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The Craft of a Kundera : THE ART OF THE NOVEL by Milan Kundera; translated from the French by Linda Asher (Grove Press: $16.95; 165 pp.)

March 06, 1988|Ian Watt | Watt is the author of "The Rise of the Novel" (University of California Press) and teaches at Stanford. and

One of Max Beerbohm's cartoons shows Mrs. Humphry Ward, as a very little girl, saying to a sardonically smiling Matthew Arnold: "Uncle Matthew, oh why will you not be always wholly serious?" The question arises unbidden in the novels of Milan Kundera. The mind behind the novels is essentially serious, and yet they are very funny, sometimes farcical. Our puzzlement is not wholly laid to rest in Kundera's new book, "The Art of the Novel." The title evokes the methodological solemnity of Henry James; but the book is in fact a rather short collection of essays which have already been published separately. It is true that Kundera affirms that he "conceived" this "seven-part essay" with the idea that they would someday be linked together in "one book-essay setting out my thoughts on the art of the novel." But this sounds rather like a publisher's ploy to turn a miscellany into a unity; the contents were conceived of as a "unified whole" and must therefore compose one. In form, they do not make that impression--three essays, two interviews, a public address, and a dictionary of 62 words. Yet the mind in the book is certainly consistent.

The first essay is entitled "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes," earlier published as "The Novel and Europe." Both titles are apt. Kundera begins with the lecture, given in Vienna and Prague, on the crisis in the humanities, by Edmund Husserl. By "European," Husserl meant that "passion to know" which began in Greece, and which has since characterized the Western philosophic tradition. It began its modern secular trajectory when Galileo and Descartes narrowed the emphasis of thought to what could be demonstrated scientifically; they wholly neglected the Lebenswelt , Heidegger's "beautiful and almost magical phrase," for the concrete experience of living in the world. Cervantes founded another vital modern tradition: the novel with its chosen concentration on being. Cervantes took up the problem of adventure; and there followed him other writers who "discovered other dimensions of existence one by one." There was Samuel Richardson with "what happened inside," the "secret life of the feelings"; Balzac, with man's rootedness in history; Flaubert, and the quotidian dimension of life; and later Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce and Mann all devoted themselves to exploring new areas; for, as Kundera, quoting his Austrian master, Hermann Broch, wrote: "the sole raison d'etre of a novel is to discover what can only be discovered by a novel."

Descartes faced the world as a "thinking self"; Cervantes in a world apparently devoid of any divine order, faced it as a "welter of contradictory truths," where the only "certainty" was the "wisdom of uncertainty." The open adventurous spaces of Cervantes' world were gradually foreclosed in the 19th Century. There is some possibility of adventure still left in Balzac, but there is no such possibility for Emma Bovary; the lost infinity of the world can only be replaced by the "irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual." This process goes much further in Kafka, where the "suprahuman force of an omnipotent society" takes over, and adventure is reduced to "a petty squabble with the administration over a mistake in the file of Kafka's K."

Is the novel, then, now over? Kundera asks. He answers no, but, gravely threatened by the "whirlpool of reduction" of the media, it can continue "only against the progress" of the "spirit of our time." Kundera ends the Cervantes essay by asking himself what he is personally attached to? "My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere; I am attached to nothing but the depreciated legacy of Cervantes." Such is Kundera's wry assertion of his devotion to the diminishing inheritance of the novel.

The essay as a whole is very serious, which is not surprising. Kundera's first prose work was a critical study of a Czech writer: "The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vancura's Search for the Great Epic" in 1961; Kundera has also been a university teacher most of his life, in Prague and now in Paris. Kundera does not mention Cervantes' humor or comedy in his essay; but there are other parts of "The Art of the Novel" where he tackles this topic.

His main treatment comes in the last essay, which is Kundera's thank-you speech for the award of the Jerusalem Prize in 1985. There he cites the Jewish proverb, "Man thinks, God laughs," and says that it pleases him to think that "the novel's wisdom . . . different from that of philosophy . . . is born not of the theoretical spirit but of the spirit of humor." The novel was born "as the echo of God's laughter"; and Kundera concludes his address by saying that "it is time for me to stop. I was forgetting that God laughs when he sees me thinking."

Kundera was born on April Fools Day in 1929, and his first novel was called "The Joke" (1967). There, as in the later novels, the reader is aware of the omnipresent comic spirit; but still, the comedy is in the manner, not the matter. We must then accept that Kundera's comic sense is very bitter; true to the spirit of his compatriots Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Schweik," Kundera's comedy is a chillingly sardonic resistance to the seriousness of his thought.

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