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A Polyphonic Spree: Notes on Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel

I have always been obsessed with Milan Kundera, and wanted to figure out why, so I grabbed his book The Art of the Novel, and sat down to take notes. What follows is my account of his account of why he writes the kind of books that he does.

ONE The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes

In 1935 the philosopher Edmund Husserl diagnosed a “crisis of European humanity”(3) by which he meant the very modernity that Europe bequeathed to the rest of the world, for good or ill. This modernity was a Cartesian quest to mathematize scientific knowledge, as well as a Faustian quest for knowledge-as-power, the personification of which is a rather virile scientist who seeks to “apprehend” and “interrogate” the world much as Kundera’s own character Tomas in ULB (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) wields a scalpel, both in his role as a surgeon as well as in his epic quest to conquer the infinite variety of women in the world. And just as such men reduce women to the status of objects, modernity for Husserl “reduced the world to a mere object of the technical and mathematical investigation and put the concrete world of life, die Lebenswelt [. . .] beyond their horizon. The result is that modernity began a process of the “forgetting of being”(4), the forgetting of what it means to be human (and thus the reduction of what it means to be human to the scientifically discoverable).

But for Kundera the modern era is an ambiguous one, marked by gains as well as losses, and there is another kind of investigation, one begun by Cervantes, that took as its object that which science ignored: “the investigation of this forgotten being,” the human. It, too, seems quite masculine in Kundera’s vision, as its task is to “scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against the forgetting of being, to hold ‘the world of life’ under a permanent light“(5, my italics).

The novel’s forward march through time runs in parallel, then, with scientific modernity, and it is charged with the duty of discovering hitherto uncharted territories of the human (in fact, any novel that fails to do so is, for Kundera, an “immoral” one (6)). For example, with Cervantes we get the exploration of man-in-the-world, of adventure; with Richardson, exploration of the psyche, of the “inner” man; with Balzac, man’s place in history; with Tolstoy, irrational man; and with Proust and Joyce, the human sense of time.

What marks the novel’s “progress” most particularly is that it does not discover objective truths about morality, say, as science would claim objective knowledge of the material world. Rather, the novel sees ambiguity and contradiction everywhere it looks, and its sole duty is to undermine those who would seek to impose the scientific, binary, either/or way-of-knowing on the human realm–what Kundera calls “totalitarian truth”(14).

The novel’s progress is itself ambiguous, marked by contradiction, by gain as well as by loss, and Kundera sees it as running in parallel with the decline in religious certainty: when we lost the miraculous infinity of the City of God we began to look for a compensatory infinity, first in the outside world with Cervantes, and then in the depths of the human soul with Flaubert, to take two of his prime examples. Thus while Don Quixote moved freely in an external world that was “open wide”(7) to him (but with little sense of interest in his “inner self”), by the time of Madame Bovary, the horizon of the external world has shrunk, and the novel compensates us for this loss with “one of Europe’s finest illusions”, the “infinity of the soul”. In the 250 years (1605-1856) spanning these two writers, the novel’s concerns have shifted from exploring the peregrinations of the adventurer-hero (across a landscape just beginning to be haunted by the loss of the timeless religious certainties of the past) to exploring the seemingly infinite psycho-geography of a single unique human consciousness.

For Kundera, though, the 20C deprives us of even that compensatory illusion, as the past century brought us to what he calls a series of “terminal paradoxes”(13), wherein, for example, “Cartesian rationality has corroded [. . .] all values inherited from the middle ages”, but has given us nothing to take their place except expediency and instrumental value: humans, like everything else in the modern world, are devalued by the “termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art”(17). Into the vacuum produced by Cartesian doubt leaps irrationality, and voila! Rationality sees itself deposed by a tyrannical unreason, which nevertheless rules our lives with an iron fist (as seen in Kafka and Musil, e.g.).

This does not mean that this is necessarily the end of History (a là Francis Fukuyama), however—the history of the novel or of political progress. Though many, many novelists are content to repeat the discoveries that others have made before them, to peddle wares that confirm the prejudices of their readers and of a society that would like to see itself as the final telos of history, there remain avenues of progress for the novel in the under-explored precincts of its own past: we could investigate the “appeal of play”(15) in the novels of 18C writers who were sceptical of the virtue of verisimilitude—as in Sterne and Diderot; the “appeal of dream” and the limitless possibilities for the imagination to break free from the conventions of realism, as seen in a writer such as Kafka; the “appeal of thought”(16), of philosophical reflection and contemplation—a mode that is definitely a part of Kundera’s own work, but he cites Musil and Broch as exemplary practitioners; the “appeal of time”—specifically, perturbing the temporal boundaries of the individual human life, anchoring them in larger patterns of history, by way of inquiring into the possibility of a sense of “collective” or epochal time.

If these remain possibilities for the novel, the contemporary world is not interested in them, for these are matters of complexity and continuity, and the reductionist spirit of our age is one of simplicity, of ahistoricism, with the horizon of time cut off in both directions by a totalitarian sense of the present moment. In our age, the novel is no longer allowed to be “a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future), but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow”(19).

Kundera’s conclusion is a somewhat dispiriting, if intransigent one: if the novel is to go on progressing, he says, it must do so only by “discovering the undiscovered” in human life, something that is entirely at odds with a technological and technocratic understanding of progress. The novel’s progress cannot be wedded to any understanding of social progress, for the latter is univocal, while the former revels in ambiguity and celebrates contradiction. Kundera sides with the former, with “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”(20)

TWO Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

MK begins this section with a simple assertion: that his novels “lie outside of the aesthetic of the novel normally termed psychological”(23). What he means by this is not that he denies his characters an inner life, but that he does not want to offer the reader the comforting illusion that psychological realism offers: that we can understand the character if we have full access to their inner life. Psychological realism not only offers this illusion to readers, it demands that authors offer it to readers—for it is the hegemonic mode, the default mode of contemporary fiction:

Indeed, two centuries of psychological realism have created some nearly inviolable standards: (1) A writer must give the maximum amount of information about a character: about his physical appearance, his way of speaking and behaving; (2) he must let the reader know a character’s past, because that is where all the motives for his present behaviour are located; and (3) the character must have complete independence; that is to say, the author with his own considerations must disappear so as not to disturb the reader, who wants to give himself over to illusion and take fiction for reality. (33)

Kundera wants to give us something else: an exploration of the existential “enigma of the self”(23) in a manner that lies beyond mere psychological realism—a mode that was invented with Richardson and perfected by Proust and Joyce. He wants to get beyond this mode because Joyce brought it to its very limits, or rather brought the limits of this mode to light, showed us (in the Penelope chapter of Ulysses, for example) how much is gained and how much is lost by scrutinizing, over dozens of pages, two rambling “sentences” of Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness. Thus does “the quest for the self [end . . .] in paradox: The more powerful the lens of the microscope observing the self, the more the self and its uniqueness elude us; beneath the great Joycean lens that breaks the soul down into atoms, we are all alike. But if the self and its uniqueness cannot be grasped in man’s inner life, then where and how can we grasp it?” (25)

To answer that question Kundera makes us look yet again at the progress, at the historical evolution (for lack of a better word) of the novel. If the first European novelists defined man by his actions, by the time of the skeptical age of Diderot action seems riddled with external determination, chance occurrence and misapprehension. Kafka finds the same problem with psychological realism, which arose to replace action with the interior, core self as the definition of the human essence. Kafka “does not ask what internal motivations determine man’s behaviour. He asks a question that is radically different: What possibilities remain for man in a world where the external determinants have become so overpowering that internal impulses no longer carry any weight?” (26)

This is what Kundera means in ULB when he says that “the novel [after Kafka] is not the author’s confession; it is the investigation of human life in the trap that the world has become.” Marx and Weber saw two different kinds of trap developing in the modern world. For Marx, these can be inadequately summed up in the phrases “commodity fetishism” and the “alienation of labour” (among others). For Weber, it is perhaps primarily the prison house of bureaucracy or technocracy brought about by the need of the rising nation states for ever more specialized labour. Kundera mentions neither of these, but somewhat obliquely names 1914 as the beginning of the (late?) modern “trap”: the trap of globalization, the trap of history that is not made by us, but by some impersonal force somewhere else around the globe, history that seems to lack human agency but which sees all of humanity as the objects of its power.

After the dawn of the 20C, then, all existential questions are no longer merely individual, but possess an historical and a political dimension. This is not to say, however, that all novels must henceforth be “historical novels”—Kundera is at pains to make this distinction quite clear:

Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation: In-der-Welt-sein, being in the world. Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set. Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell: the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well. Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters’ lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates. [. . .] But two things should not be confused: there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography [. . .] popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel. Well, I’ll never tire of repeating: The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say. (35-36)

The key words concerning the kinds of novels that Kundera is arguing against are “description” and “illustration”—novels that merely re-present society or history to itself. What he is advocating for, however, is something far more active, as he sees the novelist as an explorer, as a practitioner of “meditative interrogation (interrogative meditation)”(31).

Kundera tells us in ULB that asking questions is like taking a scalpel to the totalitarian veil of kitsch that pervades the modern world, kitsch that protects both the unthinking masses and those in power who like their masses to be as unthinking as possible. For kitsch is art that sees this world as unproblematic, art that celebrates sentimentality in the face of the horror that is modern history: if it is art that “sets up a folding screen to curtain off death” it also sets up a folding screen to curtain off the history that, more and more, has cornered the market, the trade, in life-and-death. Kitsch curtains off all of our unspoken questions about the trap of existence in a historical time in which our actions (and thus ourselves) are determined, more and more, by conditions outside of our control. Kitsch is, finally, art that offers us the comforting illusions of psychological realism, the illusions that we are whole, independent individuals, with meaningful, unique inner lives, and that we are the authors of our own destinies in the world of action.

Kundera’s novels, in attempting to combat the above existential/aesthetic ills, operate on four fundamental principles:

  1. “All historical circumstances [are treated] with the greatest economy”(36).
  2. “Keep only those [historical circumstances] that create a revelatory existential situation for [one’s] characters.”
  3. “Historiography writes the history of society, not of man”(37).
  4. “Not only must a new historical circumstance create a new existential situation for a character in a novel, but History itself must be understood and analyzed as an existential situation (37-38).

What Kundera means by all of this is:

(1) and (2) The novelist must wisely include only those historical details that reveal something new about the human condition, that answer the question: how is this particular moment in history revealing something new, something that has either heretofore gone unnoticed or unexpressed, a newly discovered way of being-in-the-world?

(3) Historiography looks at events for their political, economic and social importance. Novelists see history as a laboratory of human possibility, and particular historical events as specific petri dishes within that vast research facility: novelists set their characters—whom Kundera calls “experimental selves”(34)—in that new historical moment, and record what new aspects of existence are revealed thereby. Novelists are thus poetic anthropologists in relation to history, and often look for potentially revelatory-but-overlooked moments, moments that conventional historical accounts ignore but which reveal important new truths about ourselves as historically-embedded beings.

(4) Following from (3), it cannot be overstressed that history is not a “stage set before which human situations unfold”(38, my italics), but is itself a “human situation.” By this he means that: (a)not only are human beings historically-embedded beings, but also (b) that history is a thoroughly human construct. We can neither escape from history, nor can history be understood apart from the human beings trapped inside of it.

Finally, what emerges from these considerations is not an art that cruises at a level of abstraction and detachment 30,000 feet above the world of quotidian reality—far from it. In rejecting mere psychological realism Kundera nevertheless insists that the novel make its characters and their existential dilemmas feel even more alive to the alert and energetic reader than realist novels could ever hope to. This is not to be done though exhaustive description, either of the character’s outer appearance or situation, or of their inner thoughts and feelings. Rather, it is to get the reader to the point where their own active “imagination automatically completes the writer’s”(34).

Meditation on the character’s key dilemma, on the defining crisis of his or her life, is what enables the reader to feel imaginary/imaginative empathy for the character, and for Kundera, such meditation is best approached by lingering upon certain mysterious and ambiguous “key words”(29), words that come to define the character’s (not the author’s or the reader’s) chief existential problem, and thereby the trajectory of the character’s personal drama. None of this is done “in abstracto“(30), but is embodied in the character’s decisions and actions, in their hopes and fears, in their choice of life partners and careers, for example. Readers do not need to know how tall someone is or whether their shoulders are hunched unless these are important “keys to understanding”(31) the character and the human possibility that they reveal to us.

In short, the novelist remains, first and foremost “an explorer of existence”(44).

THREE Notes inspired by The Sleepwalkers

Milan Kundera sees much potential in the exploration of human possibility as modeled by the German author Herman Broch’s novel The Sleepwalkers, which achieves artistic unity or continuity not through modes common to earlier eras of the novel—of action (the hero’s quest) or of biography (the bildungsroman or novel of education, the family saga, etc.)—but through one overarching theme, in Broch’s case the four hundred year-long “process of a disintegration of values” from the middle ages to the twentieth century (47).

The great transcendental certainty that Christendom provided is gone, and Broch understands that humankind cannot let go of certainty itself, even if its guarantor, the Church, is now epistemologically bankrupt. Something must fill the void. And so Broch diagnoses three pathologies that man continues to cling to, like a cancer patient who refuses to let go of a malignant tumor:

  1. Atavism: the political reactionary, the falling-back upon ancient or ancestral prejudices, “the sentimental attachment to inherited values” (50) as represented by the soldier’s or functionary’s uniform (the secular worshiping of which rose as the significance of the “sacerdotal habit” diminished) (51). And in the modern world, Kundera reminds us, the uniform’s significance is that we do not choose it—the uniform is thrust upon us. It represents the “certitude of the universal,” the will-to-belief in a capital-A Absolute in the face of the dissolution of all absolutes, against which the pitiful “precariousness of the individual” cannot hope to compete.
  2. Fanaticism: when God is dead, words like “order, loyalty, sacrifice” are let out of their ecclesiastical cage and wander the world in search of their (non-existent) objective correlatives, in search of the “concrete content” that will give meaning to their “mere empty form”. It is a futile quest, of course, but the more gratification is delayed, the stronger the passions behind these words rage, and indeed “rampag[e] through the bloody history of our time” (52).
  3. Nihilism: For Broch modern man belongs to a transitional stage, representing “a bridge between the reign of irrational faith and the reign of the irrational in a world without faith” (54). This is because, released from allegiance to any external, objective duty and to all previously transcendent values, modern man is free to float from one desire to the next and thereby “becom[e] the executioner of a world that has pronounced its own sentence.”
  4. (And 5.) Kundera also cites two other modern possibilities, belonging to the rise of bureaucracy—as explored not by Broch but by Franz Kafka (The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926)) and by Jaroslav Hašek (The Good Soldier Schweik (1923)), both of whom Kundera sees as the obverse of the other. Both view the modern world as inherently labyrinthine, as moronically bureaucratic, and both present their tales in a register that fully departs from the realistic: Kafka’s Joseph K. learns to soberly self-recriminate in the face of functionaries whose “stupidity is swathed in a mantle of mystery and takes on the quality of a metaphysical parable”(48), while Hašek’s hero gamely adapts his behaviour to suit the “imbecilic” order of those above him , and “by his extravagant conformism [. . .] turns the world into one enormous joke”(49). Kundera sees these two writers as each emphasizing one half of the whole that is totalitarianism—and while he writes of the experience of the former Eastern Bloc, even a casual perusal of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil suggests that this remains fertile explorative territory for western artists as well:

[. . .]these two attitudes—seemingly artificial, literary, exaggerated—are only too real; we’ve lived in the realm bounded on one side by K.’s possibility, on the other by Schweik’s; which is to say: in the realm where the one pole is the identification with power, to the point where the victim develops solidarity with his own executioner, and the other pole the nonacceptance of power through the refusal to take anything seriously at all.

Thus Kundera shepherds us to view the world we now inhabit, one marked by a simultaneous emptiness of (and a yearning for) meaning, a world in which the irrational (whether in the guise of tradition, of some “cause” that is greater than ourselves and that we can submit ourselves to—or in the guise of nothing at all) is quickly becoming the one true constant of modern life, and we its victims assist it in its ratchet-like colonization of the life-world. We know that the ladders they give us to climb lead nowhere, and we laugh at the folly of our superiors even as we jealously jockey for position to be next in line. And when we fail the system, when it trips us and tells us that we stumbled and fell, we have no one to blame but ourselves. And we do.

The big innovation that Kundera sees Broch bringing to the novel is that characters’ selves are never their own: rather, they conduct their lives beneath the implacable movements of capital-H History, “under the stars of the ages” (54):

The planets that wheel in the sky of the Modern Era are reflected, always in a specific configuration, in the individual soul; it is through this configuration that the character’s situation and the sense of his being are defined […] Broch speaks of [one of his protagonists] Esch and all at once compares him to Luther. Both belong to the rebel category (Broch analyses it at length). “Esch is a rebel like Luther.” We tend to look for a character’s roots in his childhood. Esch’s roots (his childhood remains unknown to us) are to be found in another century. Esch’s past is Luther […]

For Broch, a character is conceived not as a uniqueness, inimitable and transitory, a miraculous moment fated to disappear, but as a solid bridge erected above time, where Luther and Esch, the past and present, come together.

It is less in his philosophy of history than in this new way of seeing man (seeing him under the celestial arch of the ages) that Broch in The Sleepwalkers prefigures, I think, the future possibilities of the novel. (54-55, my emphasis)

If, among those possibilities, is an understanding that history can be seen in a kind of structuralist light, one populated by certain recurring archetypes [“all of history is merely the story of a few characters (a Faust, a Don Juan, a Don Quixote, a Rastignac, an Esch)], it is also a history that can never be straight-forwardly, rationally understood, understood in terms of cause-and-effect.

The modern self, rather, is for Kundera a self lost in the Imaginary, in a forest of symbols, symbols manufactured out of the misapprehension of reality (n.b. I have always wondered, how much of a debt Kundera owes to Lacan in this, and the vibes I get from his novel Immortality concerning (e.g.) how gestures “use” us rather than us them, have led me to guess that this debt is at least not non-existent!)

Kundera cites the major transition here as occurring between Dostoevsky, who “grasped the madness of reason stubbornly determined to carry its logic through to the end” (58), and Tolstoy, who for the first time in the novel’s history “bring[s] to light the causeless, incalculable, even mysterious aspect of human action”(57). Tolstoy’s Anna kills herself for no one determinable reason; rather, the author can only present to the reader “an almost Joycean interior monologue to reconstruct the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, [and] fragmentary thoughts” (59) which result from her (and our) mis-reading of the world, from the irrational logic of our “con-fusion” of bits of sense data into symbols, symbols that possess no objective correlative, that do not correspond to any reality other than the one unconsciously constructed by ourselves in our own imaginations:

It is like Baudelaire’s famous poem where “long echoes . . . are confounded,” where “the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond”: one thing is like another, is confounded with it [. . .] We need only examine our own lives to see how much this irrational system, far more than any reasoned thought, directs our attitudes: a certain man who, with his passion for aquarium fish, evokes some other who in the past caused me some terrible misery will always excite insurmountable mistrust in me . . .

The irrational system rules political life no less: along with the last world war Communist Russia won the war of symbols: it succeeded for at least a half-century in providing the symbols of Good and Evil to the great army of Esches [Luthers!] who are as avid for values as they are incapable of discriminating among them. This is why the gulag will never supplant Nazism as a symbol of absolute evil in the European consciousness. This is why the people hold massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and not against the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan. Vietnam, colonialism, racism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism—all these words correspond like the colors and sounds in Baudelaire’s poem, while the Afghanistan war is, so to speak, symbolically mute, or at any rate beyond the magic circle of absolute Evil, the geyser of symbols. (60-62)

For both Broch and Kundera the novel must move forward beyond the well-tested limits of the individual psyche and embrace the novel’s ability to incorporate much more than the story of an isolated unitary self: it must place that self in relation to any discipline that increases the novel’s “cognitive capacities”(64). For it is the novel’s job to explore heretofore unchartered regions of human nature and existence, and the novel is uniquely placed to absorb not only history, but almost any other intellectual discipline:

Broch rejects the aesthetic of the “psychological novel in favor of the novel he calls [. . .] “polyhistorical.” [. . .] He knows that the novel has an extraordinary power of incorporation: whereas neither poetry nor philosophy can incorporate the novel, the novel can incorporate both poetry and philosophy without losing thereby anything of its identity, which is characterized [. . .] precisely by its tendency to embrace other genres, to absorb philosophical and scientific knowledge. So in Broch’s perspective, the word “polyhistorical” means: marshalling all intellectual means and all poetic forms to illuminate “what the novel alone can discover”: man’s being. (63-64)

Kundera’s program, then, is to begin with Broch’s template for the novel, and to build upon the structure that he left either incomplete or beset by certain unresolved problems: first, since a “polyhistorical” novel is prone to an accumulation of simply too much information, Kundera proposes “a technique of ellipsis”(71), a “new art of radical divestment“(65), of the condensation of narrative, in which the novelist takes the reader directly to the heart of the existential issue under examination while leaving out all of those conventional ingredients of the novel, of the protagonist’s backstory, for example, which do not immediately relate to the exploration of controlling existential motifs of their lives.

And while Kundera proposes a radical subtraction of certain elements of conventional narrative, he also proposes the addition of other ways of knowing—philosophy, history, meditative essay, dream, etc.—that will create “a new art of novelistic counterpoint” in which each (economically deployed) supplemental discourse resonates with the main narrative to the extent that the reader has a kind of polyphonic experience, listens to the concordant melodies of several well-trained voices, voices capable of superposing themselves in a single, unified thematic direction, into “one music.”

Kundera thus signals a way out of the trap of a certain variety of modernism (what he calls “modernism of the university” or “establishment modernism” (66)), which merely involves “the destruction of the novel form”, a critique of “the artifice of character” that can suggest no program of reform, a negation that proposes no path forward. In the next section, “Part Four: Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” Kundera will expand upon just how the novel can continue to reinvent itself, to absorb the skeptical, restless energy of modernist art while also avoiding the various cul-de-sacs to which the modernist aesthetic is susceptible.

FOUR/FIVE Dialogue on the Art of Composition/Somwhere Behind

Expanding on is idea of “the art of ellipsis” (72), Kundera draws an analogy to the work of the composer Louis Janacek, whose “imperative was: Destroy the ‘computer’!”—which is roughly analogous to Martin Amis’s idea that the modern novelist should conduct a permanent, never-ending “war against cliché:”

Always head straight to the heart of things: only the note that says something essential has the right to exist. Roughly the same idea applies to the novel: it too is weighed down by “technique,” by the conventions that do the author’s work for him: present a character, describe a milieu, bring the action into a historical situation, fill time in the characters’ lives with superfluous episodes; each shift of scene calls for a new exposition, description, explanation. My own imperative is “Janacekian”: to rid the novel of automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic verbalism; to make it dense. (72-73)

Such density is further achieved through polyphonic composition, “the simultaneous presentation of two or more voices (melodic lines) that are perfectly bound together but still keep their relative independence” (73-74). But polyphony does not mean mere digression or the telling of stories-within-stories, something that the novel has dealt with since the seventeenth century. Rather, true polyphony can only result when there is no sense that the additional voice is a mere departure from the main narrative line, a departure that will somehow serve or be subsumed into the primary voice. For “one of the fundamental principles of the great polyphonic composers was the equality of voices: no one voice should dominate, none should serve as mere accompaniment (75). Each , in fact, should so successfully blend into the other that, while they appear to be quite independent of the others, when taken together the audience should experience “the invisibility of the whole”(76).

Such an emphasis on thematic rather than narrative unity can be perceived most clearly by the reader in negative terms: if the reader mentally “erases” or removes even one of the voices from a Kundera novel—be it a diary entry, philosophical meditation or first person narration—it immediately becomes apparent that the brilliance of the novel’s thematic obsession—the number of thematic “lumens” it produces (so to speak, and to shift the metaphorical register from aural to visual) is thereby greatly diminished. If Immortality had been written without, for example, the story of Goethe and Bettina, or if The Unbearable Lightness of Being lacked the author’s meditation on how the philosophical legacy of Descartes cast a shadow over Teresa’s relationship with her dog Karenin, how much less powerful those two novels would be!

Kundera is repeatedly at pains to emphasise precisely where the source of his novels’ aesthetic power resides: in their refusal to “affirm” (78). His novels, rather, inhabit “a realm of play and of hypotheses” in which novelistic “reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical.” Even when he intervenes directly in his own novels, Kundera is never telling us what he himself wants us to think, but attempts to engage with the reader in “playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or inquiring” terms (80), so as to direct the reader into his or her own manner of experimentation.

Such experimental provocation can be seen most strikingly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Kundera intervenes in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (V-effect: “distancing,” “defamiliarization” or “alienation” effect), which forces the reader to awaken from the stupor into which he or she has fallen due a desire on the reader’s part to be led by the aforementioned “automatism of narrative technique”—to familiar and safe narrative terrain. The playwright or novelist would intervene in the work of art in such a manner as to deny the audience or reader the conventional pleasures of enchantment that both the stage and the novel provide: such authorial intervention, rather, forces the reader to think and question the contradictions of modern, bourgeois existence rather than to merely feel and to accept a magical, purely aesthetic reconciliation of those contradictions by the work of art. In Brecht’s words, the V-effect was one technique whereby “art ‘by its own means’ could ‘further the great social task of mastering life'”(Brooker 217).

Kundera could hardly be said to embrace Brecht’s social program, and he most certainly would argue that the novel’s chief task is to explore, rather than “master” life. Nevertheless, his method owes much to Brecht. Consider these two passages from ULB:

It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying einmal ist keinmal. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach. (ULB 39)

I see [Thomas] the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel: standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the walls opposite. This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about. But isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself? Staring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do; hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one’s own stomach during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one’s fist with the crowds in the Grand March; displaying one’s wit before hidden microphones—I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own I ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. (239-40)

In this novel Kundera desires that his readers probe deeply into the “trap that the world has become” and question of the meaning of existence in a world in which the death of God and the waning of traditional Western values is to be taken for granted. Einmal ist keinmal, German for “once is nothing,” signifies that a life lived but once is ephemeral, doomed in advance, and is thus a life of no weight or significance whatsoever. Thinking about that phrase has caused the author to imagine a character whose primary narrative arc, whose personal drama, is characterized by that phrase. Tomas embodies the contradiction of knowing that one’s existence is thereby unbearably light, but feeling a need so deep for the opposite, for a life of substance and weight, a contradiction so overwhelming that he ups and marries a woman—Tereza—who is the incarnation of the opposite of everything his life as up to that point stood for (the duty of surgery, of skeptically cutting through the surface of existence with his mental scalpel on the one hand, and the duty of libertinism, of “collecting” as many varieties of the female “species” as humanly possible).

Yet if we merely felt Tomas’s predicament, that predicament would remain at a safe distance from our own lives once we closed the book—at best Tomas’s predicament would have provided us with a momentary sense of catharsis. And if we merely thought about it, it would remain wholly theoretical, only half-human, and the novel itself little more than a brief, amateurish philosophical meditation. What Kundera does in the novel quoted above is coldly wake us up to thinking about the artifice of the novel while simultaneously enchanting us with the imaginative possibilities that such artifice can promise. He engages us in a dialectical process of thought-feeling: feeling that never lets us abandon our skeptical intellects, meditative reflection that provokes in us the same capacity for empathy, the same susceptibility to affective imagination that causes Tomas to see Tereza in the light of the metaphor of the abandoned baby (as “Moses in the bulrushes”)—and to immediately fall in love with her.

Tomas knows that what he calls “love” may in fact be “hysteria,” and he knows that his “weighty” life Tereza (he comes to feel her at one point as fetters on his ankles even though she has provided, and will go on continuing to provide him with some of the most fulfilling moments of his life) will bring him into contradiction with every aspect of his chosen, “light” manner of existence. But he cannot help falling for her any more than he can help continuing to live the life of a Don Juan, a libertine who sees other women as the curious objects of lust and of his scientific curiosity. He is forced to live through his contradictions rather than novelistically reconcile or “solve” them, just as the reader cannot either cease thinking about the artifice of the novel or believing in Tomas and Tereza as real people: our imaginative empathy causes us to fall in love with them, too, and we question the meaning and value of the Dionysian imaginative impulse (that aesthetic-moral-emotional state of being moon-struck, of turning at once into lunatics, since as Shakespeare knows, “poets, lovers and madmen are of imagination all compact”—A Midsummer Night’s Dream) even as we are, by some “vicious mole in our nature” driven to empathetically identify with each of them. Kundera calls compassion “the devil’s gift”, but so too is any act of the imagination, which forces us outside of ourselves, in a manner of serious play, of playful seriousness, which seeks not so much a final reconciliation of opposites as a masterly fusing of them, of holding them in tension until they shed some light on a previously dark corner of existence.

Sabina is a character in the novel whose art practices what Kundera’s The Art of the Novel preaches:

“You seem to be turning into the theme of all my paintings,” she said. “The meeting of two worlds. A double exposure. Showing through the outline of Tomas the libertine, incredibly, the face of the romantic lover. Or, the other way, through a Tristan, always thinking of his Tereza, I see the beautiful, betrayed world of the libertine.” (ULB 22) A landscape showing an old-fashioned table lamp shining through it. An idyllic still life of apples, nuts, and a tiny, candle-lit Christmas tree showing a hand ripping through the canvas. (67)

For Sabina the act of creation is both a discovery of unforeseen meanings and an act of uncovering of what was always there, in potential. Her purposeful artifice, the deliberate “double exposure” of heretofore unassociated objects, is the visual analogue to Kundera’s musical metaphor of polyphonic narratives. This “meeting of two worlds” uncovers, “through the outline” of one object the heretofore latent possibilities “shining through” another.

To return to The Art of the Novel, Kundera ends this section of the book with a meditation on a stanza from a poem cycle by the Czech poet Jan Skacel, who writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.(115)

Kundera quotes the poem not because he believes in some mystical, transcendent “other world” that the poet somehow channels into our fallen, sub-lunary realm—far from it! He cites the poem, rather, because he sees the writer’s function as similar to the processes of history, which place human kind into a social laboratory much in the same way as the novelist imagines the interactions between his or her characters. Both processes “discover” human possibilities that have been latent in us “for a long long time”. Thus writers such as Franz Kafka, Kundera goes on to argue, only seem to be prophetic in unveiling the totalitarian impulse decades before its appearance in history:

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms in action on the great stage of history [. . .] The enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “non-engagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses [. . .] If I hold so ardently to the legacy of Kafka, if I defend it as my personal heritage, it is not because I think it worthwhile to imitate the inimitable [. . .] but because it is such a tremendous example of the radical autonomy of the novel. This autonomy allowed Franz Kafka to say things about our human condition (as it reveals itself in our century) that no social or political thought could ever tell us. (116-17)

Such “radical autonomy” is a compelling idea, a veritable intellectual beacon, for any writer who, following the path that Kundera has traced through the waste-land of the 20C, wishes to push on a little further, over the early 21C’s murky horizon. It is an autonomy that literary criticism, be it Structuralist, Post-Structuralist, Psychoanalytic or New Historicist, has diligently worked to deprive us of. And to return to the beginning of this piece, it traces its roots back through the most ironic, playful and self-aware authors of the European tradition, back to Cervantes. I shall have something to say about this most radical of Kundera’s provocations in my concluding thoughts, but it is crucial here to understand what Kundera’s position announces: the writer, he declares, will serve no master save his muse, and his only muse “is of man’s making.” She can only whisper in his ear thoughts, however wild and unrestrainable, that “can only contain what man contains”(115).

SIX Sixty-Three Words

Kundera’s own muse has driven him to obsess over certain key terms that, when embodied in the defining dramas of his characters’ lives (think of Tereza’s obsession with the brutal obstinacy of her body and the delusory, evanescent nature of her soul, and of the roots of this drama in her formerly beautiful mother’s cynically rejoicing in her own process of decay) , have proven most fruitful in his exploration of the human condition. Many of these will be immediately apparent to any reader of his novels: laughter & forgetting, lightness & weight, lyricism and youth—and a number of others have already been touched upon in my gloss of this particular book. I will linger upon a select few of the remainder here, in the hope of further illuminating my reading of Kundera’s aesthetic position. My own commentary will be absent in this section, to encourage the reader to keep an ear tilted appreciatively towards Kundera’s own unmistakable voice:

BEAUTY (and Knowledge). Those who, in the spirit of Broch, declare knowledge to be the novel’s sole morality are betrayed by the metallic aura of “knowledge,” a word too much compromised by its links with the sciences. So we have to add: Whatever aspects of existence the novel discovers, it discovers as the beautiful. The earliest novelists discovered adventure. Thanks to them we find adventure itself beautiful and are in love with it. Kafka described man in a situation of tragic entrapment. Kafkologists used to debate at length whether their author granted us any hope. No, not hope. Something else. Even that life-denying situation is revealed by Kafka as a strange, dark beauty. Beauty, the last triumph possible for man who can no longer hope. Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said. This light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man, and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us.

CENTRAL EUROPE In the twentieth century, revolt. The greatest minds (Freud, the novelists) revalidate what for centuries was ill known and unknown: rational and demystifying lucidity; a sense of the real; the novel. Their revolt is the exact opposite of French modernism’s, which is antirationalist, anti-realist, lyrical (this will cause a good many misunderstandings). The pleiad of great Central European novelists: Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz: their aversion to romanticism; their love for the pre-Balzac novel and for the libertine spirit (Broch interpreting kitsch as a plot by monogamous puritanism against the Enlightenment); their mistrust of History and of the glorification of the future; their modernism, which has nothing to do with the avant-garde’s illusions.

CENTRAL EUROPE (AND EUROPE) In a press release, Broch’s publisher places him in a highly Central European context: Hofmannsthal, Svevo. Broch protests: If he must be compared to someone, let it be Gide and Joyce! Was he thereby denying his “Central Europeanness”? No, he was only saying that national, regional contexts are useless for apprehending the meaning and the value of a work.

COMIC By providing us with the lovely illusion of human greatness, the tragic brings us consolation. The comic is crueler: it brutally reveals the mean-inglessness of everything [. . .] The real geniuses of the comic are not those who make us laugh hardest but those who reveal some unknown realm of the comic. History has always been considered an exclusively serious territory. But there is the undiscovered comic side to history. Just as there is the (hard-to-take) comic side to sexuality.

DEFINITION The novel’s meditative texture is supported by the armature of a few abstract terms. If I hope to avoid falling into the slough where everyone thinks he understands everything without understanding anything, not only must I select those terms with utter precision, but I must define and redefine them. (See: betrayal, border, fate, lightness, lyricism.) A novel is often, it seems to me, nothing but a long quest for some elusive definitions.

EUROPE In the Middle Ages, European unity rested on the common religion. In the Modern Era, religion yielded its position to culture (to cultural creation), which came to embody the supreme values by which Europeans recognized themselves, defined and identified themselves. Now, in our own time, culture is in turn yielding its position. But to what and to whom? What sphere will provide the sort of supreme values that could unify Europe? Technology? The marketplace? Politics involving the democratic ideal, the principle of tolerance? But if that tolerance no longer has any rich creativity or any powerful thought to protect, will it not become empty and useless? Or can we take culture’s abdication as a kind of deliverance, to be welcomed euphorically? I don’t know. I merely believe I know that culture has already yielded. And thus the image of European unity slips away into the past. European: one who is nostalgic for Europe.

GRAPHOMANIA “Not a mania to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family)” but “a mania to write books (to have a public of unknown readers)” (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). The mania not to create a form but to impose one’s self on others. The most grotesque version of the will to power.

IDEAS My disgust for those who reduce a work to its ideas. My revulsion at being dragged into what they call “discussions of ideas.” My despair at this era befogged with ideas and indifferent to works.

IMAGINATION “What did you mean by the story about Tamina on the children’s island?” people ask me. That tale began as a dream that fascinated me; I dreamed it later in a half-waking state, and I broadened and deepened it as I wrote it. Its meaning? If you like: an oneiric image of an infantocratic future. (See: infantocracy.) However, the meaning did not precede the dream; the dream preceded the meaning. So the way to read the tale is to let the imagination carry one along. Not, above all, as a rebus to be decoded. By insisting on decoding him, the Kafkologists killed Kafka.

IRONY Which is right and which is wrong? Is Emma Bovary intolerable? Or brave and touching? And what about Werther? Is he sensitive and noble? Or an aggressive sentimentalist, infatuated with himself? The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its “truth” is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable. “Remember, Razumov, that women, children, and revolutionists hate irony, which is the negation of all saving instincts, of all faith, of all devotion, of all action,” says a Russian woman revolutionary in Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. Leonardo Sciascia: “There is nothing harder to understand, more indecipherable than irony.” It is futile to try and make a novel “difficult” through stylistic affectation; any novel worth the name, however limpid it may be, is difficult enough by reason of its consubstantial irony.

KITSCH [. . .] In the French version of Hermann Broch’s celebrated essay, the word “kitsch” is translated as “junk art” (art de pacotille). A misinterpretation, for Broch demonstrates that kitsch is something other than simply a work in poor taste. There is a kitsch attitude. Kitsch behavior. The kitsch-man’s (Kitschmensch) need for kitsch: it is the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection [. . .]

MEDITATION Three elementary possibilities for the novelist: he tells a story (Fielding), he describes a story (Flaubert), he thinks a story (Musil). The nineteenth-century novel of description was in harmony with the (positivist, scientific) spirit of the time. To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all.

MISOMUSIST To be without a feeling for art is no disaster. A person can live in peace without reading Proust or listening to Schubert. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy just as there is a popular anti-Semitism. The fascist and Communist regimes made use of it when they declared war on modern art. But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic. The doctrine of engagé art: art as an instrument of politics.

MODERN (modern art; modern world). There is the modern art that, in lyrical ecstasy, identifies with the modern world. Apollinaire. Glorification of the technical, fascination with the future. Along with and after him: Mayakovsky, Leger, the Futurists, the various avant-gardes. But opposite Apollinaire is Kafka: the modern world seen as a labyrinth where man loses his way. The modernism that is antilyrical, antiroman-tic, skeptical, critical. With Kafka and after him: Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz, Beckett, Ionesco, Fellini. . . . The further we advance into the future, the greater becomes this legacy of “antimodern modernism.”

MODERN (being modern). “New, new, new is the star of Communism, and there is no modernity outside it,” wrote the great Czech avant-garde novelist Vladislav Vancura around 1920. His whole generation rushed to the Communist Party so as not to miss out on being modern. The historical decline of the Communist Party was sealed once it fell everywhere “outside modernity.” Because, as Rimbaud commanded, “it is necessary to be absolutely modern.” The desire to be modern is an archetype, that is, an irrational imperative, anchored deeply within us, a persistent form whose content is changeable and indeterminate: what is modern is what declares itself modern and is accepted as such [. . . ]

NOVEL The great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.

NOVEL (and poetry). 1857: the greatest year of the century. Les Fleurs du Mal: lyric poetry discovers its rightful territory, its essence. Madame Bovary: for the first time, a novel is ready to take on the highest requirements of poetry (the determination to “seek beauty above all”; the importance of each particular word; the intense melody of the text; the imperative of originality applied to every detail). From 1857 on, the history of the novel will be that of the “novel become poetry.” But to take on the requirements of poetry is quite another thing from lyricizing the novel (forgoing its essential irony, turning away from the outside world, transforming the novel into personal confession, weighing it down with ornament). The greatest of the “novelists become poets” are violently antilyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz. Novel = antilyrical poetry.

NOVEL (European). The history (the integrated and continuous evolution) of the novel (of everything we call the novel) does not exist. There are only histories of the novel: of the Chinese novel, the Greco-Roman, the Japanese, the medieval novel, and so on. The novel I term European takes form in Southern Europe at the dawn of the Modern Era and in itself represents a historic entity that will go on to expand its territory beyond geographic Europe (most notably into both Americas). In the richness of its forms, the dizzyingly concentrated intensity of its evolution, and its social role, the European novel (like European music) has no equal in any other civilization.

NOVELIST (and writer). I reread Sartre’s short essay “What Is Writing?” Not once does he use the words “novel” or “novelist.” He only speaks of the “prose writer.” A proper distinction. The writer has original ideas and an inimitable voice. He may use any form (including the novel), and whatever he writes—being marked by his thought, borne by his voice—is part of his work. Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Gide, Malraux, Camus, Montherlant.

The novelist makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer feeling his way in an effort to reveal some unknown aspect of existence. He is fascinated not by his voice but by a form he is seeking, and only those forms that meet the demands of his dream become part of his work. Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner, Celine, Calvino.

The writer inscribes himself on the spiritual map of his time, of his country, on the map of the history of ideas.

The only context for grasping a novel’s worth is the history of the European novel. The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes.

OPUS The excellent custom of composers. They give opus numbers only to works they see as “valid.” They do not number works written in their immature period, or occasional pieces, or technical exercises [ . . . ] The least an author can do for his works: sweep up around them.

REPETITIONS Nabokov points out that at the beginning of the Russian text of Anna Karenina the word “house” occurs eight times in six sentences and that the repetition is a deliberate tactic on the author’s part. Yet the word “house” appears only once in the French translation of the passage, and no more than twice in the Czech. In that same book: where Tolstoy repeatedly writes skazal (“said”), the French translation uses “remarked,” “retorted,” “responded,” “cried,” “stated,” etc. Translators are crazy about synonyms. (I reject the very notion of synonym: each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.) Pascal: “When words are repeated in a text and in trying to replace them we find them so apt that doing so ” would spoil the text, they should be left in, they are the benchmark of the piece.”

RHYTHM I hate to hear the beat of my heart; it is a relentless reminder that the minutes of my life are numbered. So I have always seen something macabre in the bar lines that measure out a musical score. But the greatest masters of rhythm know how to silence that monotonous and predictable regularity and transform their music into a little enclave of “time outside time.” The masters of polyphony: contrapuntal, horizontal thinking weakens the importance of the measure. In late Beethoven, the rhythm is so complicated, especially in the slow movements, that we can barely make out the bar lines [. . .]

TEMPS MODERNES (Modern Era). The coming of les Temps modernes. The key moment of European history. In the seventeenth century, God becomes Deus absconditus and man the ground of all things. European individualism is born, and with it a new situation for art, for culture, for science. I run into problems with this term in the United States. The literal translation, “modern times” (and even the more comprehensive “Modern Era”), an American takes to mean the contemporary moment, our century. The absence in America of the notion of les Temps modernes reveals the great chasm between the two continents. In Europe, we are living the end of the Modern Era: the end of individualism; the end of art conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity. This sense of ending America does not feel, for America did not live through the birth of the Modern Era and has only come along lately to inherit it. America has other criteria for beginnings and endings.

UGLY After so many of her husband’s infidelities, so many troubles with the cops, Tereza says: “Prague has become ugly.” Some translators want to replace the word “ugly” with the words “horrible” or “intolerable.” They find it illogical to react to a moral situation with an aesthetic judgment. But the word “ugly” is irreplaceable: the omnipresent ugliness of the modern world is mercifully veiled by routine, but it breaks through harshly the moment we run into the slightest trouble.

VALUE The structuralism of the sixties made the question of value parenthetical. And yet the founder of structuralist aesthetics says: “Only the assumption of objective aesthetic value gives meaning to the historical evolution of art” (Jan Mukarovsky: Function, Norm, and Aesthetic Value as Social Facts, Prague, 1934). To examine an aesthetic value means: to try to demarcate and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world. Only the work acknowledged as value (the work whose newness has been apprehended and named) can become part of the “historical evolution of art,” which is not a mere succession of events but an intentional pursuit of values. If we reject the question of value and settle for a description (thematic, sociological, formalist) of a work (of a historical period, culture, etc.); if we equate all cultures and all cultural activities (Bach and rock, comic strips and Proust); if the criticism of art (meditation on value) can no longer find room for expression, then the “historical evolution of art” will lose its meaning, will crumble, will turn into a vast and absurd storehouse of works.

WORK “From the sketch to the work one travels on one’s knees.” I cannot forget that line from Vladimir Holan. And I refuse to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle.

SEVEN Jerusalem Address: The Novel and Europe

Part Seven of The Art of the Novel, an address given in acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize, is largely a recapitulation of Parts one to six. Again, Kundera again treats the history of the novel as a European phenomenon, as an autonomous art form that refuses all answers and asks only questions. But it is above all the spirit of “God’s laughter” at man’s folly: the novelist writes not with his own erudition but “disappear[s] behind his work”(157) and allows his novels to be more intelligent than he is, to embrace the ambiguous nature of life with the “suprapersonal wisdom” (158) of a deity who creates an “imaginary paradise of individuals [. . .] where no one possesses the truth [. . .] but where everyone has the right to be understood”(159). Kundera contrasts this world with the prison house of the “agélaste,” he or she who cannot laugh and who is convinced that “the truth is obvious” and univocal: Europe’s modernity has thus produced two opposed teams, one founded and captained by the truth-seeker Descartes, and the other by that playful explorer of all-too-human nature, Rabelais:

Rabelais’ erudition, great as it is, has another meaning than Descartes’. The novel’s wisdom is different from that of philosophy. The novel is born not out of the theoretical spirit but of the spirit of humor. One of Europe’s major failures is that it never understood the most European of the arts—the novel; neither its spirit, nor its great knowledge and discoveries, nor the autonomy of its history. The art inspired by God’s laughter does not by nature serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them. Like Penelope, it undoes each night the tapestry that the theologians, philosophers and learned men have woven the day before. (160)

If science is obsessed with cause and effect, with “the why of everything”(161), the novel (and here Kundera extolls the virtues of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as the epitome of this neglected current of 18C culture) is obsessed with digression and meditation upon that which is “beyond causality,” beyond in our natures, such as the multifaceted and unfathomably complex human “stupidity” that Flaubert explored in his novels—those “idées reçues” (163) or received, unquestioned ideas that are the forerunners of Herman Broch’s concept of Kitsch: “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling,” that which moves us all to tears as we stand huddled together with bovine complacency, attendant to the enthusiasms of a mass media that is perennially chasing the lowest common denominator, and urging us all to commit ourselves to embracing the most up-to-date of conformist attitudes.

The modern novel, as Kundera envisages it, rejects all of that in the name of that fragile, “precious” and threatened artifact of modernity: the autonomous, original, private, individual, imagination who refuses all received wisdom and who chases after only the laughter of God.

Brief Concluding Thoughts

I have spent so much time reflecting upon this short book because it provides an antidote, I feel, to all that is faddishly myopic in today’s market-driven, ephemeral and narcissistic culture: the idea that the novel could still be oppositional to the main current of modern life, that it could engage in the practice of attempting to inquire into the nature of our existence as historically contextualized beings, beings that both create, and are created by, history. The history of the novel, then, is at least partially the history of our discovery of ourselves as acting in, and being acted upon by, the various contexts of each successive age.

Yet part of that history involves the history of capitalism, something that is noticeably absent from Kundera’s understanding of the term “modernity”, which he sees largely in terms of the retreat of religious certainty in the face of modern advances in epistemology, beginning with the “radical doubt” of Descartes and reaching its fulfillment in the epoch-smashing pronouncement of Nietzsche’s, that “God is dead, and we are His murderers.”

In future posts, I wish to tentatively begin to sketch out how it might be possible to build upon the framework explored in The Art of the Novel, to run a short way with Kundera’s baton in one’s hand, much as he himself significantly advanced the relay since his exchange with Hermann Broch. My own position is that one underexplored corner of the novel’s universe concerns the economic, something (somewhat understandably, given the author’s background) absent from Kundera’s programme. Specifically, I would like to discuss how capitalism (a word rarely uttered in the late 20C and early 21C “West” until the global financial crisis of 2008 forced it into our collective consciousness) is more than a mere (if neglected) corner of our culture, but actually helped create what we know of and experience as “modernity”. Very few novels have attempted to trace that connection, much less (at least since the dual rise of the trade paperback and the literary prizification of “literary” fiction) contradict the realist* dictum that the novel’s raison d’être is to explore the psychological depths of the individual psyche.

Jonathan Franzen’s early novel The Twenty-Seventh City did just that, however, and along with a discussion of what makes capitalism capitalism, I will post a study of that work as it relates to the, in my opinion, failed attempt to do the same, David Lodge’s Nice Work.

* The critic James Wood is an outspoken opponent of the kind of writer who might appreciate Milan Kundera’s “broad church” understanding of the novel, and calls those contemporary writers (those whom he labels “Hysterical Realists”: Franzen, Delillo, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, etc.) who seek to include other ways of knowing into the novel’s purview “the bastard children of Charles Dickens,” in that they practice not the art of “literature” but a debased, novelistic form of sociology. For a scathing critique of Wood’s position, see the blog Contra James Wood.

Works Cited

Brooker, Peter. “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practce of Literature.” The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, eds. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1993.

——. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy my own novel, White Mythology, which you can read by clicking here.

For more on Kundera, visit kundera.de/english/ 

3 thoughts on “A Polyphonic Spree: Notes on Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel

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