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Encountering Kundera

By (September 1, 2010) No Comment


By Milan Kundera
Harper, 2010

Novelist Milan Kundera wants to defend and define novelists. He charts a course for them to navigate between the Scylla of history and the Charybdis of an uncomprehending public. Novelists live in the world, of course, and use their experiences to create art, but they must vigilantly preserve their liberty and not become corrupted by politics, though of course they may write about them. At the same time, writers’ biographies should not be allowed to intrude on reception of their work. In The Art of the Novel (1988), Testaments Betrayed (1995), The Curtain (2006) and again in Encounter (2010), he warns against both the Philistines who look for the person lurking behind his characters and the novelists who do something incompatible with their role. In his nonfiction, he praises the heroes of fiction who further the development of his favorite form. He also names the names of those who lack the cunning of Odysseus required to deserve the lofty title of novelist. Whether celebrating or lamenting, Kundera opts for very short snatches of commentary, remaining always on the surface of tricky waters. He provokes; he doesn’t plumb.

Considering his ideas in conjunction with those of Albert Camus, a writer he comments on with characteristic brevity, offers a tantalizing illustration of Kundera’s method and stance. After all: “When one artist talks about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that’s what’s valuable in his judgment.” That might not be Kundera at his most pithy, but artists do reveal – or at least hint at – something about their work and their attitudes about it when they discuss other artists. In The Curtain Kundera sympathizes with Camus for having been rejected by Jean-Paul Sartre and other peers because of his divergent political positions, but in Encounter Kundera faults him for making insufficiently innovative contributions to the art of the novel. Like Kundera, Camus repeatedly insists on artistic independence. Writers may comment on the news of the day, they may be implicated in history, but each author’s voice must be completely his own. “It seems to me that the writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time and that he must take sides every time he can or knows how to do so,” Camus says in a 1957 interview. “But he must also maintain or resume from time to time a certain distance in relation to our history.” Camus seeks a space somewhere between the extremes of art for art’s sake and art committed to a cause, which would subordinate it to propaganda. “Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art.” In a lecture given later the same year, Camus associates the conception of art for its own sake with “irresponsibility”; he calls it “the artificial art of a factitious and self-absorbed society” made only for “the entertainment of a solitary artist.” Kundera similarly condemns the “stupidity” of frivolous film and television. Camus sees art as having a higher purpose. “The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world,” he declares in the interview.

Commitment to increasing the quantity of freedom must not take the form of earnest political activism, Camus warns. Such “galloping around the political arena” would leave him “sterilized” just as remaining in an ivory tower would render him “unreal.” Nonetheless, the task for artists – and for all “men of culture and faith” – is “to help man against what is oppressing him,” he writes in one of his essays about Algeria, where he was born and about which he strayed from right (or, rather, left) thinking. The broader category of “men of culture and faith” rather than the narrower classifications “artists” or “novelists” matters because while writers may fight for freedom, which for them means “the freedom of work and creation,” in the end their duties are those of citizenship. Camus does not elevate artists above others; indeed, he says he “feel[s] a real solidarity with the common man.” (Kundera notes in The Curtain that Camus’s critics denounced him as “vulgar” and points out the word’s origins in vulgus, meaning, simply, “people.”)

Kundera shares Camus’s aversion to “commitment literature” but scoffs at the responsibility the author of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death felt. In the same essay in Encounter where he dismisses Camus’s unoriginal fictional form, Kundera contrasts two novels by Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt (1944) and The Skin (1949). Kundera says the former was written by “an ‘engaged writer,’ that is to say, [one] confident that he knew where to assign good an evil.” With The Skin, in contrast, “the person telling the story is sure of only one thing: he is certain he can know nothing,” which is to say “not an ‘engaged’ writer.” While Kundera indicates his preference here, he states it more directly in The Curtain: “putting a novel to the service of an authority, however noble, would be impossible for a true novelist.” While Camus praises those who remain independent and resist authority regardless of whether they are artists or not, Kundera expresses special concern for artists’ rights. He illustrates this by imagining Igor Stravinsky defending his ability to do whatever he chose with his work: “what an author creates … belongs to no one but himself; he can publish it when he wants and if he wants; he can change it, revise it, lengthen it, shorten, throw it in the toilet and flush it down without the slightest obligation to explain himself to anybody at all.”

Even so, this turns out to be more than just an individual, personal matter. Kundera bemoans “the scandal of forgetting,” which suggests that those who can do so ought to preserve memory from deliberate or careless erasure. (“Truth needs witnesses,” as Camus asserted in 1947.) Since there are those in power who would promote forgetfulness and constrain artists’ witnessing – as Kundera well knows – defense of artists’ rights suggests a defense of freedom more generally.

Albert Camus

Or so it would seem. Kundera’s elliptical presentation often substitutes mere assertion for argument, and he prefers to be suggestive rather than thorough in following up on the implications of his aphorisms. Most of the individual parts of Encounter (and his other essays) are quite short, and longer ones are broken into many small parts. Not even bothering to disguise what seems like either laziness or intellectual exhaustion, he even resorts to starting an essay with a dictionary definition. The dissatisfying strangeness of Kundera’s decision to remain in the shallow end in Encounter stands out in part because he does make the occasional dive deeper. Though many pieces have the feel of newspaper and magazine work, sometimes he disregards word-count limitations and permits himself to comment on what he said originally.  The opening piece, a 1995 mediation on the artist Francis Bacon, incorporates something shorter Kundera wrote for a periodical eighteen years earlier. He interrupts a 1980 text on composer Iannis Xenakis with second thoughts from 2008. (Also odd: some pieces bear dates; most do not.)

Perhaps the strongest piece is one of the longest, but at eighteen pages his musings on “blacklists” is not very long. By “blacklists” he doesn’t mean official lists of non-persons. Rather, he intends bien-pensant ostracism of those who don’t hew to the party line or follow intellectual fashion. Believing the novel offers an irreplaceable means of understanding individuals, Kundera embraces the enigma of independent identity and eschews the orderliness of ideological or national classification.

Novelists are not the property of their homelands. Kundera is not a Czech (or French) writer; Camus is not an Algerian (or French) writer. Literature, Kundera believes, can create nations, but novelists are neither representatives of them nor beholden to them. He realizes that some see political struggle as more important than art and that others believe politics should “serve real life, art, thought.” He doesn’t say either is illegitimate, only that they are incompatible. He contends the Czech nation was born because of its literature. “And I don’t mean literature as a political weapon,” he clarifies. “I mean literature as literature.” He contrasts the different springs of 1968 in Paris and Prague, and even recalls a brief moment of utopia amid crumbling dictatorship – “the ideal political regime.” Literature can look into such matters, and in an indirect fashion contribute to history, but it must not serve it. There are imprecisely drawn boundaries. Besides, he betrays a lack of confidence in the novel to elevate and ennoble culture by repeatedly having to elucidate its special powers via nonfiction. He attempts to buttress the underappreciated novel with his essays about it.

Kundera’s preferred art form aims to make sense of the world, while for Camus the point is not to only comprehend the world but to change it. “All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it,” Kundera writes in The Curtain. “That – that is the raison d’être of the novel.” Camus saw his purpose differently. “An artist may make a success or a failure of his work,” he says in the 1957 interview. “He may make a success or failure of his life. But if he can tell himself that, finally, as a result of his long effort, he has eased or decreased the various forms of bondage weighing upon men, then in a sense he is justified and, to some extent, he can forgive himself.” Having done this might offer some consolation for not reinventing and reinvigorating the novel, but Kundera is not so magnanimous in Encounter, where he writes: “There are writers, great writers, who dazzle us with the power of their minds, but who are marked with a kind of curse: for what they have to say they never found an original form that is linked to their personality as inseparably as are their ideas.” As a result of his devotion to freedom beyond artistic freedom, Camus comes to Kundera’s mind for his polemics and positions instead of his novels. (So, too, does Sartre.) It would be hard for Kundera to imagine a sadder fate.

Yet that’s not the only possible ending Kundera strives to avoid. Cynical types will certainly read Encounter as a response to detractors who believe Kundera, as a dutiful young Communist in Czechoslovakia, collaborated with authorities in an incident that undermines, or at least colors, his subsequent denunciations of communism and novelistic depictions of totalitarianism’s toxic effect on private life. As a twenty-one year old student, Kundera learned that a fellow resident in his dormitory was holding a briefcase for a man who had deserted Czech military after the Communists’ rise to power in 1948 but had returned to spy on the government on behalf of U.S. anti-Communists two years later. Kundera informed local police, who arrested the alleged Western agent when he returned for his property. Miroslav Dvoracek served fourteen years in prison and endured hard labor in a uranium mine. At least that’s the story as reported in English-language newspaper accounts of an October 2008 article in the Czech magazine Respekt. Kundera immediately called the accusations “pure lies” that amounted to “assassination of the author” by the news media.

In Encounter, Kundera appears to rebut actual or potential critics without ever directly referring to the 1950 incident or the 2008 controversy. He champions writers he thinks are unjustly neglected because of their politics or their pasts, challenges the relevance of writers’ biographies to their work, and complains of living in “the age of the prosecutors” when people’s only engagement with art is to “ferret out Sin beneath its disguise.” Although Louis-Ferdinand Céline was “tried for collaboration with the Nazis” and “lived for twenty years among the condemned and the scorned, in history’s trash heap, guilty among the guilty,” he was also, Kundera asserts, capable of seeing and expressing “sublime beauty.” He believes Anatole France went out of style because of readers’ insistence on working out and judging authors’ political beliefs, which inevitably spoils novels. “For in a novelist the passion to know is not aimed at politics or history,” Kundera insists (and the italics here as well as in other quotations are his). 

Milan Kundera

Kundera links France’s The Gods Are Thirsty to his own experience of “a world sliding toward the abyss of a dictatorship whose reality no one had foreseen, desired, imagined, especially not the people who had desired and celebrated its arrival.” (Kundera was a constant Communist until the late 1960s. He was shaken by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, after which his criticisms cost him his teaching job and led to his expulsion from the Party in 1970. He moved to France in 1975.) Set during the French Revolution, The Gods Are Thirsty has as its protagonist Gamelin, a painter and Jacobin radical. Kundera recalls being captivated by what he calls mystery of the character. According to Kundera, “that man who ended up sending dozens of people to the guillotine would probably in some other time have been a kindly neighbor, a good colleague, a gifted artist.” He wonders how basically decent people can have monsters inside them, if the beasts would reside inside them in peaceful political moments and whether the fiends could be detected at such time. “Those of us who have known terrifying Gamelins – are we capable of spotting the monsters sleeping inside the kindly Gamelins that surround us today?” Novels examine the questions that concern him, but people don’t know how to read them anymore. He explains:

In my native country, as people were shedding their ideological illusions, the “Gamelin mystery” ceased to interest them. A bastard is a bastard, what’s the mystery? The existential enigma has disappeared behind political certitude, and certitudes don’t give a damn about enigmas. This is why, despite the wealth of their lived experience, people emerge from a historic ordeal just as stupid as they were when they went into it.

Novelists traffic in irony and ambiguity, but fools don’t want to let them hide behind their characters, preferring to reduce them to dull convictions. It’s not that politics and writers’ personal experiences don’t matter. After all, Kundera repeatedly brings them into his own work. He doesn’t address this apparent eagerness to have it both ways, assuming a position of Olympian purity unsullied by the very material he returns to again and again in his essays. But it’s the writing that has value. He disdains those who would run “backward to the artist’s youth, his first coitus, his baby diapers” rather than “looking at the work itself.” Why, he anxiously wonders, “is no one ever interested in the essential?” For him that means not a particular author’s views or attitudes, but his saying something previously unsaid about what it is to be human via formal innovations in the art of the novel. Maybe he too could have – or did – become a monster. Maybe anyone could in the right – or, rather wrong – circumstances. It’s worth considering, and it’s the consideration in the shape of fiction, not biographical facts, that Kundera finds most important.

Kundera praises writers who achieved the artistic essential, such as Rabelais and Tolstoy. He also remarks on the accomplishments of contemporaries such as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie (all writers, sin-seeking prosecutors might notice, who after the spy story broke were among the signatories of a letter expressing “indignation” at efforts to besmirch the “honor of one of the greatest living novelists has been tarnished on dubious grounds, to say the least.”)  He singles out Rushdie for recognizing, as Rabelais did, the importance of the non-serious in the novel. Not coincidentally, humor has long concerned the author of The Joke (1967), Laughable Loves (1969) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979); it is also something that keeps people from becoming like Gamelin. “For only a sense of humor can discern the humorlessness in others,” Kundera explains. “And discern it with horror! Only the lucidity of humor could see in Gamelin’s deepest soul his dark secret: the desert of seriousness, the humorless desert.” Humor, he believes, inhibits the growth of monstrous executioners.

Nonetheless, Kundera, like Camus before him, comes to pessimistic conclusions concerning the likely success of such a defense of literary freedom and artistic integrity. “The novelist is the sole master of his work; he is his work,” Kundera writes in The Curtain. “It was not always thus, and it will not always be thus. But when that day comes, the art of the novel … will cease to exist.” We have entered the post-art era, he declares in Encounter – “a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.” His statements have or lack merit regardless of what motivated them, of course. His own past, whatever actually happened in it, certainly shaped his outlook and influenced his attitudes, but knowledge of his life story can’t increase understanding of his views. What would augment it would be more developed and detailed arguments than he deigns to provide. Kundera insists that there are things only novels can do, that only operas can do. There are things essays can do that his don’t. Quotations may offer evidence to support what one writer says about another, but Kundera alternates between setting the stage and letting authors speak largely for themselves (with occasional bursts of applause from him) and stating what others are all about without any interference from them.   Either way, he assumes an oracular pose, as if the validity of statements were self-evident and unassailable. The two and a half page bit on Céline gives over roughly one page to Céline’s words, several of which Kundera amplifies via repetition in his page and a half of cheerleading. In an item on Vera Linhartova (who like Kundera left Czechoslovakia for France and started writing in French), he does what he does with Céline: quote and endorse. Yet in an equally brief gloss on Roth, Kundera doesn’t let in a single word from Roth. As a result, Kundera’s essays feel unfinished, like notes for longer, more fleshed-out works.

So Encounter is a somewhat apt title. Recounting a visit surrealist André Breton made to Port-au-Prince, Kundera writes: “For the Haitians the encounter was as unforgettable as it was brief. I’ve said ‘encounter’: not social relation, not a friendship, not even an alliance: an encounter, which is to say a spark; a lightening flash; random chance.” The short Encounter offers glimpses of Kundera’s thoughts, not a deep exploration that a reader can truly connect with; not a memorable bond. From snippets of exclamation-point laden pronouncements on the glory of the art of the novel, he patches together a craft insufficient for the storms he forecasts.

John G. Rodwan, Jr., is the author of Fighters & Writers, a collection of essays about boxing and books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.