The Art of the Novel

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2374

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In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera considers the state of the genre. As a well-respected novelist, he is in a position to do so. Czech-born, Kundera began his career as a poet and dramatist, publishing in 1967 his first novel ert, later translated and published as The Joke (1969, 1982). This novel, with its anti-Communist thrust, was seen as heralding a political thaw in Czechoslovakia. Other novels followed: La Vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere, 1974) is the chronicle of a Communist poet with little talent and La Valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party, 1976) is a farce about a health spa that claimed to cure infertility.

Although a member of the Communist Party, Kundera joined a group of intellectuals who encouraged the loosening of restrictions which culminated in a period of increasing freedom known as the Prague Spring. In 1968, however, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed the liberalization. Because of his activities, Kundera was censured. He lost his position teaching film studies at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, his books were banned, and his work was no longer published in Czechoslovakia. In 1975, he moved to Paris, accepted a position at the University of Rennes teaching comparative literature, and continued to write novels: Le Livre du rire et de l’oubli (1979; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980), a discussion of forgetting that can be read as a comment on the deathlike state of Communist Czechoslovakia, and L’Insoutenable légèreté de l’être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984), a love story set in the Russian-dominated country. His novels are known for their political nature, in particular the study of the effect of totalitarianism on the individual; for their experimental form; and for their emphasis on ideas, especially the examination of the nature of existence.

Although Kundera in the preface to The Art of the Novel writes, “I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels,” the book is not restricted to his own work but rather addresses broader questions concerning the genre, such as the uniqueness of the form, its vitality, and its future. Divided into seven chapters, the book appears to be fragmented because of the different forms (essay, dialogue, public address, and dictionary entries) employed and the disjointed style that resulted from the pieces being written over a period of several years and published in various journals and newspapers. Kundera insists, however, that the sections were conceived of as a book. As one reads, certain themes and ideas recur and complement one another. Thus, although initially the chapters seem unrelated in form and content, a whole emerges.

The opening essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”—first published in 1984 in The New York Review of Books under the title of “The Novel and Europe”—outlines the history of the European novel. Kundera traces the adaptations that the novel has made over the four centuries, changes made in response to an evolving society. Paraphrasing Edmund Husserl, Kundera argues that the modern age began when Galileo Galilei and René Descartes elevated the importance of that which can be measured, resulting in a degradation of those things that were not scientific or technical. As the sciences became more and more specialized and exclusive, the world became more and more fragmented. Man could not hope to comprehend the world and as a result could not even comprehend himself. In Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes opposed this trend toward measurement and focused on the forgotten self. Indeed, it is the novel which illuminates, and recovers from the oppressiveness of science, various aspects of man’s existence.

The great novelists throughout history have modified the novel to accommodate changes in society. Cervantes encountered a world that had lost its sense of certainty. God no longer retained the supreme position that He had held in the Middle Ages. As a result, Cervantes focused on the ambiguity that confronts man as he realizes that there are no absolutes and therefore finds himself faced with unrestrained freedom. Thus, the world of Don Quixote is one of adventure: Anything is possible. A hundred years later, Samuel Richardson examined the interior life of the individual. In the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert faced a world bounded by institutions and government; he chronicled the trivial events of daily existence. In the twentieth century, Marcel Proust explored the effect of the past on the individual, and James Joyce questioned the ability to know the present. Kundera argues that soon all accepted value systems will be discredited and abolished, resulting in the dominance of irrationality. Modern novelists, including Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch, have already addressed this situation. Of all the genres, only the novel has been able to reflect the changes in perception that have accompanied the emergence of modern man.

The future of the novel lies in its continuing ability to evolve. Because of the novel’s inclusiveness and adaptability, the death of the novel cannot be foreseen. Although declared dead or at least dying by various avant-garde groups, such as the Surrealists and Futurists, and by some academicians, the novel is strong. Arguing that in a sense only censorship can destroy the novel, Kundera links the health of the genre to the vitality of Western culture.

As maintained by Kundera, Broch and Kafka are two writers who have brought the novel into the modern age, which Kundera defines as “the bridge between the reign of irrational faith and the reign of the irrational in a world without faith.” Part 3, “Notes Inspired by ’The Sleepwalkers,’” focuses on the often-neglected Broch. In his trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932), Broch examines the effect of the loss of values on modern man. Each novel in the trilogy presents one possibility of coping with the situation. One character clings to the old values (in the form of an old uniform); another sees the world as divided between good and evil which are indistinguishable; and the third considers only himself. Broch’s characters cannot deal directly with reality but instead react to, and are governed by, symbols, which belong to an irrational system. Broch’s importance lies in the fact that he introduced the irrational into twentieth century fiction.

Kundera opens part 5, a discussion of Kafka’s novels, with a few lines from the Czech poet Jan Skacel:

Poets don’t invent poemsThe poem is somewhere behindIt’s been there for a long timeThe poet merely discovers it.

Kundera, through Skacel, is suggesting that great writers state universal truths, truths that have always existed but that need an artist to articulate them. Kafka is such an artist. His fictive world represents a possible existence, one in which the individual is overwhelmed by external forces and trapped with no possibility of escaping. In this oppressive environment, faceless institutions control every aspect of the individual’s life. In the Kafkan scheme, events in daily life are often comic because of their absurdity. Yet the comic does not offer any relief; instead, it destroys the tragic element, thus minimalizing the stature of the victim.

Kafka presented a possibility of human existence which, unforeseen by him, has become the reality in totalitarian societies. Kundera likens the last years he spent in Prague to the world envisioned by Kafka. Kundera argues that any totalitarian state necessarily becomes Kafkan. The “concentration of power,” “bureaucratization,” and “depersonalization of the individual” create functionaries out of the citizens. As described by Kafka, these functionaries obey, perform mechanical and seemingly meaningless tasks, and deal with reports and files but not directly with people. This is the situation that Kundera saw in Prague. Kafka wrote about this possible existence, but he did not create it; the possibility was there for “a long long time,” as Skacel observed.

In part 2, “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” Kundera discusses his work and his aesthetics. As all novels must do, his novels explore the meaning of existence, which he defines as “the realm of human possibilities.” Unlike Cervantes, who found man’s being through action, or Richardson, who found the self in the interior life, Kundera uses an examination of an existential problem to discover the self. For example, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the problem—“The lightness of existence in a world where there is no eternal return”—controls the direction and development of the novel. A Kundera character represents one possible existence among many. His characters should be viewed as experimental selves, not real but imaginary. Breaking with the emphasis on realism or verisimilitude, Kundera offers the reader little in the way of character description. Instead, his characters can be reduced to a list of words that represent a code to their essence. Thus, Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is defined by vertigo and weakness.

Certain words and terms figure strongly in Kundera’s novels. These words are discussed and defined in his novels, in his essays, and in “Sixty-three Words,” a section in The Art of the Novel. One group of terms relates to the political thrust of his novels. Central Europe is defined as a “laboratory of twilight.” “Czechoslovakia” is a word he avoids, because, created in 1918, it is too new and “frail.” Kundera prefers the term “Bohemia” instead. Forgetting is seen partly as a totalitarian device to rewrite history. Other words such as “irony,” “lyricism,” “comic,” and “repetition” relate to the form and structure of the novel. Others are relevant to an understanding of Kundera’s concerns: being, lightness, nonthought, and kitsch. His definitions are themselves poetic: “Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.” Since Kundera usually writes in Czech without a Czech audience, he must rely on translations to reach his readers; this explains his concern that the terms be properly defined so that they accurately reflect his meaning.

Kundera’s novels are often read as a criticism of Communist society and of totalitarian states in general. He rejects this interpretation, arguing, “The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.” Kundera does not want to be labeled a dissident writer because “in lending himself to the role of public figure, the novelist endangers his work.” Nevertheless, his novels are often situated in the history of Czechoslovakia. While he is not concerned with history as such, he recognizes the impossibility of ever divorcing the individual from the culture. In his novels, historical events are used as metaphors for the characters. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza’s weakness is illuminated by the capitulation of the Czech leader Alexander Dubek to the Russian leaders in 1968.

In part 4, “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” Kundera continues to discuss his aesthetics. He suggests that a novel should be brief. Otherwise, the limits of the reader’s memory weaken the effectiveness of the book and destroy its “architectonic clarity.” Therefore, everything nonessential should be deleted. In Kundera’s novels, one finds few descriptive passages. In his opinion, the novel’s theme or “existential inquiry” is of utmost importance. After the plot is sketched, he concentrates on the theme. As it develops, certain words are repeated and emphasized, thus becoming significant. It is these words that are being examined in the novel.

Kundera’s novels are clearly constructed fictions. The reader is frequently reminded that the work is fiction, that it stems from the author’s imagination, and that it is not intended to mirror reality. The characters are born from an idea and represent only one possibility among many. He uses his novels to explore man’s being and to study the possibilities of existence. As he notes, “The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters.” The author must rely on “imagination, freed from the control of reason and from concern for verisimilitude, [in order to venture] into landscapes inaccessible to rational thought.” Kundera’s novels are not tied to realism but incorporate dreamlike passages. Unlike Kafka, who blended dream into his novels so that there was no distinction between dream and reality, Kundera includes identifiable dream sequences.

The structure of Kundera’s novels is strongly influenced by music. Perhaps because his father was a musicologist and his own first interest was music and music composition, he sees the sections of his books as resembling the divisions in a symphony. The large segments (parts) correspond to movements. Each chapter within a part corresponds to a measure. He likens the pace of his novels to the tempo of music, describing chapters using musical terms such as “moderato,” “allegro,” and “adagio.” The pace or tempo then corresponds to a particular mood or emotion. Nevertheless, the seven-part structure that is found in The Art of the Novel and in all of his novels except The Farewell Party arises not out of his musical background but instead is a compulsion: As Kundera explains it, it belongs to “a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible drive.”

Another aspect of music that Kundera has adapted to his novels is polyphony, an occurrence in which more than two voices or melodies are blended but each retains its identity, as in a fugue or canon. Kundera credits Broch with introducing polyphony into the novel by integrating various genres such as poetry, essay, and journalism into his books. As Kundera observes, however, in Broch’s work, the pieces are not balanced and unified. Kundera, grappling with the issue, believes that he has been more successful. In part 3 of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera blends autobiography, essay, fable, and narration. These sections are unified by the question “What is an angel?” Similarly, in part 6 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a combination of essay, narration, and meditation is unified by a discussion of kitsch.

Exiled and living in France, Kundera is an important novelist for the Western world. He represents, so to speak, a voice from the other side. His novels have been successful, rightly or wrongly, for their presentation of Communist society. More important, Kundera’s experimentation with the boundaries of the novel have strengthened the genre. In The Art of the Novel, he has established himself as an important theorist by his attempt to clarify the novel’s purpose and position.


Critical Essays