Writers, especially young, developing writers, read differently than non-writers. With each word, each sentence, we search for guidance, advice, a hint at how it's done. We mark in our minds passages that seem to articulate what was before inexpressible, and we note things we don't like, in order to avoid such problems in the future. This process, though, isn't smooth—there is no causal development easily traced. Literature, stubborn as it is, refuses to make such aesthetic judgments universal. Every new novel we pick up has the chance to contradict what the last novel just taught us. When I first read Jhumpa Lahiri's brilliant story collection Unaccustomed Earth, for instance, I came out of that experience with a renewed investment in clean, straightforward prose—no tricks—and ordinary characters. But then I'll read something like, I don't know, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, a novel comprised of letters, emails, journals, and notes, and one so hilarious and intricately structured, I vowed to further complicate my plots, up the humor, and employ viva voce polyphony.
You get the point. For me, my life as a reader challenges my views as a writer. There are so many techniques to try, so many styles, so many types of stories. It's all a bit overwhelming, which in part accounts for the appeal of books like Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel. Someone as accomplished as Kundera must have some useful insights into writing, right?
Well, yes and no. The "yes" here doesn't mean that anything Kundera proclaims will be taken as gospel, and the "no" doesn't mean to imply that there are any outright wrong claims in the book. Rather, my ambivalence has more to do with the way Kundera's ideas do or do not align with my own, even heretofore-unarticulated ones. And it is precisely this dynamic that makes the act of reading The Art of the Novel worthwhile. In other words, I don't always agree with Kundera, but before engaging with his book I wasn't even aware that I had opinions with which to disagree. When a writer reads a novel, the philosophical argument going on in the process is silent, disguised, mired in plot and story and emotion; when reading a volume like The Art of the Novel, however, the debate is front and center, forcing my hand, even if it isn't as well-defined and confident as Kundera's.
The Art of the Novel, at a scant 165 pages, is not the manifesto on aesthetics the title might suggest. What The Art of the Novel really is is a collection of essays—though to be even more accurate, it's a collection of essays, interviews, and a speech. In a brief preface, Kundera assures us that "no theoretical statement" is intended, that his book is "simply a practitioner's confession." A promising claim, to be sure, and one reiterated in the opening essay, "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes":
What does Cervantes's great novel mean? Much has been written on the question. Some see in it a rational critique of Don Quixote's hazy idealism. Others see it as a celebration of that same idealism. Both interpretations are mistaken because they both seek at the novel's core not an inquiry but a moral position.
Between the preface's assurance and the stark truth of the above passage, I'd become excited. Maybe this book would be the Bible I never had. For me, moral relativity is important for fiction's value—certainty belongs nowhere near such an art. As if reading my mind, Kundera continues:
Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire. They can cope with the novel only by translating its language of relativity and ambiguity into their own apodictic and dogmatic discourse. They require that someone be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a narrow-minded tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K. is an innocent man crushed by an unjust Court, or the Court represents divine justice and K. is guilty.
This 'either-or' encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel's wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.
If one is able to "tolerate the essential relativity of things human" in fiction, the rewards are enormous. Moral ambiguity is not a stance mired in cynicism or futility, and relativity does not necessarily allow you to pick and choose morals at your convenience. On the contrary, reading fiction makes you a better person. Fiction allows you to distrust (and even loathe) Rochester in Jane Eyre, only to later hear his full story and forgive him—in fact, to celebrate his marriage to Jane. Fiction allows you to love Sula but hate how she acts. How, then, could one spend ample time reading and not come away with some version of that lesson, especially since real life is infinitely more complex than fiction. Yet most people still view things in black and white, because, unlike in fiction, real life does not force you to hear Rochester's story, or see things from Sula's point of view.
During the second essay—an edited excerpt from an interview with The Paris Review—Kundera starts to lose me. First of all, Kundera's attitude toward interviews annoys me. "In July 1985," he writes, "I made a firm decision: no more interviews. Except for dialogues co-edited by me, accompanied by my copyright, all my reported remarks since then are to be considered forgeries." He claims this is due to "the process that can only lead to the disappearance of the writer: he who is responsible for every one of his words." Sure, being misquoted in interviews would be very frustrating, and any writer has the right to stop granting interviews. But to ask, for example, the New York Times to allow you to co-edit your interviews, accompanied by your copyright, seems an arrogant (and totally unnecessary) stance. Judging by the way Kundera edited his interview with The Paris Review, his intent seems more about cultivating a near-perfect image of himself: an unnaturally articulate writer who can quote at great length at the drop of a hat, who can pontificate for long periods with precision about his own work. Why wouldn't a publication just ask him to write something instead of allowing him to edit an interview? But I digress.
Where Kundera specifically begins to lose me comes when he speaks of his own novels. After Kundera expresses discomfort over the word "philosophical," Christian Salmon, the interviewer, points out that The Unbearable Lightness of Being starts by "reflecting on Nietzsche's eternal return" and asks, "What's that but a philosophical idea developed abstractly, without characters, without situations?"
Here is Kundera's (edited, remember) response:
Not at all! That reflection introduces directly, from the very first line of the novel, the fundamental situation of a character––Tomas; it sets out his problem: the lightness of existence in a world where there is no eternal return. You see, we've finally come back to our question: What lies beyond the so-called psychological novel? Or, put another way: What is the nonpsychological means to apprehend the self? To apprehend the self in my novels means to grasp the essence of its existential problem. To grasp its existential code.
He goes on to describe such a code. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he "realized that the code of this or that character is made up of certain key words. For Tereza: body, soul, vertigo, weakness, idyll, Paradise. For Tomas: lightness, weight." In the third section of the novel, Kundera says, "I examine the existential codes of Franz and Sabina by analyzing a number of words." Kundera goes on for three pages, quoting his own novel, Life is Elsewhere: "Tenderness is the fear instilled by adulthood," and says of that line, "You see, I don't show you what happens inside Jaromil's head; rather, I show you what happens inside my own: I observe my Jaromil for a long while, and I try, step by step, to get to the heart of his attitude, in order to understand it, name it, grasp it." Does this, to anyone else, sound like evidence showing that his novels aren't philosophical?
There's more. Later in the conversation, Salmon asks why, if Kundera scorns character histories and descriptions as superfluous, he would provide Tereza "not merely with her own childhood but her mother's as well." Kundera responds thusly:
In the novel, you will find this sentence: "Her entire life was a mere continuation of her mother's, much as the course of a ball on the billiard table is the continuation of the player's arm movement." If I talk about the mother, then, it's not in order to set down data on Tereza, but because the mother is her main theme, because Tereza is the "continuation of her mother" and suffers from it. We also know that she has small breasts with areolae that are "very large, very dark circles around her nipples," as if they were "painted by a primitivist of poor-man's pornography"; that information is indispensable because her body is another of Tereza's main themes.
Beyond his reduction of Tereza to her mother and her nipples (a chauvinistic treatment of a woman if I’ve ever read one), Kundera seems to treat his characters as mere tools for his personal (and objectionable) view of reality. "Because making a character 'alive' means," he says, "getting to the bottom of his [see?] existential problem. Which in turn means: getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him. Nothing more."
Oh, that doesn't sound philosophical at all.
I could go on with other examples of Kundera being annoying, but I won't. Instead, I want to focus on the book's fifth part, "Somewhere Behind." Coming off the two (two!) "dialogue" sections, I had almost had it with this schmuck. Then "Somewhere Behind," an analysis of Kafka, comes along, and it is so insightful and at times revelatory, it almost makes me forgive his earlier ugliness. Almost.
Reading "Somewhere Behind," I was reminded of the "Gold Mines" chapter in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, where the narrator quotes Pushkin:
Jealousy! 'Othello is not jealous, he is trustful,' Pushkin observed, and this one observation already testifies to the remarkable depth of our great poet's mind. Othello's soul is simply shattered and his whole world view clouded because his ideal is destroyed. Othello will not hide, spy, peep: he is trustful. On the contrary, he had to be led, prompted, roused with great effort to make him even think of betrayal. A truly jealous man is not like that.
I, too, had previously thought of jealousy as Othello's tragic flaw; I had never even considered the inverse—that he listens to Iago too willingly. Reading this passage, my perception of Othello changed forever. In "Somewhere Behind," Kundera provides a similarly mind-blowing analysis of Kafka. "It's often said," Kundera writes, "that Kafka's novels express a passionate desire for community and human contact, that the rootless being who is K. has only one goal: to overcome the curse of solitude," which is "not only a cliché" but a "misinterpretation." He goes on:
K. is not in the least pursuing people and their warmth, he is not trying to become "a man among men" like Sartre's Orestes; he wants acceptance not from a community but from an institution. To have it, he must pay dearly: he must renounce his solitude. And this is his hell: he is never alone, the two assistants sent by the Castle follow him always…Not the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude is Kafka's obsession!
Said in such direct terms and in such contrast to the "misinterpretation," I was struck by the simplicity of Kundera's phrase: the violation of solitude. I'd never been able to distill Kafka's work into anything remotely as succinct as that, but when you put Kundera's phrase to the test, it works damn near perfectly. "History does not invent, it discovers," he writes, riffing on Jan Skacel's poem, which goes, "Poets don't invent poems / The poem is somewhere behind / It's been there for a long time / The poet merely discovers it." Kafka, in Kundera's view, "made no prophecies." He merely saw what was "somewhere behind."
These two versions of Kundera––the frustrating one and the enlightening one––point out something often true about artists: they are much more lucid when discussing someone else's work than their own. I'm sure what Kundera said of his own novels is true, but even so, his comments reduce his work to skeletal structural systems, to blueprints created to investigate an "existential crisis." At one point, he even takes the time to elucidate the outline of Life is Elsewhere in terms of musical tempo:
Part One: 11 chapters in 59 pages; moderato
Part Two: 14 chapters in 24 pages; allegretto
Part Three: 28 chapters in 65 pages; allegro
And so on. For all his insistence that "great novels are a little more intelligent than their authors," and that those "who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work," Kundera repeatedly intellectualizes his own fiction, going so far as to edit interviews to include more self-analysis. When presented with these two Kunderas, I would gladly choose the critic over the novelist, for the novelist is too intelligent for The Art of the Novel; the critic isn't. The book should have belonged to him.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.