Arts & Culture

‘Second lives’

7 min read

Novelist explores the novel’s inner worlds

“Novels are second lives.”

This poemlike pronouncement was at the heart of Orhan Pamuk’s first Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, delivered this week (Sept. 22) to a capacity crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

Pamuk, the author of celebrated novels cast in his native Istanbul, is the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. He will deliver five more Norton Lectures through Nov. 3. All of them will be explorations of how the novel is experienced by both reader and writer.

In the first lecture, “What Happens to Us as We Read Novels,” Pamuk described “what went on in my soul” while reading novels as a young man. With himself as a test case, he drew out universal lessons on how novel reading unfolds in the mind.

For one, said Pamuk, “we forget where we are,” and embrace a dreamlike substitute for reality — though that alternate reality is an illusion “we never complain of.”

Those two realities — of reading and being within the reading — create a liberating experience unique to the novel, he said — “to simultaneously believe in contrary states.”

The unfolding inner worlds are vivid, at least in novels that relate more than adventure, where only what happens next is important. Pamuk’s self-declared focus was “the literary novel.”

“Sometimes a broad, deep, peaceful landscape would appear within me,” he said of youthful reading — and at other times “the whole universe would become a single sentence.”

The real world faded away, he said, while “a new world was revealing itself, sentence by sentence.”

But first the reader must get past impatience with the reality around him — the traffic noise, household smells, and other distractions that impede entry into the dream of the novel.

Pamuk compared the feeling to Anna Karenina, who in Leo Tolstoy’s 1873-77 novel of the same name settled into her seat on a train, took an English novel from her purse, and began to read. To read fully, she had to withdraw from the voices and jostling around her, from the shifting heat and cold, and from the swirling snow outside.

“She first forced herself to read,” said Pamuk, who read a passage from the book that he described as “the greatest novel of all time.”

With distractions behind you, the spell of the novel itself is cast. Pamuk used Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1869) to describe the sensation: “The reader feels he’s not among the words of the novel, but standing before a landscape painting.”

This sense of rich, spacious new worlds is available even in the “suffocating rooms” of Kafka’s fiction, said Pamuk, just as it is in Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black” (1830), where the vivid landscape of an outer world soon leads the reader into the rich inner world of the characters.

The entirety of Pamuk’s Norton Lectures — broadly titled “The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist” — will touch on the sensibilities that both reader and writer bring to the experience of the novel.

The conceit of the two adjectives comes from Friedrich von Schiller’s 18th century essay “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” an exploration of the aesthetics of perception. Pamuk said it has deeply influenced him, and will be a recurring theme in the Norton Lectures.

The “naïve” style of perception, which Schiller saw in Goethe, describes a writer confronting the world spontaneously and confidently — creating writing as “not something thought out,” said Pamuk, but as something composed almost without its author’s comprehension.

The “sentimental” style of perception, which Schiller recognized in himself, is reflective. The writer remains “exceedingly aware of the poem he writes” and of all its mechanical trappings and ethical ramifications, explained Pamuk, and so creates “poetry aided by the intellect.”

Schiller envied Goethe’s spontaneity and certainty — “his ability to be himself,” said Pamuk, “in the exact manner of the child.”

As a young man, the future Nobel laureate abhorred the self-confident, naïve spontaneity of Turkish writers who “never worried about style,” he said. “I increasingly used the term [“naïve”] in a negative sense.”

But after 35 years of novel writing, said Pamuk, he believes that within the novel there can be equilibrium between the two ways of seeing the world.

The slender novelist — modest and mild-looking in a dark gray suit — described himself as “lucky and grateful” to be taking the stage at Sanders Theatre, where an august company of Norton lecturers had stood before him — among them T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost.

He praised the Harvard-trained friends in his literary life, including the first and last of his English translators, his agent, and both critics who understood him best, including the late John Updike ’54, Litt.D. ’92.

“I am grateful to Harvard for so much,” he said.

During a brief question-and-answer session afterward, Pamuk described himself as an “autodidact” in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre. As a young writer “I had no mentors,” he said. “I am not saying this proudly … in this center of great learning.”

But in the lecture itself, Pamuk seized a prerogative only great learning and Goethe-like confidence allows. He made a prescriptive list — in this case of “the most important acts in reading a novel.”

Follow the narrative first, he said, and let your mind simultaneously search the novel for motive, idea, purpose — even a “secret center.”

And move quickly from words into images, added Pamuk, since only this way can “we readers complete the story.”

Embrace the “logic paradox” of the novel, too, he said — by “losing yourself” in the story (a naïve approach), while at the same time wondering how much of the story is real (a sentimental, or reflective, approach).

After all, said Pamuk, the power of the novel resides in the reader’s ability “to believe simultaneously in more than one thought.”

The next lecture, on Sept. 29, will explore this paradox, in a talk titled “Mr. Pamuk, Did You Really Live All This?”

Another “important act” in reading the novel, he said: Free yourself from the necessity of making ethical judgments. “The art of the novel,” said Pamuk, “yields its best and brightest results not in judging people, but in understanding them.”

In reading a novel, too, “we enter into complicity with the novelist,” he said, so embrace that. It gives us the ability to disbelieve, disagree, and fail to understand — all the while thinking that the novel was written for our private pleasure alone. “This sweet illusion,” said Pamuk, “slowly arises in us.”

As for another act: Go ahead — search for the novel’s “secret center.” Stalk meaning, said Pamuk, “like a hunter who treats every broken branch as a sign.”

And while you are at it, share in a novel’s democracy of optimism among its readers — the belief that there is a secret meaning “whether it exists or not.”

The bequest by C.C. Stillman (Class of 1898 at Harvard) that created the Norton Lectures in 1925 called for public explorations of poetry “in its broadest sense,” including in verse, music, the fine arts, and any poetic expression in language.

Who better to deliver the lectures than Orhan Pamuk, said Homi Bhabha in opening remarks: a man whose unique sensibilities were informed by all of those arts. He was a painter before he was a poet or a novelist, music is omnipresent in his fiction, and he studied architecture besides.

Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, is director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, which for the first time is organizing the Norton Lectures.

The humanities themselves, he said — integrative, interpretive, translational, and interdisciplinary — are a good canvas for the broad brush of the Norton Lectures.

Bhabha called Pamuk a man of many disciplines whose layered novels “hover restlessly between fiction and history.”

Pamuk is widely read (his 11 novels have appeared in 56 languages and sold millions of copies). But he also uses parochial, non-Western Istanbul to create an alternative view of the world, said Bhabha — a perspective that “allows him to spin the globe on a different axis.”