Category Archives: Milan Kundera

“… the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts…”: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’

Two years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, and was very struck by it. On re-reading it this week, I still fond the odd brilliant turn of phrase, the flashes of insight and of wisdom – but I also found the two central claims of his essays, which had captured my imagination last time, to be over-generalised, ahistorical, and even, at times, faintly ludicrous in the sheer, unreflective confidence with which he voices them. All of Kundera’s novels teach us of the perils of certainty. Re-reading The Art of the Novel, I found myself wishing that he would take some of his own advice, when it came to his beliefs about the history and purpose of the novel.

Kundera’s first claim is that the novel is a “European” creation, stemming out of the Enlightenment’s “passion to know” (a quote from Husserl) and, in a sense, embodies “European” history. “We have a history of Europe“, he writes, “From the year 1000 up to our time, that has been a single common experience”. The key to understanding a significant part of that common experience is the novel. Kundera has his canon, assembled chronologically: “with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine “what happens inside”, to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovered man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational into human behaviour and decisions; It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions.” In the late eighteenth century, when readers and writers “signed the verisimilitude pact“, and the novel began to attempt to imitate reality, there was a brief phase when the novel went astray; but it was restored, in a way, by Tolstoy and Proust, and then by the modernists (Borges makes a similar argument in his introduction to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel).

But this is, in many ways, a bizarre argument. The conception of Europe as a geographically, spiritually and culturally bounded unit, going back a thousand years, is deeply ahistorical. Where, in Kundera’s cultural and spiritual universe, for instance, does the Moorish rule over Granada fit in? How does a thousand-year old history manage to avoid the fact that four hundred of those thousand years were defined by colonialism (and then Empire)? How, indeed, does Kundera manage to even talk about European identity, and the “passion to know” as distinctly “European”, without a single mention of how that very identity was irrevocably shaped by colonialism?

As history, this is bad enough, but as literary history, it’s even worse. Kundera’s canon is Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Mann (and a few other modernists). Each of these writers, he argues, made some striking advance in our understanding of the human self and the human condition. Missing from his canon are precisely those writers, equally important in the history of the novel, who, as Edward Said points out – cannot be understood without understanding the relationship between “Europe” and its colonies: Austen, Conrad, Kipling, Camus. Kundera would probably simply write them out by fiat: according to him, a true novel must never affirm, must eschew verisimilitude, and must only deal in hypotheticals. But surely this more an arbitrary constraint, rather than a faithful interpretation or historical reconstruction, of the place of the novel in history.

Kundera’s approach, interestingly, seems to be an embodiment of precisely what Edward Said warns against in Culture and Imperialism: that is, to treat novels written in (the geographical) space (that we now know as) Europe as being either about Europe, and/or “parables about the human condition“. The role of the colony in shaping the very identity of the metropolis (cultural and material) is ignored. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera ignores it not only in his sweeping claims about the novel being about the European spirit of enquiry and enigmas of the self, but even in his construction of the literary canon.

His second claim is one made repeatedly as well: that the novel must never affirm, but only “remain hypothetical, playful or ironic.” In his first essay, the claim is somewhat softer: the novel must “take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguitybe obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters)… [and] have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” Insofar as the novel must not reproduce totalitarian thought processes, I find this statement to be uncontroversial. A totalitarian novel, which ignored the complexity and ambiguity of human existence, would be an aesthetic failure before it became a political failure. But through the course of the essays, via discussions on verisimilitude, the claim grows stronger. By the fourth essay, it has split into two: encompassing complexity, and not carrying an “apodictic message”, but rather, as quoted above, being “hypothetical, playful or ironic.” This is somewhat similar to Joseph Brodsky’s praise of Danilo Kis, and his ability to convert political tragedy into the purely aesthetic.

Which is all very well, but as Edward Said (again) reminds us, playfulness and irony are luxuries that many do not have. In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Said points out that in places were the sheet anchor of existence itself has become unmoored, where daily life has no stability amidst continuing violence, separating the political from the aesthetic is no longer a matter of artistic choice. Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun remains one of the finest novel that I have read, as well as being a politically committed work in precisely the way that Kundera takes great pains to denounce. It must be said that there is a certain arrogance to taking specific “European” social and political backgrounds, and developing a universal aesthetic theory of the novel on the basis. While he does mention Octavio Paz at one point, it would seem that for Kundera, novelists outside Europe do not exist. There is no Mahfouz, no Tayeb Salih, no Ghassan Kanafani, no Elias Khoury; the political and social context out which their writings emerged is not discussed; on the other hand, we are to take the European condition as defining once and for all time what will be the “spirit” of the novel.

Much as I now am no longer quite so impressed with The Art of the Novel, there remain flashes of Kundera’s regular brilliance. The distinction between Proust and Kafka, for instance, is particularly striking:

“For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka. He does not ask what internal motivations determine man’s behavior. 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 weight?”

And on language:

“Metaphor seems to me indispensable as a means of grasping, through instantaneous revelation, the ungraspable essence of things, situations, characters.”

When I inevitably sit down to read The Art of the Novel a third time, it will be for these.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera

Kundera, Borges and representation

I would suggest that in his otherwise brilliant books of essays, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera makes one serious error of omission. Both these books deal with the history and evolution of the European novel. I will briefly summarise his argument, before explaining my one reservation, and then discussing a very interesting issue about the nature of art, that is thrown up by his analysis.

For Kundera, the history of the novel can be divided like two halves of a football game that is presently in extra-time. The analogy is meant to highlight three clear eras, separated by clean breaks. The history commences with Rabelais and Cervantes in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first “break” occurs towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th. And the second, rather more ambiguous dividing line is located somewhere in the early-mid twentieth century.

The first era, of which the stand-out examples are Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, is characterised by a disconnect between the world of the novel and the world of reality. Kundera’s example is the amount of times Sancho Panza has his teeth knocked in. He would need four or five pairs of jaws to compensate for that, if he were a real person. Of course, you can replace this example by many similar ones. The episode of the thawing of the frozen words in Gargantua is one that I’ve never forgotten, for instance. In other words, it is not the novelist’s task, it is not the novel’s task, to conform to the laws of physics, the laws of mechanics, and various other laws – or at least, principles, to use a less rigid term – that govern human behaviour.

The second era, of which Kundera quotes Balzac as the paragon, is precisely the opposite, in that the novelist is expected and required to accurately represent the real world. His success is measured by how well he can do that. I haven’t read Balzac, but to my mind, the following two examples fit the bill: Dickens’ painstaking depiction of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo’s sixty pages describing the Parisian sewers to the last detail in Les Miserables (you can think of Hugo’s descriptions in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). This isn’t restricted to the physical world – characters must behave, act, talk in the way you would expect them to, if they were real people (hence, the idea of the “psychological novel”, of which the great Russians are undisputed masters).

So there, in essence, you have two radically opposed views about the novel. One that couldn’t care two hoots for the world, and the other that insists the novel is measured by how precisely it can represent the world.

“Extra time”, for Kundera, is that which has been initiated by the likes of James Joyce and Kafka in the 21st century, and carried on by the magical realists (he mentions Carlos Fuentes, and I’m quite sure he mentions Gabriel Garcia Marquez at one point). Their work rejects the idea of the novel-as-representation, and hearkens back to the freewheeling fiction of Rabelais and Cervantes. A quick recollection of Ulysses, or the bizarre, winding ways of The Trial and The Castle will illustrate the point that Kundera is making. You could never imagine any of that happening in real life.

Kundera pulls out all the stops. His is a dazzling way of arguing, his prose is (ironically enough) lyrical, and of course, he is controversial – especially in his suggestions about how to read Kafka.

But here is the serious problem: Kundera doesn’t even mention the person who, for me, is the single, most spectacular practitioner in the “extra-time era” of the “extra-time novel”: Jorge Luis Borges. It is surprising, for the magical realists, especially Marquez, have often acknowledged their debt to Borges. Borges’ short stories demonstrate exactly what Kundera is talking about. Think of The Garden of Forking Paths. Think of how it takes our conception of time, and twists it around like a rope, disorienting us entirely; think of The Library of Babel, and its utterly… illogical premise; or The Circular Ruins, and the manner in which it seamlessly blends reality and dream. You couldn’t have a more vehement rejection of the representation philosophy, a more fervent affirmation of the Quixote in us. And so, Kundera’s omission is very surprising.

It’s interesting also to note that Borges in fact makes a very similar point about the novel in his preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. The Invention of Morel is a brilliant, an absolutely mind-blowing short-novel that has never received the credit it deserves; it is also a classically Borgesian novel, taking our most basic conceptions of reality, like time and space, and making us view them through a glass, darkly. Borges, writing the preface to it, makes a very Kundera-esque distinction between “the psychological novel” and “the adventure novel”, and then, very much like Kundera again, makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies lie with the latter.

That said, I think it’s fascinating to note that this debate is not in any sense restricted to the novel. You find it in ancient greek tragedy. For instance, Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that “he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides they are.” There is no doubt that Sophoclean characters (think of Oedipus, of Antigone, even Creon) are essentially larger-than-life, depicting human strengths and weaknesses on a Homeric-heroic scale; while Euripides’ characters are human, all too human. And this dichotomy was recognised and emphasised; it is emphasised by Aristophanes in The Frogs: the contest in the underworld between Aeschylus and Euripides for the crown of the greatest tragedian is conducted around the central question of whether Aeschylus’ epic portrayal or Euripides’ practical one constitutes better tragedy; it is certainly emphasized by Schlegel, when he savagely criticises Euripides’ art in his Lectures on the history of European drama. And then after Aristophanes the comedian, another Aristophanes, the Byzantine historian, would praise the playwright Menander in the following words: “O life and Menander! Which of you imitated the other?” Perfect imitation, worthy of supreme praise – to the extent that it was impossible to distinguish what was art and what, life.

This idea of the relationship between life and art is dealt with, I think, with surpassing and astounding brilliance by Oscar Wilde, in his four magnificent essays on the nature of art. Wilde rejects entirely the idea that art must imitate life, and instead turns it around entirely: life ought to imitate art! At first blush, this sounds like an absurd thesis. But is it, really?

Consider the beautiful ending of Victor Hugo’s poem, Boaz Endormi:

What summer reaper out of times unknown,
In leaving her so carelessly had thrown
That golden sickle in the field of stars?

This is a description of the moon. And Wilde’s point is that if we read this poem, and are affected by it in the way that good poetry affects us, when next we look upon the moon, we will see it differently from the way in which we’ve been seeing it before: we too will see it as a golden sickle in a field of stars. In other words, our world takes its colour, its definition, its characteristics from our art. We look at our world through the lens of our art. Every time that, for instance, that you look at something beautiful, and a metaphor springs unbidden into your mind, it is the world imitating art. “The moon was a ghostly galleon…” – you read that, and how many times do you look up into a stormy, cloudy night, and catch yourself thinking about ships in storm-tossed seas?

I hope to do more justice to Wilde’s argument by examining it in a separate post. But I’d also like to add here that this isn’t even restricted to literature. It pervades the arts. There was a time when it was believed that the best kind of painting was one that most accurately depicted reality. Escher and Dali, to name just two great painters, would take serious issue with that. And then again, interestingly, I recently read that one of the things the impressionists were praised for was how they managed to capture light and movement better than those before them; but also about how a major feature of their art was letting the viewer complete the scene with his imagination. An interesting duality.

I suppose the basic idea is, again, that it’s important to always keep questioning the premises and presuppositions with which we approach a work of art, no matter what type it is – and that includes our presuppositions of what is a work of art – the central and vexed question of identity. I have no categorical views on the representation debate either way, although with the likes of Kundera and Wilde as its spokesmen, I am inclined to cast my lot in with the practitioners of extra-time. But the debate itself, I think, and what it reveals about us and our art, is far more fascinating than whatever conclusion or resolution we arrive at.

Hugo’s Booz Endormi: http://www.textetc.com/exhibits/et-hugo-1.html

The wiki page for The Invention of Morel, by far one of the best books I have ever read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

Links to some classic Borges stories:

The Garden of Forking Paths: http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/borges-garden.html

The Library of Babel: http://jubal.westnet.com/hyperdiscordia/library_of_babel.html

The Circular Ruins: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jatill/175/CircularRuins.htm

Oscar Wilde’s essays:

The Critic as Artist: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1305/

The Truth of Masks: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1310/

The Decay of Lying: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/1307/

The Rise of Historical Criticism: http://www.online-literature.com/wilde/2309/

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Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, J.L. Borges, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera, Modernism, Oscar Wilde