Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The novel, like other art forms, is an open-ended artistic output which can be interpreted in varied ways. A month ago, I read Stephen King’s ‘Stephen King on Writing’ which placed plot at the center of the novel as the main goal that authors pursue. Last week I finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist where Pamuk has discussed the novel as a more esoteric form of art (he is, in fact, against it being considered as a craft which is why he loathes creative writing workshops where the novel is considered as a craft) where the writer pursues arcane goals like finding the center of the novel, using descriptions of locations, situations etc as a conduit to convey various aspects of the main character’s personality, situation, mood and so on.

The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is a compilation of lectures delivered by Orhan Pamuk at Cambridge on various aspects of the novel inspired by EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel to which he acknowledges his debt. The book has generous autobiographical dollops about Pamuk’s coming of age as a reader (of mainly literary novels) and small bites of how the novel came about as a form of storytelling woven into the general narrative.

Pamuk substantiates his arguments by discussing novels - War and Peace, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and many more - that have shaped him as a writer. In Anna Karenina there is a scene where Anna is trying to read a novel in a train compartment while returning home, but she is not able to concentrate on the novel thanks to a handsome army officer she met at a party who has kept her mentally occupied. While she tries to unsuccessfully read the novel, Tolstoy describes the view outside the window.

Pamuk observes that the view outside the train conveys the somewhat melancholic mood of Anna. This is one of the reasons why Pamuk says Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels of all times: where everything is an extension of the protagonist’s personality (or state of mind). Being a visual writer, Tolstoy handled the situation this way. But Stendhal, for example, would have used the time, when the character is reading, to describe the compartment. It wouldn’t have mattered much to Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he wasn’t a visual writer like Tolstoy. And so on.

Compared to nineteenth century Russian greats, there are fewer mentions of writers from the West except a few like Daniel Defoe and Dickens for obvious reasons but also Virginia Wolf, Henry James etc. E.M Forster recurs several times but not for his novels but his book The Aspects of the Novel.

Pamuk informs that the novel was born in Europe and was later adopted by writers in eastern societies, but doesn’t say how and when the adoption happened and which countries where the first ones to adopt. But you can’t fault him for that because that’s not what the book is about.

According to Pamuk, there are two kinds of novelists – naïve and sentimental. Naïve are those who write without any plan, spontaneously, while sentimental are reflective writers concerned about the structure of the novel. Similarly, naïve readers are the ones who read without considering the larger message of a novel and the reverse applies to sentimental readers. Pamuk says people who received his lecture often asked Pamuk whether he is a naïve or sentimental novelist and he said he said, “I am both.”

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Professional by Ashok Ferrey

England is in news for an immigration issue where it is considering a law which would require those from a select group of countries (including India) to furnish 3000 pound as refundable bond as a warranty against overstay of visa period. Thankfully it has been dropped now. But the fact that the British government insisted on it suggests that England has long dealt with the immigration problem. (Alas, all big countries have but have reacted more soberly to it.)

That was the reason why I picked up The Professional (by Ashok Ferry): it promised a story about the immigrant experience in England not set in recent times but in the 80s. But that’s okay with me.

The Professional involves a narrative form I have come to like - where the narrative moves back and forth in time to cover a character’s past and present, with the past quietly explaining the reader what led to his present circumstances. The Professional narrates the story of Chamath seen through his older self 35 years later. Chamath, an Oxford alumnus, has applied for his residency permit and he is banned to work until he gets it.

And the only option to earn a living is the unorganized sector. In the meantime, Chamath’s father sends him a letter from Srilanka expressing his inability to send Chamath money and asking him to let out their flat in London which was bought some time back. Chamath finds an employment at a construction site where one day he is approached by two men who promise him good money for very little work. And thus starts Chamath’s dual life: a male escort in the evening and a construction site worker in the morning. His life in the evening takes him to people seeking company and pleasure and finally brings him to a couple who become his friends and benefactors.  

The Professional moves back and forth in time effortlessly and describes the world of a young Chamath, in London, and old, in Srilanka, quite well. It shows both sides of the immigrant experience: how is it for an immigrant to stay without a permanent resident status and the sacrifices parents make to send and educate their children abroad.

On the downside, however, the book moves from one narrative method to another without sometimes any change in content style to indicate the digression. Another thing that disappointed is that it documents the immigrant experience well, telling its highs and lows. But its synopsis promises more. The synopsis says the book would take you through the Thatcher years, England’s years of greed, as the synopsis puts it. 

But the story says very little about those years. The book informs that Chamath met with some prosperity as a real estate agent in later years which coincided with Thatcher rule and leaves it at that without detailing those years.

Detailing how he moved to prosperity would have been a good way to end the story on a more conclusive note; instead, the story ends Chamath’s England stay abruptly and later, in an epilogic fashion, informs what Chamath did in his later years in England, that he became a prosperous real estate person. It was my first book by a Srilankan writer and I liked it generally.
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