Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orhan Pamuk: A Chapter in a Novel is not Necessarily a Short Story

Orhan Pamuk, the first Turk to win the Nobel Prize (2006), has a new novel released this week, The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely, published by Knopf. Favorable reviews appeared today (Oct. 21) in The Los Angeles Times and yesterday in The Washington Post.

I have no intention of commenting on the novel, for I have not read it, but I do want to make a few comments about a chapter that appeared in the Sept. 7, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Distant Relations.” According to Marie Arana in the Post and Tim Rutten in the Times, The Museum of Innocence is a “spellbinding, engrossing, mesmerizing” story of a romantic/erotic obsession. The story in The New Yorker is about the beginnings of that obsession.

Kemal, a 30-year old bachelor, is engaged to a woman named Sibel. Both are of the same class, urbane, educated, and sophisticated. American educated, Kemal lives with his parents in a wealthy neighborhood.

The story begins with this sentence: “The series of events and coincidences that would change my entire life began on April 27, 1975, when Sibel happened to spot a purse designed by the famous Jenny Colon in a shop window as we were walking along Valikonagi Avenue, enjoying the cool spring evening.”

When Kemal goes into the shop the next day to buy the purse for Sibel, he encounters an 18-year-old girl, named Fusun, who he recognizes as a poor “distant relation.” He is immediately attracted to her: “I felt my heart rise into my throat, with the force of an immense wave about toe crash against the shore.”

As usual with such fascinations, it is something inexplicably physical: “My eyes traveled from her empty shoe over her long bare legs. It wasn’t even May yet, and they were already tanned.” “With slender dexterous fingers, [she] removed the balls of crumbled tissue paper.” “I was admiring her honey-hued arms and her quick elegant gestures.” As Kemal leaves the shop, he pauses for a moment: “My ghost had left my body and was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Fusun and kissing her.”

Also, as is usual in such fascinations, what Kemal sees in Fusun is himself. When he must take the purse back because his fiancĂ© says it is a fake, he “cannot deny the startling truth that when I looked at Fusun I saw someone familiar, someone I felt I knew intimately. She resembled me…I felt I could easily put myself in her place, could understand her deeply.”

When Fusun begins to cry about the returned purse, he holds her, “which made my head spin. Perhaps it was because I was trying to suppress my desire, stronger each time I touched her, that I conjured up the illusion that we had known each other for years.”

However, “Fearful of the sexual beast now threatening to rear its head, I took my hand from her hair.” However, he does not leave the store until he has figured out a way to meet her later in an unoccupied apartment owned by his mother. “Back in the street, my shame and guilt mixed with so many images of bliss in the unseasonable warmth of that April afternoon that the very sidewalks of Nisantasi seemed aglow with a mysterious yellow.”

The story ends with Kemal’s mother pressing the key to the apartment in his hand, giving him a look like the one she gave him as a child, warning him that “life held unsuspected dangers that were far deeper and more treacherous than, for instance, failing to take proper care of a key.”

According to the reviews of this book, which I will probably never read, Kemal “takes” Fusion’s virginity and begins an affair with her. However, Fusun does not love Kemal and marries an unsuccessful art film writer. Kemal’s obsession becomes more intense. He loses Sibel to another man and begins stalking the neighborhood where Fusun and her husband live, stealing cigarette butts, underwear, bits of jewelry, and keeping them in the apartment where they had first had sex—which, of course, becomes his “Museum of Innocence.”

Well, being the irredeemable romantic that I am, I love novels of romantic/erotic obsession. At the top of my list of favorite novels are Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, it seems to me that for such an obsessive novel to succeed, it has to be consummately written. It has to be miraculous in its style. For it is its style that “mesmerizes,” not its mere story, which can so easily devolve into the merely sentimental. I realize that quoting passages out of context, as I have above, can be misleading. But I just cannot take a man who talks the way Kemal does seriously. The language just does not create a world that makes the story transformative.

As I have argued many times in this blog, it is much easier to forgive careless writing in a novel than it is in a short story. Reading a novel, (Lord knows there is so much of it) one can certainly get caught up in the mere plot or an obsessive character and be “carried away” or “mesmerized,” as the reviewers in the LA Times and the Washington Post seem to have been, ignoring stylistic infelicities, easy sentimentalities, and phrases that could have used another rewrite.

Stylistically, structurally, and thematically, the fragment of Pamuk’s new novel that appeared recently in The New Yorker makes a poor short story. Stylistically, it is casual and careless. It includes long passages about the nature of Fusun’s “distant relation” to Kemal that are not relevant to the fragment. It focuses on a central event—the purchase and return of the ostensibly fake purse—that has not significance except to make possible the initial meeting of Kemal and Fusun—which could have been accomplished in many other ways with absolutely no loss of thematic significance.

I have no objection to writers publishing sections of upcoming novels in The New Yorker. It is a great way to “double dip” into the meager pot of money that writers must scrabble for. I just wish The New Yorker would not call them short stories. I just finished “listening to” Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves (As you might recall, I seldom “read” novels, but listen to them on my Ipod as I take my morning walk, accompanied by my aging dog, Shannon.) I had read many of the “stories” that make up Erdrich’s novel previously, mostly in The New Yorker, or as they appeared in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Awards Stories. But Erdrich’s novels are, by their very nature episodic, the parts of which are detachable. She seems to have written them as self-sufficient tales—creating a stylized rhythm and a magical-realist world that I often find self-indulgent, but that I can become “engrossed” in or “mesmerized” by.

The obsessive novels that I love so much—Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The French Lieutenant’s Woman—amaze me every time I read them. I cannot quite believe that ordinary humans wrote them. In my humble human opinion, Orhan Pamuk is just an ordinary human.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Poe: Baltimore comes to bury him; I come to praise him

Last week, in this bicentennial year of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore staged a second wake and funeral procession for the writer most responsible for recognizing the unique characteristics of the short story as an artistic form. The following is a quote from The Baltimore Sun:

"Edgar Allen Poe is finally getting the send-off he always deserved -- from a city that has spent decades claiming him as one of its own.

True, he's spent more than a century-and-a-half buried in the hallowed grounds surrounding Baltimore's Westminster Hall. It's also true that Baltimore isn't the only city celebrating Poe, in this bicentennial of his birth on Jan. 19, 1809. At least four other East Coast cities -- Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- have legitimate claims to Poe's legacy. The five cities have been squabbling for years, and have spent the past year exploiting their connections to the pioneering writer and early master of the horror and mystery genres.

But Baltimore has something that none of the rest of them have. And over the coming week, his fans here are going to flaunt it for all it's worth -- in ways the macabre Mr. Poe would doubtless appreciate.

"We have the body!" says Poe fan Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No one else can say that."
Which explains why Baltimore will be holding a second wake, funeral procession and funeral for the long-dead Poe, 160 years after the first.

On an early October day in 1849, Poe was found walking the streets of the city, bedraggled, incoherent, possibly beaten up, dressed in clothes that didn't belong to him. He died four days later at Washington College Hospital (later Church Home & Hospital, closed in 2000) and was buried at Westminster the next day, after a sparsely attended three-minute service. His death warranted a paltry four-sentence obituary in The Sun. "This is Baltimore's chance," says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, where a Wednesday-afternoon-and-evening viewing of the famed poet and author's body will begin a five-day commemoration of both his mysterious death on Oct. 7, 1849, and the quiet, almost secretive funeral services that followed. "This is what I've been working for, to honor Poe and to say, 'Thanks.' It's the least I could do."

I did a book on Poe’s short fiction several years ago. He has always been a favorite of mine, much underestimated by many of my colleagues. I remember once when I was teaching a full semester course on Poe’s work, one of my fellow teachers said to me, “I don’t understand what you can find to say about Poe for a whole semester. I can barely fill up one class meeting on his work.”

In honor of Baltimore’s "reburial" of Poe, I come to praise him, not to bury him, by making a few comments on his contribution to the theory of the short story as a completely different narrative form than the novel.

It can be argued that a literary genre does not really exist as long as it is merely practiced. Because a genre concept is just that--a concept--it only truly comes into being when the rules and conventions which constitute it are articulated within the larger conceptual context of literature as a whole. Poe's rigor as a literary critic and genre theorist is thus as important for understanding his contribution to the short story form as is his skill as a short-story writer.

There is little doubt that Poe was, if nothing else, a thoroughgoing formalist, always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world or its social or psychological theme. The meaning of the work for Poe was its technique, so much so that in many of his stories he thematizes aesthetic and literary theory issues, making the creation and explication of unity the central thematic "truth" of the work.

Since there was no theory of the short prose tale when Poe was writing, he took theoretical ideas from those genres that did posses a critical history, such as drama and poetry, and applied them to the Gothic tale form which was popular during his time. The following generic elements are the most important ones Poe made use of: (1)the conventionalized and ritualized structure of the drama; (2)the metaphoric and self-contained unity of the lyric poem; (3)the technique of verisimilitude of the eighteenth-century novel; (4)the point of view and unifying tone of the eighteenth-century essay; and (5)the spiritual undercurrent and projective technique of the old romance and the Gothic story.

When you add to these the notion of prose assuming the spatial form of painting, which Poe suggested in the 1842 Hawthorne review, you have the basis for a new generic form. Poe's notion of short fiction as a picture is particularly important, for to see narrative as a painting is to see it as a design in space rather than a movement in time. Although the consequent implication of considering characters as static groupings in a composition means a loss of dramatic effect, this is compensated for by a gain in emphasis on overall pattern, which is equivalent to thematic design.

Poe’s 1842 Hawthorne review is of course the central document for understanding Poe's contribution to the theory of the short story, for it derives from his earlier discussions of the relationship between aesthetic unity and the concept of plot and looks forward to the ultimate implications of pattern and design in Eureka. The logic of the argument in the Hawthorne review is quite clear: What is most important in the literary work is unity; however, unity can only be achieved in a work which the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says that the short tale has the most potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the motifs of the story.

Poe carries his concern with unity of effect even further in "The Philosophy of Composition," for here he asserts the importance of considering the work backwards, that is, beginning with its end. Obviously, the possibility of beginning with the end is what distinguishes fiction from reality, what transforms reality into narrative discourse. A narrative, by its very nature, cannot be told until the events which it takes as its subject matter have already occurred. Therefore the "end" of the events, both in terms of their actual termination and in terms of the purpose to which the narrator binds them, is the beginning of the discourse.

It is hardly necessary to say that the only narrative which the reader ever gets is that which is already discourse, already ended as an event, so that there is nothing left for it but to move toward its end in an aesthetic, eventless way, i.e, via tone, metaphor, and all the other purely artistic conventions of fictional discourse.