The unbearable rightness of fiction

In his forceful new book, Milan Kundera argues that we need the novel to understand the "ineluctable defeat called life."

Published March 6, 2007 12:36PM (EST)

A "novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral." So Milan Kundera writes in "The Curtain," his new book-length essay on the novel. It's hard to imagine any contemporary American novelist making such a statement. No matter how seriously American writers take their craft, they are unlikely to see themselves as ethically required to make epistemological breakthroughs. Reveal hitherto unknown bits of existence or else! The demand recalls the avant-garde manifestoes of the early 20th century, when arrogant young turks proclaimed that rayonism or vorticism or thingism were about to change the world forever.

There can be something faintly ridiculous about such ex cathedra pronouncements, especially coming from a writer whom we hardly associate with moral absolutism. As we'll see, Kundera can't quite in the end decide just what constitutes "some hitherto unknown bit of existence" -- and the works he singles out for praise fall within an idiosyncratically narrow spectrum. But that very narrowness, that deep-in-the-bone eccentricity, also gives this book its force and its fascination. One of the equivocal pleasures of reading criticism written by novelists is that they usually reveal more about their own passions and obsessions than about their putative subject matter. And this isn't any old critic, it's Milan Kundera -- the master of historic banana peels and semi-tragic bad sex, the only writer who uses Nietzsche's eternal recurrence as a bedroom philosophy. His martini-dry fiction, at once playful, coldblooded and pissed-off, has an instantly recognizable sensibility and tone, one that seems peculiarly attuned to our age's political and erotic disillusionments. "The Curtain" reveals a lot about Kundera. Yet, ironically, it also helps us understand why his creative works, or those of any major writer, cannot be reduced to theory -- not even one as philosophically skeptical and subtly self-canceling as the one presented here.

"The Curtain" is not Kundera's best nonfiction book -- it recycles themes he explored 20 years ago in "The Art of the Novel," it meanders, and it can be philosophically sloppy, self-serving and hobby-horse-ish. But it's also brilliant, vehement, learned and wise. "The Curtain" raises essential questions about the novel, literary history and the imagination. Readers who take literature seriously, and especially those who wonder about the complex relationship between fiction and reality, will find it stimulating and provocative, even if they may disagree with some of Kundera's conclusions. In American culture, where there is a large gap between academics and critics, on the one hand, and creative writers, on the other, "The Curtain" is a welcome bridge. In the end readers may feel it leads mainly from Milanville to Kundera City, but those are pretty hip places to hang out.

"The Curtain" is at once a charmingly digressive tour through four centuries of literary history and an incomplete but compelling attempt at a philosophical opus. Through both of those themes, one idea dominates: an abiding belief, almost religious in its intensity, that the novel is a profoundly subversive tool for understanding reality, and that the novelist must have a high degree of intellectual self-consciousness, an almost clinical awareness of the form he or she is working in.

This formalist thesis is, of course, hardly original. The literary critic Mark Schorer, in his classic 1948 essay "Technique as Discovery," argued that it is only technique, which he defined as "achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art," that allows the novelist to investigate reality. For Schorer, novelists who ignore technique, like H.G. Wells, end up simply as documentarians, or worse, documents of the "social history" of their time -- as artists, they are doomed to be forgotten.

Kundera echoes this argument, but goes much further. He argues not only that self-conscious literary artifice is artistically necessary, but that it is philosophically and historically necessary. For Kundera, the world is essentially meaningless and contingent, its real existence always hidden by comfortable myths, and the only way to give it meaning, to live authentically, is to courageously rip away these myths. Kundera uses the phrase "the curtain" -- a concept that recalls both Plato's allegory of the cave and the Hindu concept of the veil of Maya -- to refer to those "judgments" and "pre-interpretations" of the world that stand in our way. The great novels refuse the consolation of essentialism, of received beliefs; they tear the curtain. In short, Kundera advocates a kind of dynamic fictional existentialism, in which each act of creative transgression reawakens what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called "the world of life," and what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called "being." (For Kundera, "existence" would seem a more apropos term, but he favors Heidegger's metaphysical word.)

In perhaps the most stimulating parts of "The Curtain," Kundera argues that these acts of dangerous literary exploration have a long history that it is essential to remember. In his opening chapter, "The Consciousness of Continuity," Kundera tells a story about his father, who was a musician. Once, while out with friends, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony came on the radio. The friends, all musicians or music buffs, asked Kundera's father mischievously, "What's that playing?" After long thought, he replied, "It sounds like Beethoven." They stifled a laugh -- he doesn't recognize the Ninth! -- and asked him why he thought it was Beethoven. He replied that it was Beethoven, in fact late Beethoven. They asked him why he thought it was late Beethoven. "He points out a certain harmonic shift that the younger Beethoven could never have used."

Kundera's point is that Western culture, including classical music and literature, has a definite history, which one must know not just to understand new works but, as a creator, to build on. If you're a novelist writing in 2007 and you don't know "Don Quixote," "Tom Jones," "Tristram Shandy" and "The Castle," you may still create a lasting work -- but you will do so only as a wild genius, not as a craftsman. And the history-obsessed Kundera has his doubts about untutored genius. "In art, the classic metaphysical questions -- Where do we come from? Where are we going? -- have a clear, concrete meaning, and are not at all unanswerable," he writes. Rather than being a sprawling miasma of fantasies, the history of the novel displays an ironclad interior logic: Rabelais leading to Cervantes leading to Fielding leading to Sterne leading to Balzac leading to Flaubert leading to Kafka, Musil, Broch and Joyce.

Again, this is a familiar argument, most famously made by T.S. Eliot in his seminal 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." (Kundera appears ignorant of this piece, as indeed of most literary criticism, a genre he does not appear to take much interest in although he has now written three books of literary criticism.) Kundera believes novelists must know the history of the form because if they don't, they are likely to repeat fictional expeditions already undertaken -- for him, the ultimate aesthetic sin: "The history of an art will not stand for repetitions." He takes the opposite position of Tom Wolfe, who argued in a famous 1989 essay that contemporary novelists should return to the Balzacian novel and grapple with big social issues, not just subjective minutiae. Kundera, by contrast, writes that "It would be ridiculous to write another 'Human Comedy.'"

Kundera, then, is a staunch modernist -- not because he demands that writers repeat the experiments of literary modernism (that would be a perverse form of conservatism), but because he sees art as necessarily revelatory, revolutionary, new. Unless the novel keeps moving forward, it will die. It may continue to nominally exist, but it will have no reason to. Such works, he writes contemptuously in "The Art of the Novel," will be "novels that come after the history of the novel." And in "The Curtain," as in his earlier book, he sees this outcome as eminently possible: "For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal." There is also an ambiguously political dimension to his critique. To remain significant, Kundera argues, the novel must challenge the pieties of its time. In "The Art of the Novel," he writes, "the novel cannot live in peace with the spirit of our time: if it is to go on discovering the undiscovered, to go on 'progressing' as novel, it can do so only against the progress of the world."

For Kundera, the concept of "prose" is key: He constantly invokes "life's prose." On the one hand, "prose" simply means humble human emotions and concerns, which the earlier epic form, and lyric poetry (which Kundera regards as an immature form, suited only for starry-eyed youth), ignored. It means, for example, teeth. "Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern -- hurting teeth, missing teeth. 'You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.'" But beyond its concern with the quotidian, "prose" also refers to the truth of life -- a truth that although all around us is nonetheless hidden, that we hide from ourselves. We hide it, in large part, because it ain't pretty. Cervantes, Kundera writes, dared to see, and describe, life itself as "a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That -- that is the raison d'etre of the art of the novel."

The battle lines, then, are drawn, the heroes and villains apparently clearly delineated. The villain is the instrumental rationalism of modernity, which has demystified the world and led man to "forget Being." The foe is judgment, ideology, lyricism, "pre-interpretation," grand thoughts, progress, belief in a stable authorial "self."

Against these things Kundera poses questioning, ambiguity, irony, prose, defeat, experiment, intelligence and history. He argues that the novel, even more than philosophy, represents a great and subversive counter-tradition to the hegemony of the curtain. Born in Europe, with its own discrete history, the novel challenges the dehumanizing forces of modernity. That tradition was initiated by Cervantes and passed on to Fielding, Balzac, Flaubert, Kafka, Musil and Joyce. The novel tears the curtain of illusion from life, destroying grand, lyrical illusions and revealing the comedy of existence, in all its uncertainty, its prosaic glory, its essential ambiguity. As he writes in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through."

Kundera takes pains to point out that he does not believe that the novel "progresses" the way science does. "[I]t does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist's ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say." Nonetheless, although he never comes right out and says it, Kundera seems to regard conventional mimetic novels as philosophical defeats, creative abortions, wastes of time. Novels that simply coast along on the form's 19th-century momentum, telling more or less interesting stories without attempting to create new ways of exploring the world, are dead to him. If a novel does not ask new questions about existence -- whatever that means -- it is worthless. Again and again, he cites one of his heroes, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, who argued that the "sole raison d'etre of a novel is to discover what only a novel can discover."

It would be foolish to treat Kundera as a philosopher or theorist: He is a novelist, and his theories only need to work for him. Only a pedant would fail to see the inspiriting role that this ambiguous but passionate credo has played for Kundera. But when one tries to actually apply it to specific works of fiction, its conceptual shortcomings quickly become apparent. In Kundera's case, he never cites novelists whom he deems to have failed. But simply based on those he likes, there appears to be an almost dogmatic severity, a prescriptive narrowness, to his aesthetic vision. We know who Kundera likes -- in addition to the writers mentioned above, he adores Diderot, Gombrowicz, García Márquez, Fuentes, Tolstoy, Faulkner and Hemingway. He would presumably admire Henry James, Conrad, Melville and Hawthorne, although he never mentions them. But -- confining ourselves to writers in English -- it is far from clear what he would make, for example, of Dickens, or George Eliot, or Thomas Hardy. Would he reject them as being too cautious, too conventional in their form? For that matter, he praises the "antilyrical" Joyce of "Ulysses" -- does that mean he would regard "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" as an inferior work?

If Kundera were to write Dickens, Eliot and Hardy out of the book of fictional life, he would be painting himself into a formalist corner, and condemning novelists whom most critics, even ones that hold him in high regard, would regard as his superiors. It's impossible to know whether Kundera would do this, but his polemical tone arouses suspicion. But if he accepted these "conventional" novelists as part of his pantheon, his lofty criteria of exclusion would become largely meaningless. What principles could he then use to exclude anynovelist, aside from subjective judgments of "greatness"? After all, there are many mansions in the house of literature. And even hack writers sometimes reveal something new about the world.

Notwithstanding his protests that the novel is an autonomous form and cannot be compared to philosophy, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Kundera, as a theorist, is guilty of collapsing the distinction between the two, and offering an unduly narrow definition of the novel. His austere strictures seem to devalue novels that do not pose philosophical questions. His discussions of his favorite books -- "Don Quixote," "Tristram Shandy," Musil's "The Man Without Qualities," Broch's "The Sleepwalkers," Kafka's "The Castle" -- are brilliant, exemplary examples of critical engagement. But not all novels resemble these. Not all novels employ metafictional devices (that is, acknowledge their own artifice). Some are conventional in every way -- mimetic, tell a good yarn, may even fall into the dreaded "genre" category -- and are still masterpieces. We know what Kundera thinks about "The Sleepwalkers." We presume he would like "The House of Mirth." But the $64 question is, what does he think about, say, "Lonesome Dove"?

Like all deconstructive philosophies, Kundera's is profoundly self-contradictory. The actual content of his philosophy is undogmatic, deconstructive, as skeptical as Hume -- yet he then turns around and demands, in a highly schematic, abstract and dogmatic way, that novelists be unschematic, concrete and questioning!

As a theorist, Kundera wants to have it both ways. The only epiphany worth having for him is a pre-deflated one; he rejects all transcendence. And yet he clearly needs epiphanies, demands transcendence, and believes that there is some kind of "truth" to be realized. Kundera tries to resolve this contradiction by emphasizing the self-undercutting, essentially divided category of the question. Like the French critic Roland Barthes, who said "Literature is a question without an answer," a question is at once positive and negative. It is only when man acknowledges that he knows nothing that he knows anything. Kundera does not lay out an explicit philosophy, but he seems to subscribe to a kind of negative ontology similar to that of Zen Buddhism, the deconstructive philosophy of critics like Paul de Man, and certain Christian mystics like Simone Weil, who ecstatically found God precisely in the absence of God.

This is a fair enough philosophical resolution, but it still leaves open the specifically literary questions raised above. And of these, perhaps the most important is: Do Kundera's own novels exemplify and vindicate his theory?

In one sense, they clearly do. Deeply ironic, intellectual and detached, Kundera's novels embody the clear-eyed paradoxes of his theory. He is that rarest of contemporary writers, an anti-narrativist who has something to say. There are painful historical reasons for this. As a central European, a man who saw his native country crushed by a smiling ideology, he is a modernist wounded by history. If he makes use of the whole shattered keyboard of modern fiction -- its dissonant chords, its polyphonic voicings, its multiple perspectives, its self-referring irony -- he doesn't do so simply to do avant-garde calisthenics. It is also because the tonalities of that keyboard correspond to a historical situation that, during Kundera's major period, was permanently out of tune. It is the unpleasant truths of history that made him a connoisseur of antinomies, incompatible truths, jarring tones, harsh and inappropriate modulations.

But, of course, history has moved on. The Russians are long gone, the Czech Republic no longer waves the red flag, and Kundera's long exile in Paris is no longer an exile. One wonders whether his demand that novels interrogate the world, engage with history's paradoxes and resist "progress," may in part be motivated by nostalgia for the bad old days, when he did his best work and when history was actually worth interrogating.

Yet leaving that speculation aside, and notwithstanding their many similarities, the truth is that Kundera's novels exceed his theories. Take one of the most memorable passages in his work, the ending of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

To set the scene: Tomas, the protagonist, is torn between his empathy for his suffering wife and his endless appetite for other women. An anonymous narrator breaks into the story. In a tone at once lyrical, digressive and pointed, he contrasts lightness and weight -- the weight of empathy and the lightness of promiscuity, the weight of responsibility and the lightness of freedom; the impossibility of choosing between them. The man chooses weight, or perhaps life makes the choice for him. He ends up marrying the woman, moving with her to the country, driving a truck on a collective farm. But his weighty choice does not dialectically turn into lightness of spirit. He carries a heavy heart. He cannot decide if he's done the right thing.

We know, thanks to certain sentences uttered by the narrator, that he and his wife are going to die. Their truck, its brakes in terrible condition, will crash on a mountain road, killing them both.

They dance together in a dingy hotel on the last night of their lives. As they dance the man surrenders to her, to her love, her weakness, to his own life. "I have no mission," he says to her.

They retire to bed. The narrator almost never describes anything concrete. He never paints mood. But the book, and for us their lives, ends with the following two sentences:

"Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below."

The conclusion of the book is justly celebrated. But it is celebrated precisely because it violates every one of Kundera's cool strictures. For example, the final sentences are a form of lyricism, a poignant celebration of the colors and sounds of life. Kundera has inveighed against kitsch -- and the last chapter of the book, "Karenin's Smile," is about the death of a dog. The entire book has anatomized male desire: In the last chapter it mysteriously vanishes. The husband and wife have always been seen from the icy, X-ray perspective of reason; in this last scene they merge, two halves of one person like the Platonic myth of the "Symposium."

What happens is that the ancient emotional logic of stories triumphs. The ending of Kundera's novel is a sophisticated version of "and they lived happily ever after." To be sure, "ever after" is only one more night, but the emotional effect is the same. Kundera succumbs to sentimentality -- but it's sentimentality that works, sentimentality that has been earned. Even Kundera, thank God, cannot resist its appeal. Or rather, the writer in him cannot, because the writer knows something the theorist doesn't know: He knows what is needed. And what is needed is an ending.

An ending cannot leave everything hanging. It cannot simply be an exploration of the prose of life, or an infinite existential questioning. It must resolve. To be sublime and smart, to be modern, to be right, it must leave unanswered questions hanging in the air like overtones; otherwise it will cloy. But the melody must return to the tonic key. It has to. It's narrative closure, and it is as natural as breathing.

Kundera is a novelist who values thought and irony above all else. He is deeply and admirably not innocent. But not every writer is as grown-up as he is, as disillusioned, as wounded. There is a world of innocence, and wonder, and playful imagination, scarcely dreamed of in his philosophy (though exemplified in his art). And there are infinite numbers of other created worlds, already born or waiting to be born.

I don't mean to suggest that the sentimentality that is an essential part of the ending of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" means the entire novel is sentimental. Far from it. I simply mean that the edge, the questioning, that Kundera rightfully calls for in the novel can take many forms, including deeply conventional ones -- in his own work as well as that of others. Kundera's work is bigger and more unruly, cornier and more heartfelt, than his theories.

What this suggests is not that Kundera's lofty demands on novelists are wrong, for they are surely not. His gravitas, the stern seriousness with which he takes his literary vocation, is admirable. Nor is he wrong to place such intense emphasis on the novel as an epistemological instrument. If more novelists had the brain power of a Kundera or a Musil (or a Graham Swift or an A.S. Byatt, for that matter), the world of fiction would be richer. And his call for novelists to embrace the most heterogeneous, mixed elements of the novel's wonderfully varied tradition, to follow in the brave and whacked-out footsteps of Sterne and Kafka and Gombrowicz, is welcome.

But the discrepancy between Kundera's theories and his fiction does call into question Kundera's fear that the novel, as a dynamic form capable of reflecting and creating the truth of our time, may someday die out. As his own example shows, the novel is too big, deep, stupid, wild and glorious a form to even be defined, let alone to die anytime soon. Yes, it would probably be better if more novelists shared Kundera's magisterial knowledge of the form -- but they continue to move forward nonetheless. Perhaps the tradition is more deeply ingrained in us than he believes.

Is the world getting old and dry, as Kundera fears? Yes and no. The curtain is thick and heavy, no doubt. But the mystery of our stay on the earth, and the infinitely varied stories we tell each other about it, remains. Our time is always running out. But the strains of the piano and violin are still rising up. And that double truth -- the approach of our universal end, and the faint music from below -- will not die. Or if it does, we will need more than the novel to bring us back to life.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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