Time to brush up your Shakespeare, Mr Pamuk


LITERARY CRITICISM: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist,By Orhan Pamuk, Translated by Nazim Dikbas, Faber & Faber, 200pp. £14.99

ORHAN PAMUK’S new book, which collects the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he delivered at Harvard in 2009, is a pompous puff of academic hot air. The Naive and the Sentimental Novelistreads like the doctoral thesis of a genial old duffer who’s spent 30 years proving that two discs linked by a rotating axle can get you around much more quickly than walking.

Pamuk is Turkey’s most prominent novelist, the author of My Name is Red (1998, English translation 2003) and Snow (2002, English translation 2004). He is something of a free-speech martyr, having been prosecuted by the Turkish authorities for refusing to toe the state line on the Armenian genocide. He is also the winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature, that albatross of institutional grandeur. There’s no doubting Pamuk’s progressive-liberal street cred, nor his academic worthiness. But his reflections on literature, at least the ones contained in this small volume, are dismayingly simplistic and trite.

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelistestablishes itself as an inquiry into “what our minds do when we read novels”. The overture prepares us for a gentlemanly stroll through the reflections of a storied man of letters: “When I read novels in my youth, sometimes a broad, deep, peaceful landscape would appear within me. And sometimes the lights would go out, black and white would sharpen and then separate, and the shadows would stir.”

But then the shadows encroach, and the signs turn ominous. Pamuk has a go at rehashing the distinction made by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller in his famous essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” (1795-6). Roughly speaking, the “naive” poet (Goethe, Shakespeare) creates unselfconsciously, sure that he is capturing Nature (in the German Romantic sense) in his effortlessly various work. The more modern “sentimental” poet (Schiller himself, of course) agonises over technique and worries that his poetry is hopelessly insufficient next to the bounteous fecundity of Nature.

The best you can say about Schiller’s distinction is that the categories are essentially meaningless and that, obviously, most good writers are a mixture of both naive and sentimental. This is precisely what Pamuk says – and he never goes much deeper into it than that. “Being a novelist is the art of being both naive and reflective at the same time.” Got that? Good. Because Pamuk has quite a few more platitudes that he’s exhumed from the dustbins of aesthetic theory.

You know from the beginning that any book willing to take its cue from Schiller’s essay will hardly muster dialectical thinking at its most rigorous, but The Naive and the Sentimental Novelistsettles Schiller’s hash within a page or two, then proceeds to resurrect, to no apparent purpose, a number of literary “debates” that stopped being interesting decades, if not centuries, ago.

In the fourth lecture, for example, Pamuk spends quite a long time agonising over the differences between painting and literature, a debate one imagines can be pretty easily settled. (One’s paint, one’s words, right? Or am I missing the point?) But, no, Pamuk gives us the works: Kant, Horace, Aristotle, Lessing’s Laocoon, and Time with a capital T, and the result is stuff like: “When we read a novel, we visualise these word-formed moments, these points of Time. That is, we transform them into Space in our imagination.”

A discussion in the second lecture about “fictionality” has Pamuk carefully explaining that, while Gustave Flaubert was not, in fact, Madame Bovary, “he expressed his way of seeing as Madame Bovary’s way of seeing, and did so in a completely convincing way.”

There’s a remedial quality to much of this: reading these lectures is like taking a Novel 101 class for people who’ve never heard of novels. Pamuk happily fires off sentences like, “Reading a novel means that, while committing the overall context to memory, we follow, one by one, the thoughts and actions of the protagonists and ascribe meaning to them within the general landscape.” No wonder he won the Nobel Prize.

There’s more. “The core defining quality of the novel is the way it highlights everyday observations, and then recomposes them through the medium of the imagination in order to reveal life’s deeper meanings.” Or what about: “The central paradox of the art of the novel is the way the novelist strives to express his own personal worldview while also seeing the world through the eyes of others.”

It’s as though Pamuk sat down to rethink the whole form of the novel from first principles, only to arrive at a series of remarks that most of his readers would regard as obvious to the point of banality.

Worse, Pamuk never gets around to pointing out – or, more worryingly, never even notices – that Schiller’s classification of writers as naive or sentimental was, to begin with, nonsense. Was Shakespeare really an unreflecting, spontaneous, unfettered cougher-up of masterpieces? What about all that agonising over the uses of art in the sonnets? What about Hamlet, in its entirety? From the first, the only artists who have been truly naive in Schiller’s (and definitely in Pamuk’s) sense of the term are the ones with no talent.

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelistis polite, empty and pretentious. It’s the sort of windy, harmless twaddle that only a European Nobel Laureate could possibly get away with.

Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (Pocket Books). He teaches creative writing at University College Dublin