The Book of Questions

The Book of Questions

In a book-length essay on the novel, Milan Kundera foresees the curtain of literary history drawing to a close.


I was talking books with a group of students at a campus gathering the other week when one of them, eyes shining with enthusiasm, broke in. “Have you ever heard of a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being?” he asked. What I love about this story is not just that 20-year-olds are still reading Kundera’s most famous novel, as I did when I was their age, but that the experience of doing so is still such a vital event that, like young lovers (or like me, when I first read it), they think they’re the first people it’s ever happened to. Kundera is no longer the literary presence he was twenty years ago, but the work he did then still feels to people like it was written yesterday.

So what has he done in the past twenty years? Immortality (1990), the novel that followed The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has turned out to be his last full-length work and the last one written in Czech. Since then, he has published three novellas and, with The Curtain, three short works of nonfiction. All five volumes were written in French, as was his first collection of essays, The Art of the Novel (1986). Kundera turns 78 this year, and it’s no wonder he’s slowed down. Still, it’s hard not to notice that his shift from Czech to French, and from long, ambitious fictions to much slimmer works, coincided with the fall of Communism. Although Kundera rightly rejects the notion that he’s a political writer, he did his best work after his immigration to France in 1975. As with so many twentieth-century writers, the tensions of exile seem to have tuned his imagination to its highest pitch. Unlike most others, he lived past the century’s symbolic end in 1989, and the removal of the condition of exile–not the fact of not being at home but the fact of not being able to be–seems to have slackened it.

If history did indeed have this impact on Kundera’s career, it would be fitting, since history is his key term for understanding the novel. The Curtain is an extended essay on the novel, and it begins with a brisk and idiosyncratic history of the form. Cervantes first tore open “the curtain that hides life’s prose,” “the curtain of preinterpretation”: of ideology, inherited beliefs, false grandeur–everything we use to blind ourselves to the real texture, and real beauty, of everyday experience. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s late-eighteenth-century comic masterpiece, went further, dethroning the tyranny of story, of dramatic action, to assert the value of the ephemeral and insignificant. Balzac introduced History itself–the sense of inexorable change–and as a compensatory gesture, description in its fullest form, the minute recording of appearances as a way of saving them from their imminent dissolution. Dostoyevsky gave the novel an unprecedented density, packing his scenes with a thickness of event and coincidence that achieves a beauty transcending the prosaic nature of ordinary life. Flaubert, by contrast, insisted on detheatricalizing the novel, revealing not just the humble or insignificant dimensions of daily existence but its boredom, stupidity and pointlessness. Finally, Tolstoy contrived to keep Anna Karenina’s suicide an enigma–for our deepest motives, he believed, are a mystery.

Kundera’s purpose is not just to lay out his sense of the novel’s historical possibilities but to show that it has a history, and that its history is very different from History in the larger sense. The first section of the book is cleverly arranged; it begins with a story about Kundera’s father identifying a musical passage as late Beethoven from its inclusion of a harmonic shift the young composer would never have used, and it ends with another Czech story, this one about how a certain incident from post-Communist life resembles, “word for word,” the plot of Balzac’s Père Goriot. History repeats itself, but the history of art does not, must not. History forgets itself in an endless procession of ups and downs, but the history of art is always self-aware and must always remain so. The novel, like every other art, is a permanent set of possibilities that the history of the form discovers one after another, all of them remaining available as reference points for future practitioners. In a riposte to Marxism’s historical determinism, Kundera asserts that the history of art is independent from political and economic history, for art, he implies, is the realm of autonomy–of discovery, possibility, choice–the one sphere in which human beings can assert their freedom from History.

But the novel isn’t just free of History; it is also, in Kundera’s conception, our key instrument for thinking about History. Yet even the way it has done so has a history. From Balzac to Proust, the novel sought to record History: to render as faithful an account as possible of the social and psychological texture of the times. But World War I changed History itself by bringing to an end Europe’s long century of peace, which made such contemplation possible. Suddenly History becomes a nightmare or, as The Art of the Novel calls it, a “monster”: “uncontrollable, incalculable, incomprehensible–and…inescapable.” Now comes the time of Kundera’s personal pantheon, the great Central European novelists who flourished between the wars: Franz Kafka; Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities; Hermann Broch, author of The Sleepwalkers; Jaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Schweik; and Witold Gombrowicz, author of Ferdydurke. Abandoning Balzacian verisimilitude, they seek to portray the existential dilemmas that modern history thrusts on the individual. Because they see these dilemmas as universal, belonging to all people equally rather than particular people in their specific social roles, they no longer concern themselves with psychological exploration or sociological fidelity. And because reality has become irrational, they no longer even necessarily worry about plausibility. Theirs is often the realm of fantasy, humor and satire. Yet at the same time, they combat the irrationality of modern existence–anomie, bureaucracy, war, the disintegration of traditional values, the rage for the new–by introducing a new element into their fiction: analytic or aphoristic asides in which the author steps back from the situation he is narrating to meditate on its significance.

It’s not hard to understand the importance these Central European writers have for Kundera. First of all, they give him an alternative identity to the one the cold war foisted on him and his country. “Central Europe” stands against “Eastern Europe”: Catholic, not Orthodox; liberal, not Communist; enlightened, not barbaric; facing Germany and the West, not Russia and the East. But as he suggests here, a regional identity like Central Europe also stands against the two poles of conventional literary history: on the one hand, Weltliteratur, Goethe’s concept of world literature; on the other, the literatures of each individual nation. Kundera is wrong that Goethe’s idea of studying literary works in a transnational context never got off the ground. It’s called comparative literature, and it flourishes in the academy. But he’s wrong for the right reason. Comparative literature tends to favor what Kundera calls “large nations” and languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Russian) at the expense of “small” ones (Czech, Polish, Swedish, Yiddish, Icelandic). As for the small nations, they have their own provincialism, which, driven by cultural insecurity, seeks to enlist native artists in the holy task of nation-building. To a writer from a place like Bohemia (as Kundera identifies his native land), the large nations say, “You’re not good enough for us,” and the small ones say, “Do you think you’re better than we are?” But a regional grouping like Central Europe (or Scandinavia, or Latin America) reveals affinities across national and linguistic lines while holding at bay the dominance of the great cultural powers. Kundera’s pantheon includes two Austrians, a Pole, a Czech writing in German and a Czech writing in Czech.

These writers also constitute his model of novelistic practice. The most noteworthy feature of Kundera’s fiction–much praised, much criticized–is precisely his interweaving of narrative and reflection. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with three pages on Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return before turning to the story of Tomas and Tereza. But as Kundera says here in his defense of “thinking novels,” novelistic thought “does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful.”

Indeed, the characteristic rhetorical feature of Kundera’s novelistic meditations is the question, and we might say that his novels as a whole are written in an interrogative mode, as investigations into the kinds of existential dilemmas he finds in his Central European predecessors. They are also written, like those of his heroes, in a spirit of laughter and play (for as Kundera likes to remind us, even Kafka laughed at what he wrote, though of his dark humor we have discarded the humor and kept only the darkness). It is no accident that one of Kundera’s books is called The Joke, a second Laughable Loves and a third The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or that “levity” is a synonym for “lightness.” But humor signifies more for Kundera than just mirth. It is, he says, a distinctly modern attitude, one in which all beliefs are relativized, all fixed ideas called into question, all self-importance deflated by exposure to competing perspectives. Here as throughout his career, the novel is the great enemy of the romantic or lyrical spirit: of emotionalism and idealism and the egotistic self-absorption from which they proceed. For Kundera, lyric poetry is the genre of youthful naïveté and thus of susceptibility to totalitarian enthusiasm; the novel, the genre of maturity: of irony, disillusionment, sophistication and analytic detachment.

In this, too, he is the heir of the Central Europeans, for two reasons. First, he says, the Modernist revolt in Central Europe was very different from what it was in his adopted country of France. French Modernism, in the wake of eighteenth-century classicism and rationalism and the novel’s nineteenth-century heyday, turned to romanticism and poetry. Central European Modernism, in the wake of “an especially ecstatic strain of baroque art” and then “the moralizing idyllicism of Biedermeier” and the region’s great Romantic poetry, turned to rationalism and the novel. (In this, as Kundera discusses in some of the book’s most interesting sections, it reveals unsuspected affinities with the postwar Latin American and Caribbean traditions.) Second, he implies, the very situation of the “small nations” gives them a “humorous” perspective denied to their big, blundering brothers. Hasek’s great antihero, Kundera says, is a deserter: not literally, because Schweik pretends to go off to World War I with parodic good cheer, but morally, because of his “total indifference toward the great collective conflict.” He refuses to take it seriously, “to grant meaning to the battles of his contemporaries,” “to see a tragic grandeur in massacres.” If Schweik is a deserter, then so is Hasek, and Kundera, and all the small nations eternally conscripted into the wars of the great powers, dragged behind on the road to nowhere. It’s the kind of situation that makes you die laughing.

In the work of the Central Europeans, Kundera has said elsewhere, the history of the novel comes full circle, back to the all-dissolving laughter of Cervantes and Sterne. But here he foresees the end of that history: of the European arts, of the age of innovation, skepticism, individualism and the consciousness of artistic continuity. By the close of the essay, its title has acquired a new cast. This sense of cultural doom is not new; Kundera has always raged, often brilliantly, against the superficiality and conformism of contemporary life. But it’s still a very narrow view. As he shows in his appreciation of New World developments, art in Europe may be exhausted, but the European artistic traditions remain vital. He is also more ignorant than he has a right to be, if he’s going to make pronouncements about the contemporary state of cultural memory, of developments within the academy. He says, for example, that novels are too long to be read properly, since images evoked at the beginning will be forgotten by the time a reader gets to the end; in Testaments Betrayed he argued that the only proper way to read a novel is to reread it, only nobody does that anymore. Well, academics do it, and if they’re worth anything they teach their students to do likewise. I’m the last person to expect Kundera to immerse himself in academic criticism, but he isn’t entitled to pretend it doesn’t exist. Most of it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t give him a license to ignore the good stuff, and even in the academy, even today, there’s some very good stuff.

What’s coming to an end, devolving into repetition, is not the novel, but what Kundera has to say about the novel. It gives me no pleasure to point this out, but there is very little here he hasn’t said before and said better, most of it in The Art of the Novel, some of it in Testaments Betrayed, his other book-length essay. The Curtain is certainly well worth reading for anyone who doesn’t know those other works. It is witty and brisk and very smart, like all of his writing. But it falls far short of The Art of the Novel, not only because he has so little new to say but because the earlier work was produced in the full flush of his novelistic career. In it he discusses his own artistic practice in detail: his compositional principles, his key words, his historical ideas as they emerged hot from his hands. But here he makes no reference to his own work and ignores the issues the last twenty years of his career naturally raise: What is the difference between writing in an adopted language and writing in a native one, and in French rather than Czech? What is the difference between constructing a novel and a novella? How does creation change in old age? (He speaks here of the “vesperal freedom” that comes to artists like Beethoven and Picasso in their last years, but what about him?) Finally, how did the fall of Communism present him with a new set of existential dilemmas, and how did it reshape his art? Kundera still means a great deal to a lot of readers; it’s too bad he’s decided to retreat behind the curtain.

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