On the Trials of Literature

I’m currently slogging through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red—a book that I’d hoped would sustain my interest as Istanbul never did.

It’s rare for me to be defeated by a piece of literature. Pride and persistence usually win the day when comprehension and curiosity fail. But there are times when the writer is simply too clever (the case in at least one Salman Rushdie novel and in all Umberto Eco novels). Then reading becomes a monotonous and self-congratulatory exercise in pedantry, with the embattled reader left increasingly wondering whether there’s an ultimate meaning they can derive from the text given all their time and effort.

I appreciate cleverness in writing, but only as a by-product of the art rather than its intention. I adhere to the old-fashioned view that novels are meant to tell stories: preferably good ones with interesting characters, riveting conflicts, satisfying climaxes and clear-cut conclusions. To use a novel as a vehicle for demonstrating a long-winded witticism or artistic abstraction is an act of extortion—it takes time and effort to read, and to have a reader expend all that energy just to arrive at a spectacularly obscure punch-line or vulgar absurdity is nothing short of immoral.

(I have similar beliefs about films, though my standards here are looser given that films typically demand far less energy than books. A bad artistic film will rob you of two hours of your life—more if it’s artsy with a budget. A bad artistic book can easily rob you of several hours—more if you have a tendency to be vain and persistent.)

Right now, I’m not sure how I feel about Mr. Pamuk’s My Name is Red. There is a story (as far as I can tell), but it’s proceeding at the pace of an inebriated snail. It’s also not an easy text—a nuisance exacerbated by the fact that I only get to read late at night these days, at a time when my brain cells hyperventilate at the sight of a polysyllabic word.

Nevertheless, my indignation notwithstanding, I still have considerable reserves of pride and persistence left. Which is an eminently good thing given that I’ve got 300 plus pages left to go.



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