The Book That Explores Existence

January 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Art of the Novel (Kundera, Milan)

Kundera’s meditations on the nature and history of the novel are not without their moments of vivid and well-articulated clarity. The author is steeped in the 20th century European tradition of intellectualism – a passion for theory, a firm grounding in history and politics, and a penchant for the enigmatic epigram. All three are cleverly marshalled into service, as Kundera discusses Cervantes, Kafka, Broch, Sterne, Flaubert – but mainly himself – to illustrate his opinions on the art of novel-writing from Rabelais to the present, on several of which I found myself in whole-hearted agreement with him.

A novel, according to Kundera, should be “an inquiry, not a moral position“. A novelist is “neither a historian nor a prophet – he is an explorer of existence“. A true novel investigates the essential relativity and uncertainty of reality, but manages to open our eyes to something new and unsaid about this reality. Kundera is most perceptive – and poignant – while talking about the death of a novel genre. It doesnt just disappear, he says. It just stops saying anything new. It starts repeating itself ad nauseum, duplicating its form, and finally, “its death occurs quietly unnoticed and no one is outraged.”

I agreed, thinking of the detective novel, pioneered by Poe, Conan Doyle and Chesterton, dying into the endless mass media productions of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; romantic love degenerating from Jane Austen into Mills & Boon kitsch; magical fantasy fading from Tolkein to Rowling and now her endless copycats; the examination of the occult and supernatural tracing its rise, decline and fall in an unbroken tradition from Homer, Virgil and Dante, the Kabbalists of Prague, to Borges, through Eco and finally, to Dan Brown and his ilk. Kundera points out the reason for this decline:

Given the imperative necessity to please and thereby to gain the attention of the greatest number, the aesthetic of the mass media is inevitably that of the kitsch, and as the mass media come to embrace and to infiltrate more and more of our life, kitsch becomes our everyday aesthetic and moral code.

The statement has only gained in validity since it was written in 1985. We invest in and amuse ourselves exclusively with cheap imitations that were mass-produced to cater to the entertainment of the majority. Over time, we are left with no frame of reference  apart from these, and so we confuse minor variations in the formula for originality of thought, popularity for quality, and price for talent and hard work. There was a time, Kundera reminds us, when to be modern meant to throw off superstitions, to be a non-conformist. Now to be modern is to conform – and since a novel, by definition, should seek to say new things, to question the old, now is not a great time to be a novelist of the non-conformist mould.

In spite of these prescient flashes of analytical brilliance, Kundera’s book left me cold, largely because of his frequent use of examples from his own books to illustrate good novel-writing techniques. It is as embarrassing to listen to an author analyze his own books and point out clever bits, as it is to listen to a doting parent extol the virtues of her own child. It took away from the unquestionable cleverness of his books, it took away from the truth in the aesthetic points being made, and it definitely made Kundera look rather full of himself.

Kundera quotes Flaubert as defining a novelist as one who seeks to disappear behind his work. As anyone who’s read Kundera would testify, he always looms behind his  characters and never disappears from his novels; and his novels and characters, in turn, seem to pre-occupy his thoughts, conversations and philosophy. The man and his work are inseparable: at times, insufferably so.


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