Going behind the story

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Going behind the story

Thoughtful: Orhan Pamuk

What is a story made of? What lies beneath? Where does it begin, where does it end? Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk takes on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist.

Translated by Nazim Dikbas and dedicated to Kiran Desai, the book is a series of lectures — the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 2009 — he wrote in Goa, Istanbul, Venice, Greece, New York and while travelling with Desai in a hired car between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.

The mechanics of storytelling, thought to be prosaic and academic realm compared to a composition, make for compelling material in the Turkish author’s hands. The emotions, the characters we fall in love with or distance ourselves from, the plot that moves us as it moves along, they are all about the story. And, to tell the story behind the story is what Pamuk sets out to do. Though the tracking down of trails leading to the world of fiction make for subjective reading as much of fiction itself does, these are heady and heartfelt notes from a writer to writers everywhere.

He says: “I know there are many stances we can adopt toward the novel, many ways in which we commit our soul and mind to it, treating it lightly or seriously. And in just the same manner, I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel.

We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fibre of our being.”

The constructs — of parameters, perceptions, the paraphernalia of infinite details that constitute a novel — are laid bare along the way with consummate ease. While dwelling on the technicalities that go into spinning a yarn, Pamuk takes care to enunciate clearly his own take at every step.

Other writers have done this, sometimes in the same book, taken readers on a tour of the technical side of things, like Dave Eggers more recently. And Pamuk quotes relevantly, reminding us of many writers who, like himself, have chronicled the painstaking assembly of fictional premises or just made their point through their work. He refers to E M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Gyorgy Lukacs’ The Theory of the Novel, Montaigne, Tolstoy, Kafka, and mainly to German writer Friedrich Schiller who divided poets into the naïve and the sentimental. ‘Naïve’ for those who write spontaneously and unselfconsciously. ‘Sentimental’ for the reflective, emotional, questioning type who is aware of the techniques/ methods used and the artifice involved in creating.

There is a whole factory behind every fable: emoting, editing, snipping, designing, compulsively revising, replacing, moulding, creating, chasing the apt word, finding the centre. An architect mastermind who plots the bricks and walls, down to the minutest mis-weave in the carpet. A mind that ticks between naïve and sentimental, each aware of the other at every stage. When he reads, says Pamuk, “I would feel the orange armchair I was sitting in, the stinking ashtray beside me, the carpeted room, the children playing soccer in the street yelling at each other, and the ferry whistles from afar were receding from my mind; and that a new world was revealing itself, word by word, sentence by sentence, in front of me.”

Again and again Pamuk returns to Anna Karenina, her attempts to read in a crowded train after the ball. The similarity and the differences in an experience are what the reader can instinctively or intuitively bond with from his own familiarities. The necessary links and that bit of delinking bring the writer and the reader on the same page. Leaps in plot or time, the settings and the novel’s power to transform and transcend connect it to the reader in a million immortal ways. The writer, Pamuk suggests, must make himself as inconspicuous as possible, but “…a writer is most present in the text at the moments we most completely forget about him.” That real does the story become to the reader in these moments.

If you ask: “Mr Pamuk, did all this really happen to you?” upon reading one of his books, he will tell you that Gustave Flaubert used to say, “I am Madame Bovary.” Explains Pamuk: “Flaubert was not a woman; he never married… but he lived and witnessed her sensory experiences the way she did (her unhappiness, her yearning for a colourful life, the pettiness of small-town life in 19th century France, the bitter differences between dreams and middle-class reality).”

Completely naïve readers — who read a text as autobiography — and completely sentimental-reflective readers — who think all texts fiction — are, according to Pamuk, immune to the joys of reading novels.

The fine art of thought and execution, of polishing and going to print at last is all about having a story to tell and telling it well. Zooming into the orbits of the reader and the writer, Pamuk dissects the intimate connect between the two. And this is about as personal a modern master of the art can get about his craft.

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