Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and The Curtain cover ideas big and small, moving from erudite generalizations to tiny examples drawn from generalizations of other authors’ work and back. But do they work as a whole? Yes and no: to agree with Kundera is easy, for his imperiousness makes one want to submit for the power of his assertions in comparison to the uncertainty and hedging that characterizes most criticism, and yet interrogating his ideas makes one begin to wonder: is “The desire to reconcile erotic adventures and idyll [...] the very essence of hedonism—and the reason why man cannot attain the hedonist ideal[?]” Maybe, and maybe not. Is his opposition to outright philosophy or history in novel form correct? Again, at this level one could argue either way, and perhaps it is Kundera’s gift to raise the issues for others to argue. Uncertainty begins to appeal more.
If there is an art of the novel, is there also an art of writing about the art of the novel? Francine Prose did, as did James Wood, and Stephen King. The practice began long ago: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel has become virtually a standard reference in essays like this one, while Edith Wharton’s speculations have become less read over time. Kundera has trod this ground thrice, the middle and weakest effort being Testaments Betrayed. The two end books are quite separate, but with wide enough overlap that this essay treats them, unfairly, as similar enough to shoehorn into one place. If you were to only read one, I would say read The Curtain, which supersedes The Art of the Novel with its own art and density and shows Kundera’s growth.
There are various tracks writers about the art of writing can follow can follow: some write about novels in the sense of how the author intends them, society understands them, or their sheer constructedness. Some write about writing them as largely a craft born of reading them; some say that reading and experience must mix; some say experience predominates. All express a theory of the novel bound up in their discussion of the practice of it, and as a corrective to academic theory, they’re much appreciated, especially the recent pair by Wood and Smiley. Kundera is less “how-to,” closer to academic theory, and more expressive in his demands of the novel as autonomous from other arts, cultures, personalities; he says in The Curtain:
The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.
Maybe: but the novelist is also part of history and historical development merely by writing a “novel,” and sets his work in some manner of time and place that is a sub-product or sub-creation of his own time and place. So what again is the relation of the novelist to history? I’m still not sure. This is why, I suspect, critics like the word “provocative” in relation to Kundera’s essays on the novel. They are not so much provocative, however, as the product of a strong aversion to all ideologies exception the ideology of aversion to ideology, an incredibly recursive view of the novel, and views that come together in startling ways that attempt to subvert other theories. The best thing I can say of Kundera’s works is that their tendency to acknowledge and even revel in paradox is a more definitive statement of the novel and its place than virtually anything he explicitly says.
Kundera’s nonfiction is written like his novels, but without characters anchoring them, in that they’re high on assertion and low on specific detail, assuming the reader will perceive what “To base a novel on a sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all” or “A theme is an existential inquiry,” both from The Art of the Novel, mean. The former doesn’t mean anything: the twentieth century isn’t one of any less or lesser quality thinking than any other century, and by virtually any objective measure that could be imagined for thinking it no doubt contains more. To defend his statement, Kundera would have to retreat to subjective or imaginary measures; but it is his method, like Foucault, to assert and leave the base scrambling of truth or falsehood to defenders and detractors. Perhaps he would argue, as he does in The Art of the Novel, that living in the United States has made me immune to the bureaucratic idiocies of the Soviet Union, as he does at one point regarding those who regard his novels as thought experiments versus those who understand him to be describing life in books like The Joke.
In spite of his apparent lofty abstraction, Kundera discusses and discards numerical maybe-coincidences in his novels: the tendency to divide them in seven parts, for example, and the meaning or lack thereof in that tendency. For him, they’re analogous to classical music, as he thought himself a musician or composer until he was 25. He uses precise language regarding classical music, which is dense with allusion to composers, just as his work is dense with allusions to authors. These books are not for average readers: they are ethereal, demanding, filled with koan-like statements that can only be evaluated if one is familiar with a wide range of work, thus enabling one to consider the veracity of Kundera’s beliefs. He tends to draw historical comparisons of uncertain provenance, as when he says Don Quixote’s violations of verisimilitude are acceptable because of its historical moment, implying they should still be acceptable now because they were then. Maybe—a word I’ve used frequently— or maybe a more technologic view of the novel, not necessarily as a form representing progress, per se, but as a form whose motion from space to space is, if not a progression, then at least worthy of more consideration for works that have absorbed all that came before and then created something new, is more appropriate. Kundera might not disagree with that assertion, and one could bring quotes about the novel’s progress to support it, or one could bring quotes about the power of some older novels to attack it. Like the Bible, much of his commentary could be used to attack or support many divergent readings.
For this reason, as well as for his own considerable and unusual works in the form, The Art of the Novel and The Curtain are unusual in their self-select audience. Nonetheless, the language itself is accessible, one major virtue is their brevity: both works, in part because of their tendency to assume rather than pedantically explain, can be read in an afternoon and savored for long after. In “In Search of Present Time” from The Curtain, Kundera writes: “By definition, what a narrator recounts is a thing that has happened. But each little event, as it becomes the past, loses its concrete nature and turns into an outline.” So too with each little observation Kundera makes, each grand point, until we have lost the thread of the novel’s art and must grope in the darkness for it again. He is at his best when he pronounces: “the novel remains to use the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”
Yes: but there is a more metaphorical statement that toward the end of The Art of the Novel that summarizes both his point in his essays and his thoughts regarding the place of the novel in knowledge that is worth using to end this piece:
In the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Panurge, the first great novelistic character that Europe beheld, is tormented by the question: Should he marry or not? He consults doctors, seers, professors, poets, philosophers, who each in turn quotes Hippocrates, Aristotle, Homer, Heraclitus, Plato. But after all this enormous, erudite research, which takes up the whole book, Panurge still does not know whether he should marry or not. And we, the readers, do not know either—but on the other hand, we have explored from every possible angle the situation, as comical as it is elemental, of the person who does not know whether he should marry or not.