The Art of the Novel

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...

(The entire section is 2374 words.)