marketexpress-in“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.” For this sentence, Homi K Bhabha just missed getting the first prize for bad writing, awarded by the journal Philosophy and Literature, in 1998. But those who understand him think highly of him. He has been professor of English and American literature and language in Harvard for the past 15 years. He must have had admirers in the last government of India, for he was awarded a Padma Bhushan in 2012.

Homi Bhabha rang up Orhan Pamuk in 2008 and asked him to give the Norton Lectures in Harvard. Pamuk is one of the few novelists I admire and read. One of his attractions is that he is not an Anglophone. For someone familiar with Britain, India and North America, the context of novels from these regions lacks novelty; in comparison, the Turkish background of Pamuk’s novels is fascinating. It is not just the background; Pamuk’s characters also do not fall into our familiar eastern or western stereotypes. And every novel of his is a new experience; he is inventive. So I picked up his lectures (The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, Penguin). I knew Morgan Forster in Cambridge, and had read his Aspects of the Novel rather cursorily. But apart from him, I did not know of any novelist who had written about his craft. Presumably, most novelists read novels before they started writing them, and there is some connection between what they read and what they wrote. But on how one led to the other, I do not know any illuminative writings.

Forster’s view is that novels get written spontaneously, semi-consciously: a novelist imagines the characters, who then take over and create the story. Pamuk disagrees with this view, which he calls mystical – as if an author invents a hero, who then brings in his relatives, friends and contemporaries and creates a novel while the novelist sits back and writes it down. Pamuk, on the other hand, is surprisingly analytical. He begins with a model of what happens to us when we read a novel. First, we try to figure out what the novel is about: what is its central idea. Next, the words we read turn into images in our mind; this is why, when we see the film of a novel we have read, we often disagree with images of the characters we see: we have the images we have formed in our own minds, which to us are the right ones. We also wonder how far the writer has based the novel on his own experience, and how far he has imagined it. And we ask how real the narrative of the novel is – how far it is consistent with what we visualize as reality from our experience. We note, often unconsciously, the author’s style – his language, his imagination, the beauty of his prose. We get involved with the characters, like some, dislike others, make judgments about their behaviour and actions. As their lives get complicated, we feel rather proud that we can follow the complications. And as complications multiply, we look for something like the core of the novel – what Pamuk calls the secret centre.

This is what most readers do, but there are two extreme types of readers who do not. One set, whom Pamuk calls naïve readers, believes that a novel is based on someone’s real experience; the other, whom he calls sentimental readers, believes all novels to be imaginary fiction. Pamuk traces back this dichotomy to Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung, an essay written in 1795 by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller was a rather unconventional man; he was a covert republican in a time when kings dominated Europe. He was quite elated by the American revolt against the King of England. In his long essay, Schiller distinguished between the ancient poet – Homer, for example – from the modern poet of his time – for instance, Schiller himself. According to him, the ancient poet lived in the middle of nature, and was hardly conscious of it: he was naïve. The 18th-century poet lived in a town, and longed to go out into the countryside and experience nature: he was sentimental about it.

Coming back to readers, how do they relate to novels? There, Pamuk takes recourse to another analogy: that of a painting, especially the kind of panoramic painting that was developed in Europe in the seventeenth century and reached its apogy in the nineteenth century. These large paintings had a theme – say, a battle, a couple in romance, or a king out on a hunt. But around this theme, a painter like Rembrandt or Vermeer would put in a lot of details. A spectator can easily lose himself in a corner of the painting, which has its own story to tell. The story is often intriguing, and stimulates the spectator’s imagination. But these stories do not stand on their own. They are related to the theme, and they keep bringing the spectator back to it.

A novel does in words what a painting does in pictures. It creates a labyrinth of people, events and situations into which the reader strays and loses himself. He wanders amidst the characters, situations, and plots. While he moves entranced, he looks for the centre, the secret. This is what makes a novel rivetting.

Thus, Pamuk situates the novel in art, and brings out its similarity to other forms of art, namely poetry and painting. He has not found an analogy in music. Perhaps he could not expect his readers to be familiar with the subtleties of Turkish music; or maybe the analogy does not hold.

Although Pamuk does not put it that way, the novel is in my view a product of the industrial revolution. Industry led to the development of towns, and peopled them with the middle class, which had the literacy to read novels, the means to buy them, and leisure which they could spend on social games like romance, intrigue and competition, which were the raw materials of novels. They were both subjects and consumers of stories. Once they provided the market, all that was needed was someone to write the stories. That is why the nineteenth century produced so many great novelists across Europe  – Jane Austen, Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Walter Scott, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogoi, Gustav Flaubert, Jules Verne, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Theodor Fontane, Gottfried Keller, Adalbert Stifter, etc. My list has nine British writers, eight French ones, three Germans and two Americans; that is roughly in proportion to the size of the literate leisured class in the four countries at that time. But there are four Russians; that is where my market-oriented theory breaks down. Maybe talent has to come into the picture.

Image Credits: Photos @ www.orhanpamuk.net