Milan Kundera on the Novel

Whether you have enjoyed Milan Kundera’s fiction or not, you would be hard-pressed to deny that his work has a unique place in modern literature. That place is guaranteed by his fusion of the historical, aesthetic and modern elements of his stories.

Back in 1986, Kundera published a collection of essays in a book called “The Art of the Novel”. It starts off this way

In 1935, three years before his death, Edmund Husserl gave his celebrated lectures in Vienna and Prague on the crisis of European humanity. For Husserl, the adjective “European” meant the spiritual identity which extends beyond geographical Europe (to America, for instance) and that was born with ancient Greek philosophy. In his view, this philosophy, for the first time in History, apprehended the world (the world as a whole) as a question to be answered. It interrogated the world not in order to satisfy this or that practical need but because “the passion to know had seized mankind.”

The crisis Husserl spoke of seemed to him so profound that he wondered whether Europe was still able to survive it. The roots of the crisis lay for him at the beginning of the Modern Era. in Galileo and Descartes, in the one’sided nature of the European sciences, which reduced the world to a mere object of technical and mathematical invetsigatoin and put the concrete world of life die Lebenswelt,  as he called it, beyond their horizon.

WL Webb reviewed The Art of the Novel for The Guardian in 1988. Webb objects to Kundera’s flagrant attempts to be so damned clever. Yes, this is an English review, isn’t it? At the same time, he cannot dismiss Kundera’s message. The review ends this way

Clearly, as The Art of the Novel and the novels which talk so artfully about themselves demonstrate, Kundera knows very well what he intends: ‘To bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form – that has always been my ambition’. But there seems to me something relentless and driven about his ironies and provocations that doesn’t in fact make for lightness. (Can this be a male form of the female malady now identified as Look At Me?).

Well said! But Webb may have missed the point. Perry Meisel wrote something for the NYT that same year that may be a bit more trenchant

To see Mr. Kundera in the light of this reading of Kafka makes it clear why his essays promise a future for the novel. Instead of tracing novelistic invention by way of the exhausted legacy of Joyce (or ”establishment modernism”), Mr. Kundera, through his heightened sense of the Kafkan, suggests that the novel still has unlimited sources of inquiry in the ”bureaucratic”; it also has great power, by virtue of the formal devices available to it, over the sense of confinement bureaucracies and kitsch engender. Mr. Kundera transforms the Kafkan by locating its vision in decidedly realist settings, and by imagining a means of ”suprapersonal” escape from the claustrophobic universe common to East and West alike

A future for the novel?`Or more precisely, what future for the great novel? Interesting thoughts to ponder!

As an aside, when I was a bit younger, asking someone “Still trying to write the great American novel?” was considered to be rather disparaging. So many earnest youngsters thought it was important to try, even though they hadn’t the slightest idea how to do it! Worst of all, they tried to copy Kerrouac, who in my judgment, was not a great novelist. Some soldiered on into obscurity. Others gave it up for less demanding and more entertaining pursuits.


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