Novelists’ thoughts on their own work don’t always make very edifying reading. Among the Moderns, perhaps only James in his Art of the Novel – and, in a more intimate way, Conrad and Virginia Woolf in their respective Letters – have been able to shed any powerful light on the process and ‘ideology’ of their writing.
What, then, are we to expect of Milan Kundera’s own Art of the Novel? Certainly not any great key to his dazzling, often bewildering fictions. Despite a sly reference (pointed up in the text) to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, that apotheosis of the theoretical, Kundera’s work remains basically hostile to Theory. He curses its leaden, joyless quality, so foreign to his own hedonistic bravura, and inveighs against those who seek to drag his work into ‘what they call “discussions of ideas”.’
And yet Kundera is assuredly, in the most general sense, a novelist of ideas. With every other sentence his writing throws out brilliant shards of insight, often in abstract or aphoristic form, which have the pencil furiously underlining and the head shaking in wonder. ‘Only the most naive of questions are truly serious.’ ‘A single metaphor can give birth to love.’ ‘We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come’.
He is also an unashamedly intellectual writer in the grand post-war tradition of European literati, both politically engaged and thoroughly au fait with the intellectual movements of his time. In some ways he seems most closely attuned to the Parisian post-structuralism of the seventies with all its awareness of the subversive, mischievous power of language itself: his characters are not psychologically realised and have little in the way of depth or breadth to them, but arise out of his own inquisitive, heckling narratorial voice. As he puts it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, characters in novels
‘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.’
This new book, his first of non-fiction reveals him in addition as a true Modernist in spirit, concerned in the same way as his middle European forebears Kafka and Musil to shear away the ‘nearly inviolable standards’ of psychological realism. In the wake of Kafka, though without his bleakness of vision, he seems to see human life as fundamentally alienated, even though the forces of alienation may have retreated and regrouped since the early years of the century. Alienation, for Kundera, works through a host of subtle new forms – viz his concepts of lightness, forgetting, Litost, ‘the border’, kitsch – and penetrates areas of life formerly inviolate (sexuality, for example; many of Kundera’s characters seem to suffer from ‘erotic alienation’).
The Art of the Novel is a collection of seven shortish pieces, mostly reprinted from French and American journals, focusing on various aspects of Kundera’s craft. The most narrowly theoretical of the pieces, ‘Dialogue on the Art of Composition’, is also perhaps the least interesting – although we do get a wonderful digression on the relationship between the techniques of the novelist and those of the musician: Kundera’s book are ‘polyphonic’, structured in ‘movements’, and ‘each of the parts in my novel could carry a musical indication: moderato, presto, adagio, and so on’. T here is also a ‘Dialogue on the Art of the Novel’ in which Kundera discusses his objections to realism and his search for a ‘non-psychological means to apprehend the self and an excellent short Address, originally given in Jerusalem, on ‘the Novel and Europe’: ‘the precious essence of the European spirit is being held safe as in a treasure chest inside the history of the novel’.
Best of the seven sections, though, because most imbued with his own distinctive voice and vision, is a kind of personal dictionary or glossary, entitled simply ‘Sixty-two Words’. This starts out as a proper dictionary, with A for Aphorism (‘From the Greek word aphorismos, meaning “definition”’), and ends up as The Wit and Wisdom of Milan Kundera, more like a collection of surreal Table Talk than a serious theoretical study. The entry for Hat, for instance, reads
‘Magical object. I remember a dream: A ten-year-old boy is standing at the edge of a pond, wearing a big black hat on his head. He throws himself into the water. They pull him out, drowned. He still has the black hat on his head’.
This is the side of Kundera that I love most – his solemn play with words, his saintly foolishness. There may not be enough of that quality in this slender new volume, but for the moment, until he writes his next novel (and please let it be soon), his Art of the Novel should give his fans the fix they need.