(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky,” part 3 of his nine-partTestaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera writes about Igor Stravinsky’s émigré status: “having understood that no country could replace it [his homeland], he finds his only homeland in music; this is not just a nice lyrical conceit of mine, I think it in an absolutely concrete way.” Kundera’s situation is similar to that of Stravinsky and to those of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, about whom Kundera also writes. Kundera, the most famous Czech writer, left Czechoslovakia in 1975 to live in Paris. He has continued to write fiction in Czech, but he has now written two works of nonfiction in French: The Art of the Novel (1986; English translation, 1988) and Testaments Betrayed. As Stravinsky inhabited the world of music and served as one of its most important citizens and statesmen, so does Kundera inhabit the world of the novel, communicate in its unique language, and serve as a spokesman for its worldview and its practitioners.

Kundera’s area of interest is specifically the European novel, by which he means “not only novels created in Europe by Europeans but novels that belong to a history that began with the dawn of the Modern Era in Europe.” He points out that the history of the European novel is transnational; he believes that it is a mistake to view the novel in terms of national literary traditions. At one point, Kundera mentions the reaction of the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch to his publisher’s suggestion that Broch be compared to the Central European writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. Broch proposed that he be compared instead to James Joyce and André Gide. Broch, like Kundera, believed that his realm was the macrocosm of the European novel, not the microcosm of Austrian fiction.

For Kundera, the novel is far more than a literary genre. It is a way of viewing the world which, when it is practiced by a great novelist, leads readers to think in fresh ways, to question some of their assumptions, to put aside their prejudices. In one interesting passage, Kundera speaks of the ways in which lyricism has been used in the service of totalitarianism. He mentions as an example the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a true artist who placed his verse at the service of the Russian Revolution. Kundera writes, “Lyricism, lyricization, lyrical talk, lyrical enthusiasm are an integrating part of what is called the totalitarian world; that world is not the gulag as such; it’s a gulag that has poems plastering its outside walls and people dancing before them.” In the world of the true novel, such lyricism is anathema, the enemy of clear thought. Repelled by the totalitarian lyricism he saw around him in the communist Czechoslovakia of his youth, Kundera turned to the novel. Kundera recalls:

The only thing I deeply, avidly, wanted was a lucid, unillusioned eye. I finally found it in the art of the novel. This is why for me being a novelist was more than just working in one “literary genre” rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom, a position . . . a considered, stubborn, furiousnonidentification.

Kundera wishes to be identified with no political position, no country, no rigid philosophical point of view; he wishes to view and to be viewed purely as a novelist.

Part of Kundera’s passion for the novel derives from his belief that the novel is a “realm where moral judgment is suspended. Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality.” True novels do not have an axe to grind. They do not simply promote ideas (Kundera loathes the so-called novel of ideas) or showcase the actions of characters who are intended to express particular positions. Kundera has no use for works such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), which he views as a political work pretending to be a novel, and he disapproves of Fyodor Fyodor Dostoevsky’s practice of creating characters who represent specific points of view. Such characters tend to be utterly predictable, to be led by an unfailing logic, whereas real people, no matter how strong their opinions, are typically less consistent. Leo Tolstoy’s characters, as Kundera mentions, are more human and less predictable. They adopt different viewpoints at different times in their lives, and sometimes they change those viewpoints for what seem to be trivial reasons. They are fitting inhabitants of the true novel.

In part 1 of Testaments Betrayed, “The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh,” Kundera speaks of the importance of humor in the novel. He loves the fact that the early novelists, such as François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes, reveled in humor and delighted in allowing their characters to make fools of themselves. He also writes that the history of humor is closely connected to the history of the novel. He quotes Octavio Paz, who said that humor “is the great invention of the modern spirit.” Paz had pointed out that early...

(The entire section is 2052 words.)