Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Milan Kundera

I'm not sure yet whether I will read Milan Kundera's new book of criticism: Encounter. I remember reading The Art of the Novel very fondly and I suspect that, at the time it had a strong influence on my reading, the effects of which may still be visible - I don't know. In fact, to this day, every time I cross paths with his opinions, he always seems to be saying things I find interesting (and, more importantly, readable), even if I do not agree with him. But, what does it matter if I agree with him, or not? Take the comments in the interview bellow as an example.

The Dalkey Archive website [link] has a catalog of interviews, with authors such as Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso and William Gaddis, available on its website. Those which I have read, I have enjoyed. I have copied an excerpt from the interview of Kundera, conducted by Lois Oppenheim.
[...] Lois Oppenheim: This seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I can’t see what more could be wanted than the guarantee of authenticity that the copyright provides. You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

Milan Kundera: Let’s simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe’s great novelists. Since Proust, I can’t see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don’t consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.

From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel’s past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation—let’s avoid any misunderstanding here: I’m not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don’t like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn’t live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being—but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche’s eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche’s eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.
According to the promotional material, Kundera takes the following people (and their work) as his subjects in Encounter: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Anatole France, Curzio Malaparte, Francis Bacon, Leos Janácek, Federico Fellini, and Dostoyevsky.


  1. thanks monsieur, am just heading down to read some, as of now. although i've always found kundersa's novels precisely like a kind of philosophical excercise, to which his characters seem subordinated...

    as you say though, you dont have to agree.

    ps. have just ordered the book of memories. nice cover. that sontag blurb i find more annoying the more i think about it though.


  2. i think i agree with you miles, regarding kundera's novels. however, i find his criticism and interviews almost invariably interesting. he has an incredible sense of literary genealogy, especially amongst european novelists.

    actually, i just read another interview with him (paris review), which was conducted just after the publication of unbearable lightness. he is very forthcoming about his technique as a novelist. if you are interested:

    and, i will be interested in your thoughts on nadas. the sontag quote is very strong; i just wish i knew where it was made. i have searched for an article or review she might have written, with no luck. i just would like to read her justification. not that i necessarily disagree with her - i have no idea what "the greatest book in our time" is. although, the book of memories is very good.


    1. I think it's interesting Kundera doesn't include Joyce in the most influential novelists of the 20th century novel. I also find his interest in lesser-known names like Broch and Musil an opportunity to discover them. Kundera has led me to read many, many writers.