A couple of years ago Orhan Pamuk published a book of his Norton lectures on the craft of a novelist (The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist). The book reworks the title and themes of Friedrich Schiller’s influential essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, in which Schiller describes two ways of writing, one unhesitating and unthinking, and the other constantly with the end product and reader in mind. Pamuk contends that the best novelist will combine the two approaches, so that the writing seems unforced, but the novelist is keeping one eye on the construction of the novel.
The book starts off slowly enough, with a description of how one – or in particular Pamuk – reads, and it is interesting enough without seeming ground-breaking. He talks about Anna Karenina, that “almost perfect” novel of Tolstoy’s, and contrasts the world he evokes to the more interior world of Dostoevsky’s (where Pamuk says, the rooms may as well be empty). He reminds us that Shakespeare created the modern literary character by giving his characters psychological depth, unlike classical characters who were meant to embody one characteristic.
He goes on to say, more interestingly, that when nineteenth century novelists aim for realism they often overshoot the mark. He finds nineteenth century literary characters too full of character, and that he can’t relate to them. Perhaps there are people out there who are so vibrantly psychologically complex, but Pamuk feels he is not one of them. The problem, as Pamuk sees it, is that these novelists, and their more recent imitators, focus on the literary characters, trying to give them depth and roundness, rather than focusing on the world around them and describing this world via the perceptions of the character.
This is an intriguing idea – that the novel should not so much give us the picture of a character, but the picture of the world, as seen through that character’s eyes. The idea is not to peer into the character’s soul, but to inhabit their skin.