Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Yesterday We Introduced The So-Called Poet To The People Of Kars; Today We Report The Suspicions He Has Aroused In Our Readers"

Why do people come to fiction? For a variety of reasons, I'm sure. Most readers, I think, just want to while away an hour or two with a diverting story that takes them out of everyday life. Other readers, I have come to believe, enjoy the sorts of games novelists play with the mechanics of plot, symbolism, and language (formalist writers like Nabokov, for example). Me, I come to fiction primarily to deepen my experience of humanity, to encounter ideas about life that run counter to my own, maybe, but certainly show me what it's like to be someone other than me, which perversely enough always strengthens my feelings of kinship for my essentially unknowable fellow man. The search for humanity in its variety is why I come to fiction, mostly, or at least I can say that if there is no display of a deeply-felt humanity in a book, I am not engaged or much interested in reading it. Somehow all of that comes across as more vague and meaningless than it sounded in my head, and I'm not at all sure how to make it more clear, even to myself. Perhaps I don't know why I come to fiction.

One demand I make of fiction, I can at least claim (or I will at least claim tonight), is that the characters who people it exist within an illusion of the author's understanding of how people are in actual life. No, that sentence stinks. Nobody will know what I mean by it. What do I mean by it? Sometimes I encounter fictional characters who are so clumsily written that it seems to me that the writer has the barest inkling of what goes on inside the head of a real human being. Jonathan Franzen tops the list, but right behind him is (possibly heretically) Franz Kafka. Kafka's characters (at least in his longer fiction) seem to have been imagined by an impatient teenaged boy who has no concept of maturity. Now, you ask, what does that mean? This post is getting nowhere, because I am trying to be precise in my language but I find I'm not used to writing precisely about fictional people.

I start again. I'll skip the Kafka for now and get to the point. We all hope. I'm reading Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, a novel which owes a great deal to Franz Kafka's The Castle, in terms of symbolism, setting, and mood. Ignore what I said about skipping the Kafka for now. The way the characters are written by Pamuk in Snow is quite similar to the way the characters are written in Kafka's The Trial, in terms of falseness and clumsy handling by the author. Oh, that's unkind, very unkind. But it's a growing problem I have with Snow, and the main reason I'll be glad to be shut of this book once I've made my way through the remaining ninety pages or so.
With every ounce of his strength, Ka escaped Z Demirkol’s gaze, turning his now streaming eyes to the tremulous snow-covered streetlamps of Atatürk Avenue—they were visible from where he was sitting, but he hadn’t noticed them until now.
That's just clumsy prose, picked at random from the novel. Like Kafka, Pamuk is constantly interrupting scenes to provide bits of unimportant information (it is obvious that anything Ka sees is visible from where he is; that he hadn't noticed them until this point is beside the point). Passages are constantly spoiled by these clumsy intrusions of the author to provide setting. But that's not what I meant to display.
As Ka would later write, it may have been now, as they were holding each other and weeping, that I˙pek discovered something for the first time: To live in indecision, to waver between defeat and a new life, offered as much pleasure as pain. The ease with which they could hold each other and cry this way made Ka love her all the more, but even in the bitter contentment of this tearful embrace a part of him was already calculating his next move and remained alert to the sounds from the street.


It seemed to him that I˙pek somehow knew he could see more than just beauty in the geometry of the snowflakes, but at the same time he knew this could not be so. Part of him knew she was not altogether happy to see his attention drawn elsewhere. Up to now he had been the pursuer, and his evident desire had made him feel uncomfortably vulnerable, so Ka was pleased to see the tables turned: From this he deduced that making love had gained him a slight advantage.
Some of that's just very bad writing. I don't get the impression that Pamuk is talking about homo sapiens at all. I get the feeling that interpersonal relationships are something Pamuk has read about somewhere, maybe in home health product catalogs, for example. I don't feel that these passages--this entire novel--have been written by a man who has had much personal contact with humanity.

There are good things in Snow, but those are generally the comic moments. When Ka is denounced as an enemy of the state in a front-page article of Kars' main newspaper, Ka is insulted that he's referred to as a "so-called poet" and the idea that his life is now in grave danger is of secondary importance. That's good stuff, as is a lot of the writing about the city and the landscape. Some of the set pieces are quite good indeed, and it all breaks down when we are asked to believe in this character named Ka, who becomes more like an adolescent described by an adolescent as the book progresses. Pamuk tells us fairly soon in Snow that Ka will be shot in the head by an Islamic assassin, and by the time this book is over I'm pretty sure I'll agree that the guy had it coming. If only it hadn't taken 430 pages, I imagine myself saying.

About the snowflake: Ka writes nineteen poems while he is in Kars. They come to him, he says, as from an outside source, as if the voice of God is dictating them to him. He arranges these poems in the shape of a snowflake, along three axes, placing himself (that is, placing a poem called "I, Ka") in the center of the axes. The snowflake is a representation of the conflicting forces that act upon an individual, causing him to shift and change his nature depending upon which forces are most strong at any given time. The center, the personality, is not fixed ("Ka knew very well that life was a meaningless string of random incidents."). This snowflake, and the graphic illustration of it midway through the novel, are not keys to the meaning of Snow. They're just more argy-bargy of Pamuk's, more unfocused stuff that adds nothing to this rag bag of ideas and flat characters shouting about politics while the so-called poet wanders past it all, indifferent to politics until someone with a greater interest in politics sees fit to smash out Ka's life with a bullet. That could be powerful stuff, if Ka and the political fanatics seemed the least bit real. Real people are not present in Snow. The snowflake, the representation of real people, is what we get, but we get neither the poems Ka has arranged in his snowflake pattern, or a real person to compare to the snowflake symbol. We are buried, bit by bit, by something that will leave nothing behind when it melts.


  1. Why do people come to fiction? For me it is both simple and complicated (yes, another paradox -- so what's new). In my limited lifetime, I know that I can have limited experiences, acquaintances, and relationships. Through fiction -- the grand vicarious art -- I can have more experiences, more acquaintances, and -- well, perhaps not more relationships, which would be a bit weird. And then there is this, which some people resist: Fiction is often a mirror. I see things about myself that I have otherwise overlooked or repressed. The experience is both pleasant and horrifying. Yikes, another paradox!

  2. The problems sound familiar. That poem crystal really bugged me. How do you know it's not the key, or a key? I didn't do any work on it myself. It felt like an imposition.

    And what's with that "I've come to believe"? You thought we were lying?

    1. Okay, I don't know positively that the snowflake isn't a key to something, but it looks like nothing more than another way to state the Big Themes. I don't see that there's any mystery to unlock in Snow. And if there is a mystery and the snowflake is the key to it, it doesn't look like any fun figuring it out. An imposition, as you say.

      I didn't think you were lying! I just wasn't really aware until the last couple of years that there were readers who privileged formal narrative elements above things like plot and character. The recurring images of shadows and their variations being more interesting that what happens to the fictional people, that sort of thing.

      Tomorrow there will be a final post about Snow, a post with a much shorter title than this one and no excerpts. I've already written it and I've forgotten the substance already. Something more about Kafka, I think. My difficulty with the most recent books I've read is making me feel like a Philistine.

  3. Eh, we were probably lying. People who like tricks can't be trusted.