Tag Archives: literary theory

“… 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.


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

“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory