15 March 2014

Novel Philosophy and Correlative Justification

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (pp 167, revised edn, Faber and Faber 1999)

This is a book for readers who like the shapes words make on paper. I am the opposite. I like to write because I enjoy the ink’s crawl onto the paper. When I read I hope writers deleted from their final draft whatever they wrote under similar hypnosis. The Art of the Novel reads as if Milan Kundera did not do that here; as if he left pretty-shaped words and paragraphs because without them he would not have filled a book.

The result is a collection of interviews and philosophical epigrams. Their collection in a single volume is quite handy, because Kundera has a lot to say on novels. But in The Art of the Novel Kundera seems only to want to capitalise on repetition: Kundera explores themes evident throughout his oeuvre--in pretentious fashion.

For example one section is a list of sixty-odd definitions. He offers the definitions due to past difficulties in his novels’ translations. It is ironic because the version I read is in English--a translation--which makes me wonder if I read a confused rendition, or one that emulates Kundera’s thoughts as he intended. To be liberal, Kundera appears to mean he attributes extra ideas to words with already-specific definitions. When translated, those extras may get lost.

The book remains useful. Kundera explains his novels involve six- or seven-part structures automatically. He does not begin with a formula. Instead, his work just appears that way by the end of it. He claims it has something to do with his subconscious and musical history. This is a rubbish explanation. His novels are in seven parts because he wants them to be. If he finds it easiest to explain that seven-part structure as based in musical theory, fine. But I do not believe music and subconscious are enough to prescribe to and influence Kundera. He generates his novels’ structures with purpose, whatever his assertions. However interesting it is to construct a novel with the same tempo as a musical score, it is an active process. There is no accident about it.

This reflects what I mean about the shape of words on paper. Kundera seems so concerned with providing a deep and philosophical explanation for his product--because it affirms his statement that every writer is a philosopher--that he ignores simple truths. Rather than intellectual honesty he chooses the obscure. He aims to impress with his claims, which only alienate those--ie me--who are already impressed with his novels.

That is, I liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I even liked its philosophy. But the philosophy was not a requirement. The structure was not a requirement. It would have been a different story without both or either. But Kundera could have developed the same plot. To claim to be under some profound influence sounds snobby.

The Art of the Novel is worth reading but do not expect Kundera to expose his process honestly.

Created: 20 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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