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