Dec 13, 2013
Gazing Into the ‘Secret Center’ of the Novel
Posted on Apr 28, 2011
The truth of the lie
This idea of a center, Pamuk says, is what makes a novel different from more linear literary forms such as epics, traditional adventure narratives or romances. He also outlines another thing that makes novels work: the contradiction between believing the novel’s story and yet being aware of the lie. To write or read a novel well, we must be simultaneously naive and sentimental/reflective.
A funny and provocative chapter called “Mr. Pamuk, Did All This Really Happen to You?” describes something every novelist on a book tour experiences: readers believing deep down that the story is autobiographical. It isn’t, of course. And yet novelists do draw on their own lives, and they also try with all their might to make readers lose themselves in the story. Pamuk says of his 2008 novel “A Museum of Innocence,” “I intended my novel to be perceived as a work of fiction, as a product of the imagination—yet I also wanted readers to assume that the main characters and the story were true.”
Because we know the story isn’t real—or so we’re told—we read novels completely differently than memoirs, say, or anything else purporting to be true. As soon as a book is called a novel, we “start looking for a center, wondering about the authenticity of details, asking ourselves which part is real, which part imagined.”
When a novelist lives under a repressive regime, this power of the novel—its union of true and false—takes on yet another twist. The writer can’t speak truth directly, or at least state it as such. But she can tell it under the guise of fiction.
When readers and writers maintain the illusion of the novel while also acknowledging its constructed nature, they receive the special gift of this form: to “escape the logic of the single-centered Cartesian world where body and mind, logic and imagination, are placed in opposition. Novels are unique structures that allow us to keep contradictory thoughts in our mind without uneasiness, and to understand differing points of view simultaneously.”
In addition to the true/false dichotomy, we expand our minds by identifying with different characters. We can “break free of our selves, become another person, and for once see the world through someone else’s eyes.” Pamuk offers a lot of advice to novelists on how to make readers identify with different characters (some of those ideas are below). With our boundaries stretched, “we also sense that our mind has the capacity to believe in many things at once—and that neither our mind nor the world actually contains a center.” That’s a startling addition to his idea of the “center.”
For all these reasons, Pamuk calls novels “three-dimensional fictions.” The phrase makes me think of Borges’ “third tiger” in his book “Dreamtigers.” The third tiger that Borges seeks isn’t the real vertebrate creature “with its warm blood”—the naive or purely natural. Nor is it the mythology of a tiger, the creature of “dreaming, a system of words” and symbols—the sentimental/reflective. The third tiger is something that lies between or beyond them, in a third dimension beyond them both:
This book is rich with advice for writing novels. If these few snippets inspire you, I would recommend you get the book to delve into the details.
• The novelist must make every detail of the book “connected to everything else, and this entire web of relations both forms the atmosphere of the book and points toward its secret center.”
• Pamuk advises that “just like chess players who anticipate their opponent’s next move, novelists [must] always take into account the reader’s imagination and the desires and motives that animate it. How the reader’s mind is likely to respond is one of the most important considerations for the novelist.” Said differently: “The reader’s intentions are just as important as those of the writer, when it comes to the completion and realization of a novel.”
• Pamuk takes the writing workshop adage of “show, don’t tell” in a fresh direction. “[T]he challenge and deep joy provided by the novel come not when we infer the character of the protagonist from his behavior, but when we identify with him. … The novelist who trusts in the reader’s power of imagination will merely describe and define with words the images that constitute the moments of the novel, and will leave the feelings and thoughts up to the reader.”
• How is that done? What he calls the “ ‘landscape’ of the novel—the objects, words, dialogues, and everything which is visible—should be seen as integral to, and an extension of, the hero’s emotions.” “Writing a novel involves combining the emotions and thoughts of each protagonist with the objects that surround him, and then blending them, with a single deft stroke, in one sentence.” He illustrates with “Anna Karenina”: “Tolstoy does not tell us what Anna’s feeling are as she rides on the St. Petersburg train. Instead, he paints pictures that help us feel these emotions: the snow visible from the window on the left, the activity in the compartment, the cold weather, and so on. …
• Novels create identification by entering the characters’ senses. “What matters is not the individual’s character, but the way in which he or she reacts to the manifold forms of the world—each color, each event, each fruit and blossom, everything our senses bring to us.”
• He dismisses the “article of faith,” articulated by E.M. Forster and accepted “naively and uncritically,” that characters simply take over novels as they’re being written. Rather, he says, the center begins to take over. “[J]ust as the sentimental-reflective reader goes through the novel trying to guess exactly where the center is, the experienced novelist goes along knowing that the center will gradually emerge as he writes, and that the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his work will be finding this center and bringing it into focus.”
• How does he himself proceed? “While one corner of my mind is busy creating fictional people, speaking and acting like my heroes, and generally trying to inhabit another person’s skin, a different corner of my mind is carefully assessing the novel as a whole—surveying the overall composition, gauging how the reader will read, interpreting the narrative and the actors, and trying to predict the effect of my sentences. … The more the novelist succeeds in simultaneously being both naive and sentimental, the better he writes.”
Cherilyn Parsons lives in Berkeley, Calif. Her feature stories and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Online Journalism Review, New York Newsday and literary anthologies. She works at the Center for Investigative Reporting and holds a master’s degree in professional writing from USC.
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