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Guest Book Review: 'The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist'
February 26, 2011 - 7:15am


Review by Katya Cummins

The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (Harvard UP, 2010) is a series of six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 2009 by Turkish Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. Together they're a semi-autobiographical exploration of the art of writing and, perhaps more uniquely, a glimpse into the psychology and art of reading.

The book's title is indebted to Friedrich Schiller’s essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” but the English word “sentimental” falls short of the German sentimentalisch, which means “reflective” rather than some excess of emotion. Pamuk's craft lectures build on Schiller's essay but can be read without it, and the book is informal in tone and full of other easily-accessible literary examples.

"At a certain point Schiller's essay is no longer only about poetry, or about art and literature in general, but becomes a philosophical text on human types," Pamuk says. While this idea of "human types" resurfaces in Pamuk's lectures, his main interest throughout is in the naive and sentimental in writing and reading.

Pamuk explains that a defining characteristic of a "naive novelist" is that he never doubts whether the writing adequately expresses how he views the world, whereas the "sentimental-reflective" novelist is "unsure whether his words will encompass reality…whether his utterances will convey the meaning he intends."

Similarly Pamuk describes a "completely naive reader" as one who "always reads texts as an autobiography." The other extreme is the "completely sentimental-reflective reader," the type who believes that "texts are all constructs and fictions anyway, no matter how many times you warn them that they are reading your most candid autobiography." A successful reader finds a compromise between the sentimental and naive, and those who don't "are immune to the joys of reading novels," Pamuk cautions.

He tells us about a woman he met in Istanbul, who claimed to have read all his books. She said, "I know you so well, you'd be surprised." Pamuk says, "She wasn't claiming that she knew my life story, my family, where I lived, the schools I'd attended…nor my private life…the elderly lady was not confusing my story with the stories of my fictional characters…. I had projected my experiences into my characters…." The woman’s dual recognition of that sprung from his own ability to be simultaneously sentimental-reflective and naive in the process of writing, which he lists as one of the joys of doing it in the first place.

Pamuk argues that though we feel as if we switch between thinking in images and thinking in words, our brains primarily deal with images. He says, "Here's one of my strongest opinions: novels are essentially visual literary fictions. A novel exerts its influence on us mostly by addressing our visual intelligence—our ability to see things in our mind's eye and to turn words into mental pictures."

To this end Pamuk says he lends not only his family members’ traits to his characters, but also the objects they have around them. The work of the writer is to combine those objects, events, and images so they create the novel's "landscape." If the writer has done her job correctly in what Pamuk calls "projected experience," a naive reader will be unable to segregate the pieces—objects, events, and images—from the integrative whole.

Pamuk’s lectures make clear that it takes two for a novel to work: a sentimental-naive writer to craft a world and a sentimental-naive reader to envision it fully. This idea takes the forefront in his last lecture, titled “The Center.” “When we discuss the nature of the center—which Borges called the subject—we are discussing our view of life,” he says.

“To write a novel is to create a center we cannot find in life or in the world,” Pamuk says, and “[t]o read is to perform the same gesture in reverse.”

Pamuk points out that the center of any given novel changes from one reader to the next, especially over time, despite it being a published, static artifact. A writer’s relationship to the center is even more complex, as the center can and will change in the process of writing toward it, and is sometimes never found. Sometimes “as he constructs the novel and asks himself where its center lies, the novelist begins to sense that the work might have an overall meaning completely at odds with his intentions.”

It is easier, Pamuk says, to find the center in genre fiction than in Melville’s or James Joyce’s novels, and one value in literature is that “the power of the novel’s center ultimately resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers.” That is, the job of a writer is to find and conceal the center within the landscape of the novel; the job of the reader is to rediscover it for herself.

If the writer has crafted a book well then the act of reading will, on its own, become an exploration that leads toward some higher understanding. But it takes a reader who is both reflective enough to search for the novel's mainspring and, at the same time, naive enough to forget what's making the book tick. In this way, Pamuk says, “Novels are second lives,” for both writer and reader.


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