New Nonfiction from Pamuk and Eco

The books are The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk and Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco.

The review is at The Guardian.

Pamuk’s subtitle is Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels. It would be closer to the effect of the book if “we” were changed to “I”: by the end, “we” understand more about Pamuk as writer and reader, less so about our own readerly habits.

Eco’s study is more challenging. He is, he claims, a professional academic and an amateur artist. As philosopher he provides endnotes, indulges in diagrams of semiotic strategies, and investigates the ontological status of fictional characters and the epistemological status of fictional “truth”. Yet, his is the more playful book – in keeping with his title, Confessions of a Young Novelist (Harvard, £14.95) by a man in his late 70s.

Like Pamuk with his naive and sentimental readers, Eco knows he speaks both to an elite minority and to a popular audience; the latter is not entirely excluded but has “lost an additional wink”. He catches the comedy of the relationship of the reader (often seen by the author as slightly crazy in his desire to find correlatives of art in known life) and the (necessarily) egotistic author. The relationship is a touch belligerent: the writer provides detailed, often very accurate descriptions, and yet he must also “bamboozle” readers; he must keep some secrets. And readers don’t have complete interpretative freedom, whatever they think. Between the mysterious creation of the novel and the uncontrollable proliferations of readings, “the text qua text still represents a comforting presence, a point to which we can hold fast”. Eco ponders the age-old questions of fiction: how real and imaginary can blend, why we cry over the plight of a made-up character, and in what sense, say, Anna Karenina and Leopold Bloom “exist”.

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