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That Sweet Ironic Smile

Belinda McKeon

The Curtain, by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, 256 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0571232819

From the accomplished past to the striving present, from the epic to the experimental, from the romantic to the realist, a network of threads runs through the history of literature, connecting disparate creations. In the 1970s, Harold Bloom characterised that nexus as a tangle of anxieties and ambivalences, as the necessary neurosis of the poetic process. The contemporary poet, as Bloom saw it, was obliged to confront the echo of previous voices, the shadow of previous pens, and to wage a wearying war with the influences he could not escape, the influences evident in every word of his own, in the hope of realising an original vision. For Bloom, literary influence was “a destruction of desire”, a humiliation, a trial, a difficult adolescence of trying, trying again, and, very possibly, of failing.

In The Curtain, his new study of the art and history of the novel, the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera takes a different view of influence. Where Bloom spoke of poets, Kundera treats the novel as “the privileged sphere of analysis, lucidity, irony”, as an art which, if it is to have any identity of its own – any force, any future – must exhibit a deep and patent connection with that which has gone before. For Kundera, the weight of past names and past words on the back of the novelist is not only a good thing but a crucial aspect of the art; he refers to it not as influence, but as “continuity”. The “consciousness of continuity”, he says, is “one of the distinguishing marks of a person belonging to the civilisation that is (or was) ours”.

This statement – in which there unfurls a pessimism about the future of the novel which will return frequently, yet also fleetingly, throughout the book – clearly addresses the historical consciousness not only of the writer but of the reader. Our appreciation of the writers we read, Kundera argues, is grounded and driven by an awareness of the placement within history of those artists and their work; cognisant of a writer’s chronology, we are in the best possible position as readers because we can trace and consider the changing colours and deepening complexities of that writer’s very “essence”. To really understand a literary work, then, the reader should approach the work of a writer – of every writer – with that writer’s internal lineage in mind.

But lineage presses in more urgently still from outside the oeuvre of the individual writer. In Kundera’s view, the effect of one novel on another is not an anxious event but an illuminating one; he thinks of influence not as a trauma but as a texture, necessary to the solidity and seriousness of the novel’s art. Standing among the earliest of all novelists – or at least of the writers we now think of, in Europe, as novelists – Rabelais and Cervantes are important in their own right. To that end, Kundera will spend large parts of this book extolling the achievements of Don Quixote. But it is for what they started that they are, to Kundera, most vitally important, for what they did for the novels that followed in their wake. They matter because their novels clarified “the raison d’être of this new epic art”, because “for their successors the works represented the first great novelistic values”. And they matter because it was only when the novel could be seen as having a “value” – a value, Kundera specifies, rooted in aesthetics – that novels, “in their succession”, could be seen as a history.

History, value, aesthetics: these are big concepts, concepts which, used too casually, will drift quickly into vagueness and onward to emptiness. Frustratingly, Kundera is guilty of this casualness, particularly where the idea of history is concerned. Although The Curtain was clearly written out of a passionate conviction about the dynamic of history and literature, this is a dynamic which Kundera communicates, for the most part, only obtusely, in aphoristic sentiments which read intriguingly but resist insight. History has “emerged from the shadows”, Kundera writes; it “sculpts and re-sculpts the look of the world”. History repeats itself, he says, “and to do that, it’s necessary to be without shame, without intelligence, without taste”. History, the history of Europe, has “poor taste”, and “[makes] us laugh”. After Hitler, he argues, we no longer live in an age of noble tragedy, but of simplistic judgments in terms of good and evil. Is it “History itself, usurped by criminals” which has “regressed”, or is it “our mode of understanding History”? As for the facts of History, its dates, names and events, Kundera suggests – drawing on Robert Musil – that these result from an interaction of some “deep, hidden forces”, forces which often manifest themselves in ways “far more revealing in some other variation of history than the one that did happen to play out”.

Such baffling one-liners are the terms in which Kundera speaks to his reader of history, this book’s most central concern. They are idiosyncratic terms, and they are provocative terms, and in that, they too point back to Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and its sometimes bizarre outbursts on individual artists. But, eccentric as Bloom’s system was, it was at least a system, steadily mapped and steadfastly explained, and those provocations functioned chiefly as ornamentation on the system’s carefully-wrought frame. Though Kundera’s system is, in fact, ultimately more fascinating than Bloom’s, more rational, more affecting, more plugged in to the predicaments – and indeed the anxieties – of the novelist and the lover of the novel, he clutters that system with formless dictums and half-baked claims, severely undermining it for much of The Curtain’sspan.

Clarity is not much increased by his impetuous grabs at the realms of existentialism and phenomenology, nor by his astonishingly narrow conception of realism, which sees him noisily opposing a patchwork idea of what that genre must be, only to replace it with a vision of an apparently non-realist genre which in fact turns out to be identical to the more thoughtful, less excitable version of realism held by most other writers on the genre. From time to time in this book, and particularly in the last chapter, Kundera has brilliant things to say about the novel, and about novel-writing; to anyone who has read his fine, unnerving works The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, this will come as no surprise. And perhaps, given the dense form, the darting structure of those novels, that he spins these statements out so languidly and in a manner of such apparent trial and error will surprise his long-time readers even less. Much of reading The Curtain is an exercise in deciphering just what it is that Kundera is really saying: what is hidden beneath the cloudy, shifting surface of his arguments; what it is, finally, that he wants or believes the novel to be. To get the answers it is necessary to return to his dynamic of aesthetic value and history, and to implore it to be more generous in giving up its secrets, in revealing its meaning, than its creator was willing to be.

So Rabelais and Cervantes matter to the history of the novel? In fact, even though there were “many other novelists” before them, Rabelais and Cervantes, for Kundera, created the history of the novel, or allowed that history to exist. By writing novels that came to be seen as embodying, for the first time, the “great novelistic values”, they gave rise to a backward glance – a glance from the vantage point of their successors – which, because it was fuelled by questions of value, of practice, of what to do and how to do it, was instantly an historical glance, was instantly the settling, on later novelists’ shoulders, of an awareness of historical precedent, of influence, of texture.

For Kundera, before Rabelais but more particularly before Cervantes, there was “History as such”, the “history of mankind”, and there were works called novels, or works which might have been considered as novels, but there was no history of the novel. There was no prospect of a future novelist looking back, because there was nothing to which a future novelist possibly could look back. In Kundera’s terms, there was no history of the novel because there was no art of the novel. For Kundera, the art and the history are one and the same thing; they began at a certain point, and, he believes, they will end at a certain point, even as “History as such” marches on. The history of the novel is most fully graspable in what Kundera refers to as “the large context”, in a world context, as the “supranational history of art”; in the “small context”, the context of the nation, that history is clouded by questions of provincialism and possessiveness, by narrowness and insecurity.

Nebulous as his account of the precise nature of the novel’s history may be, Kundera at least provides a definite distinction between this history and History proper, “History as such”. It is unfortunate that he allows even more vagueness to invade his description of the novel’s history at this point, referring to the “history of art” rather than of the novel – which seems a more general term than is useful to his specific purposes – but his argument, in any case, can be easily understood in terms of the novel. In the history of art, he maintains, there is no imperative, as exists in the “history of mankind”, to make progress, to improve on past achievements, to ameliorate matters. Here he breaks the history of mankind into different histories – of medicine, say, or of technology. While a cure for cancer would see earlier methods of treating the disease abandoned and forgotten, 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”, writes Kundera. The history of literature pivots on a freedom not existent, he suggests, in that monolith called “History as such”. In literature – and this is not the case, apparently, for other areas of life – anything can happen. Take the history of technology – sooner or later, Kundera insists, someone would have come along and invented the lightbulb. This history depends less on the boundlessness of the imagination than does the novel; if Laurence Sterne hadn’t had a crazy idea Tristram Shandy would never have been written. Not only that: as Kundera sees it, if Sterne had not written Tristram, if he had not had the idea of writing a novel which was “one long digression” rather than a conventional story-driven narrative, “no one would have done it in his stead”. And the result? “The history of the novel would not be one that we know.”



Kundera’s assumptions here, it has to be said, are not without their problems. Can it really be assumed that someone would always have invented the lightbulb, that exact object dreamt up by Edison? In the history of technology, is there not a degree of artistry, of the freedom of the individual imagination also at play? And, as for the originality of Sterne’s “invention”: granted, there could never be another Tristram, a novel with that novel’s exact marriage of brilliance and madness, but would it really never have occurred to another writer in the eighteenth century to fiddle around with the convention of story? Would we all still be writing like Sterne’s predecessors? Maybe so – but maybe we’d also still be doing it by candlelight. For all his interest in the novel’s capacity to penetrate (in the words of Fielding) “Human Nature”, Kundera does seem very conservative about the resources of human nature, about the way in which both literary forms and innovation in literary forms are not separate from that nature – from the “history of mankind” – but driven by it, enabled by it, dependent upon it – to say nothing of the ways in which formal innovation in literature has been influenced and enabled by innovations in technology.

But then, in much of Kundera’s thinking on the novel’s history, on how this history flows from and flows into human life, there is an unsettling determinism which never fully justifies its stance. At the root of his arguments about history, chronology and identity seems to be a belief that the optimal or fullest possible meaning of a work of art exists independently of individual acts of reading, and that only in the perfect conditions, in a state of perfect chemistry, will this meaning reveal itself. Internal chronologies – the chronology of a poet’s career – need to be just so, but so too do external chronologies, and this is where Kundera’s theory of continuity takes a controversial turn. Ultimately, he goes far beyond suggesting that one novel influences its successors, far beyond saying that without Rabelais there would be no Sterne, no Diderot, no Fuentes, no Rushdie. Without the novelists who came after Rabelais, Kundera says remarkably, we would possibly have no Rabelais. “What would we still have of Rabelais,” he asks, if these later novelists “had not set ringing the echo of his lovely lunacies in their own novels?” What indeed? The history of the novel gathers together all backwards and forwards motions of the art – its emphasis is not on progress, remember, not on amelioration, but on values, which once created are always present, never superseded. The history of the novel, it seems, is what allows for the understanding of a novel. And without the crib notes provided by history, individual novels would be unfathomable. Ulysses, for example: Ulysses, if approached outside the context of novelistic history, “would be no more than a caprice”, he argues, “the incomprehensible extravagance of a madman”. Without the “company” of Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra and Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would be “a merely ephemeral political news item” and not “a great work that, with its oneiric juxtapositions of eras and continents, develops the most audacious possibilities of the modern novel”. Audacious is the word. History may be a community of value and of greatness, but great novels, individually, must fit within the fixed structure of that community, as set out by Kundera, to be of value, to be “worthy of the name”.

The problem with this way of seeing literary history is that it shrinks the scope of individual novels and dictates the limits within which they may have meaning, both for their writers and for their readers. Just as he does in the course of a frankly ludricous – in fact, almost offensive – reflection on the place of tragedy in modern suffering (“tragedy has deserted us, and that may be the true punishment”), Kundera is working with a rigidified concept and shoehorning everything in his imaginative path into its confines. Tragedy is the ancient, noble concept recognisable from Antigone, and since Hitler, he says, it has been nowhere in the world; contemporary political history is now seen a struggle between good and evil rather than between two unfortunate parties, each of whom are right and wrong at the same time (the “unavoidable relativism of human truths”, he says, is what has been lost). Kundera laments this; perhaps the tragic is glimpsable “in a pinch”, in the “first impulse of people with the courage to risk their lives for their truth”, but there are few horrors, today, beneath which “the slightest vestige of tragedy can be found”. Instead, there are “massacres for money, or worse still, for an illusion, worse still, for an idiocy”. It seems, then, that Kundera is saying that people don’t die for beliefs anymore. But, speaking of the relativism of human truths, isn’t one person’s cause potentially another’s illusion or idiocy? Even if that is so, Kundera’s concept of tragedy, so predetermined, so preconceived, cannot adapt to the situation.

Why is this surprising? Because Kundera’s whole idea of the history of art, of the freedom which differentiates the artist from the inventor, and indeed from the warmonger, is based on the rejection and destruction of the preconceived, the tired, rigidly-held view. This book’s defining metaphor begins to open itself to the reader as Kundera explains the beginnings of the art and the history of the novel:

A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.

A curtain woven of legends is a curtain inscribed with that which is already known, that which is already familiar, that which is unquestioningly accepted. Although he does not say specifically how, or with what scene, or with what words, Kundera sees Cervantes as having, by some “destructive” action, rejected a tradition built on familiarity, on safeness, on habit, and ripped his way to nothing less than a new art, with the accompanying – or rather, with the inherent – history. Rupturing the curtain, then, is a metaphor for resisting the impulse to cliché; the world as we are given it at birth, says Kundera, is “already made up, masked, reinterpreted”. By refusing “legends”, by defying cliché, Cervantes “set the new art going”, and with it the clock, and with it the standard which all future novels would have to reach in order to be watched over and measured by that clock. It becomes clear now why it is that the history of the novel is a history of values; if a novel fails to tear through Kundera’s curtain, if it glorifies, in his words, “conventional poses, hackneyed symbols”, it is guilty of much more than just some vague disappointment of the spirit of Cervantes. It is guilty of vacuity: that is, in terms of the history of the novel it is quite literally nothing, invisible, a non-entity which leaves no trace. When a novel panders to cliché, says Kundera, when it leaves the curtain standing, it actually “excludes itself from the history of the novel”. It is, in fact, not a novel, because it is not “worthy of the name”. In perhaps the frankest, and one of the most sparkling statements in the book – a statement which novelists and publishers alike would do well to tack up on their walls – Kundera explains precisely what kind of novels he considers to be barred from novelistic history. To write without passion, without the determination to produce a work of lasting aesthetic value, says Kundera, is to be “mediocre”, to write books which are “ephemeral, commonplace, conventional – thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious”. And this is “cynicism”; this is “contemptible”.

For a novel to be “ephemeral” is not the same as for it to be forgettable; a great novel can still be forgettable. In fact at the end of The Curtain Kundera offers a portrait of the novelist who is the precise opposite of the cynical, hack-like novelist, the novelist who is, in fact, a great novelist, and he creates this portrait by explaining – once again frankly, once again in vivid, sparkling terms – just how crucial is the reality of forgetting to the existence of the great novel. While things in the world are easily forgotten, writes Kundera, the great novel stands against this forgetfulness as a bulwark, “as a world that is ideal, solid, where every detail has its importance, its meaning, where everything in it – every word, every phrase – deserves to be unforgettable and was conceived to be as such”.

Only in the great novel, that is, will every word “deserve to be unforgettable”. And only in the great novel will the writer conceive every word with the intention of making it unforgettable. But there is a great gap between deserving, because of worth, to be unforgettable and actually being unforgettable. That the novel does not ultimately bridge that chasm is a painful reality for its creator – but this, Kundera makes clear, is also what makes it such a valuable form. As the reader reads the novel, the reader forgets. Even if the novel is read in one sitting, each word will not be remembered. In that sense, the novel is starkly different from the poem. And yet the novelist, the great novelist, weighs and places each word as carefully as though he were writing a sonnet. Each word has to be just right: “the least detail is important … he makes it into a motif and will bring it back in dozens of repetitions, variations, allusions, like a fugue”. That the reader will not fully hear that fugue, at least not on a first reading, takes away nothing from the truly great novel as Kundera sees it. In the face of this bleak knowledge, the great novelist will not give up; the great novelist will write on, “[s]nap his fingers … and build his novel as an indestructible castle of the unforgettable”.

That the novelist will write his novel as though he is writing a sonnet does not, however, take away from the fact that the sonneteer and the novelist are engaged in arts which are, formally speaking, radically different. And the question of form is one with which Kundera struggles throughout The Curtain, again yielding to abstraction and, indeed, to the impulse to abandon ship, to dash on to the next impulsive thought or personal anecdote when the reader craves more careful explication. Praising the pioneering achievement of another novelist, Fielding, Kundera argues that what it is that the great novelist does, in breaking through the “curtain of pre-interpretation”, is to break radically new ground, to discover an aspect of human nature (for Fielding’s stated aim was to illuminate “no other than Human Nature”) “till then unknown, unconcealed”. Kundera briefly dallies with the formal side of this achievement, saying that novelistic form itself – that is, the form of the novel “worthy of the name”, worthy of a place in literary history – “arises in a freedom that no one can delimit and whose evolution will be a perpetual surprise”; that freedom, in other words, gives rise to form. The analysis of form then breaks off abruptly however. An examination of how Tristram Shandy, with its rejection of existing narrative practices, is achieved through “formal play”, through a “transformation of form”, is a little more transparent, but equally brief; overly brief, too, is a mention of how the intelligence, the “intellectual thinking” at work in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities enriches novelistic form. Form is something about which Kundera clearly wants to write, and of course, given that he has written a book on the art of the novel, it is something about which he has written – but only indirectly. Directly grappling with the tiresome but necessary specifics of what a transformed novelistic form might look like is something he avoids.

A late reflection on form, however, redeems this vagueness somewhat. In truth, the final essay, The Novel, Memory, Forgetting, redeems many of the problems which dog the first six essays of The Curtain. These meditations on the process of writing, remembering and letting go reveal themselves with subtlety and depth lacking elsewhere, turning a key of clarity, at last, in the reader’s mind. In a superb section on composition, Kundera finally talks about why the form of the novel matters – indeed, about what the form of the novel as he sees it actually is. What makes the novel different from other forms, he writes, is the fact that its composition – he uses the word “architecture” – is in no way incidental or secondary to story, plot, or other narrative materials; architecture and narrative are one and the same thing. One cannot exist without the other. For the poet, on the other hand, form can often be a pre-existing template, be it the sonnet or the ghazal. The originality of the poet, says Kundera, is “manifested by the force of imagination, not by the architecture of the whole”. But the beauty of the novel is absolutely “inseparable from its architecture”.

Kundera’s pessimism about what is to come for the novel, which has until now been only an indistinct, gloomy hinting, gains credibility in the light of this analysis. The novel, he worries, may in the future survive only on the grounds of its suitability for adaptation to film or theatre. Given current market trends, this seems a not entirely unreasonable anxiety. It is also a valuable anxiety, because it spurs Kundera to consolidate his thinking on the unique nature of novelistic form. Turning a novel into a film, he says, is to discard the essence of that novel; it involves “first decomposing the composition; reducing it to just its ‘story’: renouncing its form”. What is left, afterwards, is nothing but a “mausoleum”, with “just a small marble plaque recalling the name of the person who used to live there”. A reader, even the best reader, will forget; the page turns, the words slide away. A reader will never fully inhabit a novel. But when the writer no longer inhabits his novel, it will no longer be a novel at all. It becomes, then, a lightbulb, something that anyone could invent, something which a studio of executives could contrive. It becomes “only story”, its identity as a novel fallen miserably away.

It is telling that Kundera sees the whittling down of a novel to mere story as the worst that can befall the art. Throughout The Curtain, there is a fierce resistance to the equation of novel-writing with story-writing. For Kundera, story is a “despotism”. Fielding is a hero to him, for, against “the absolutist power of story”, he asserted the right to interrupt his own narrative, to digress early and often, whenever he saw fit. Certainly he used story, to achieve unity in his composition, “to bind the start to the finish”. But he did so, says Kundera, “with a secret ironic smile”.

This “secret ironic smile”, and its close relation, the “soft gleam of the comical” (which he finds in Flaubert), is something to which Kundera returns again and again and in which he finds the true foundation of his thinking on the art of the novel. Beyond the curtain, it turns out, is comedy, irony, mischief, play. Cervantes made the first move, sending Don Quixote through that curtain, and what resulted was a fictional world remarkable “for all the comic nakedness of its prose”. Sterne took things further: Tristram Shandy stands as “the first radical and total dethroning of story”, embracing the insignificant, the banal, instead of sticking to a conventional narrative.

For “conventional narrative” in The Curtain, the reader may substitute “realism”. And what quickly becomes clearis that Kundera has an extremely ambivalent relationship to realism. In a section entitled “My Great Pleaides”, he praises Kafka, Musil, Broch, and Gombrowicz for being “poets of the novel”, seduced by the imagination “as it tries to move beyond the borders of realism”. At the same time, these writers were suspicious of “the lyrical”, of “the transformation of the novel into personal confession”, and of the “ornamentalisation of prose”. They were, instead, “entirely focused on the real world”. For them, the novel stood as “a great antilyrical poetry”. And Kundera’s sympathies, it becomes clear, are very much with this vision of the novel.

Yet what also becomes clear is that for Kundera the crimes of literature resisted by Kafka and the other “poets” are essentially all of a piece. Lyricism is not realism, but both are risky approaches; in either one, it is likely that the writer will not be able to perform the crucial task of the novelist and “silence the cries of his own soul”. Kundera sees the threat from “History as such”, from real life, from autobiography and from sheer self-absorption, as a grave one for the writer, as a threat which must be overcome if the novelist is to enter into literary history: “the novelist is not a valet to historians”, he says. Novelists, especially when they are young, are susceptible to self-indulgence, to seeping themselves in the autobiographical, in the merely factual detail, and also in the lyrical. In a diagnosis which, oddly, suddenly, takes on the tincture of the psychoanalytic (which seems indeed to mimic Melanie Klein’s theory of the child’s move from the egocentric paranoid/schizoid position to the healthier depressive position), he says that the move from the lyrical attitude towards the novelistic attitude is “to pass from immaturity to maturity”, from self-obsession to a calmer, more distanced mode of creation. Flaubert, who was thirty when he began Madame Bovary, was faulted by the critic Maurice Bardèche for doing so “without pleasure”, in boredom and displeasure, but for Kundera, these sober moods are proof that Flaubert, as he reached maturity, had torn away “his lyrical chrysalis” in favour of “the prose of life”.

And what follows on from this move, this maturity, is, from Kundera’s perspective, a rich reward indeed. Having experienced his anti-lyric conversion, Flaubert can now observe himself from a distance, know that he is “not the person he thought he was”; and from that realisation grows an even richer one, “that nobody is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary, and that it casts on people … the soft gleam of the comical”.

Kundera sees this gleam, and relishes it, in a tiny scene from Sentimental Education, where Frédéric stands looking a moment in the mirror. This scene, in turn, casts a gleam of illumination on the value of the comic, and on Kundera’s appreciation of its presence; the scene is imbued with a gentle ridicule which stretches beyond Frédéric’s room, extending to human nature more generally – to the folly, the vanity, the endless pretence and posturing of human life. Humour, it turns out, is not a “spark” that ignites at the end of a story, to make us laugh – it is subtler than that, more pervasive than that. “Its unobtrusive light glows over the whole vast landscape of life.”

It becomes clearer now why Kundera, at the beginning of The Curtain, praised Fielding’s description of Tom Jones as “prosai-comic-epic writing”. The comic is mixed in with the prose of life, with the banality, with the insignificant detail, and in their marriage these things are far from insignificant; they produce, instead, something potentially epic. The “soft gleam of the comical” is not a matter of being funny, but of delving as deeply as possible “into the soul of things”, to use Broch’s criterion for the worthwhile novel, one firmly endorsed by Kundera. Endorsed, too, is Kafka’s move, in The Trial, to a darker comedy, to the “dark depths of a joke”. Kundera also praises Kafka’s opening to Amerika, in which he tells a joke, but in such long-drawn-out detail that he subverts the usual quick-and-dirty mode of joke-telling, thus playing with form and with convention, turning a gag into a narrative, “pull[ing] the mask of the plausible over the implausible” while remaining firmly in the realm of the implausible – no doubt with Fielding’s “secret ironic smile”. It was Kafka, after all, who produced a “great moment in the history of the novel” by putting his characters in a world which was frankly implausible, by ceasing to care about the plausible, the realistic. And now Kafka leads Kundera, at last, towards a vision of his ideal novel: “a sharp sense of the real” and “an imagination that ventures into the implausible” can, he says, “make a perfect pairing”. And it is in the seditious realm of “jokes, anecdotes and funny stories” that such pairings are most clearly at work.

But what kind of novel is this – a joke, a fable, a whirlwind of magic realism? Perhaps a little of all three, and more; he cites Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as a fine novel because it consists of a “poetry” that is in no way confessional, that is “drunk only on the objective world” and that lifts that world “into a sphere where everything is simultaneously real, implausible and magical”. Kundera wants a little of everything, then. And perhaps this genre is ultimately impossible to name.

Still, what it is evidently not, on the basis of Kundera’s critique of the merely “plausible”, is realism. Like Márquez, Kafka and the others, in becoming “poets of the novel”, resisted the lyrical, resisted the confessional, resisted mere ornamentalisation of prose, but they also strove to “move beyond the borders of realism”. Whatever they are doing, it is not self-indulgent, it is not immature, it is not “a valet to historians”, it is not merely “story”, and it is not subject to “the binds of the plausible”. Realism, conversely, is all of these things. The realist novelist, clearly, is the novelist who is content to repeat the pre-interepretations on history’s curtain; to glorify “conventional poses, hackneyed symbols”, to write in accordance with what is expected, what is familiar, what has been said and seen before.

And here is what realism itself is not; here are Kundera’s words on the mature novel, the “prosai-comi-epic” novel, the novel “worthy of the name”. Its relation to reality is calm and distant; “[t]he more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality” after all, “the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it”. Kafka saw this – under his “long gaze” reality was “gradually revealed”, says Kundera, “as empty of reason, thus non-reasonable, thus implausible”. Jaroslav Hasek saw this. In his 1920s novel The Good Soldier Schweik he saw that, to create a character who was “lifelife, strong, artistically successful”, the novelist did not need to supply every scrap of data on that character, did not need “to make us believe he is as real as you and I”. No, says Kundera, to be “unforgettable”, Hasek’s character had to “fill the whole space of the situation the novelist [had] created for him”. And lastly, Proust saw this. In Search of Lost Time, Kundera says, was written “not in order [for Proust] to talk about his life, but to show his readers their own lives”. The reader, as he reads, is actually a reader of himself. If a novel has “truth”, Kundera goes on, the proof will be in “the reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says”.

Here, then, is what the novel “beyond the bounds of realism” will look like. And yet here, astonishingly, is an account of the novel which mirrors, in vivid and striking detail, that most lucid and compelling analysis of realist fiction, James Wood’s 1999 collection of essays The Broken Estate. If a novel observes a reality truly, says Kundera, it will not be like “real life”. “[M]oments of truth in fiction,” writes Wood, “may be only in small part related to the lifelike; rather, they flow toward and withdraw from the lifelike.” Dante’s hell, he says, drawing on Schopenhauer, “is a maddened version, a black hypostasis, of life. But our sense of this reality comes largely from Dante’s capacity to convince us of this sense, rather than from the world.” Just as Kundera says: the novel cannot prove its truth against the world, only against how truly the novelist creates the novelistic world.

What else does Kundera say of the novel which goes “beyond realism”? If it contains memorable characters, those characters will be memorable not because they are like people from “real life”; they will be like themselves, they will fulfill perfectly and completely the reality created by the novelist within the closed system of the novel. Referring to a line in the novel The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, meanwhile, Wood says that we readers “delight at the truth of this observation only because it is so absolutely ‘true’ about the character Sam, whose reality Stead has so powerfully furnished”. Similarly, we believe Joseph Roth when he tells us that characters like his generous peasant Onufrij, in The Radetzky March, exist in real life – we believe Roth, says Wood, but “[o]nly because we have just encountered him in such reality in the novel”. If an action is not true to this character, just as we encounter them, as we have got to know them in this novel, then this character, and this novel, have not been fully realised; a closeness to or a familiarity with a person from real life, from history, from the “outside world” is no proof of the character’s truth. Truth comes from technique, and, as Wood says, it is the character who is “the best proof of the authenticity of the technique that just created him”.

Lastly, Kundera says of this innovative novel that it, if it is true, in the sense of having truth, then the reader will see, through it, the truth of his own life. We respond, as readers, to a huge variety of realities, Wood suggests. “Yet in all fiction those moments when we are suddenly swayed, suddenly moved, have to do with something we fumblingly call ‘true’ or ‘real’.” When something moves us – say, Frédéric in front of the mirror, or (Wood’s example) Stephen Dedalus talking to his father about the song his father has just sung – it moves us not simply because it is “lifelike”. It may not exactly resemble the situation or event or pang we have known, “but it brings to our heart a plausible loss; we have all felt our version of [it]”. Fiction is real only, Wood says, when readers validate its reality, based both on their sense of “real life” and on how convinced they are by the novel’s fictional reality. It is a mixture, then, or a marriage; a marriage of the plausible and the implausible, of “a sharp sense of the real” and “an imagination that ventures into the implausible”. And a marriage, too, of pure fantasy – the imaginative act of the writer – and of sheer insignificance– the apparently quotidian events of a realist narrative – and, yes, of the humorous, the poignantly comical, the banal. Speaking of Robert Musil, Kundera has already stated that the kind of thinking he likes to see at work in the novel

… does not judge, it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly, it never leaves the magic circle of its characters’ lives; those lives feed it and justify it.

The torn curtain, the broken estate; the dual tropes of rupture are no coincidence, since both Kundera and Wood are considering literature in the wake of great change, fiction in the shadow of an abrupt transformation. And perhaps, after all, they write of the same rupture. For Wood, the rupture came in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Gospels were no longer “a set of divine truth-claims” but “a set of fictional tales”, while fictional style, in the hands of Flaubert especially, became “an almost religious activity”. The nature of belief changed; ritual was no longer truth but fiction, and the ritual of fiction became imbued with a new urgency and a new aestheticism.

For Kundera, meanwhile, the rupture also involved a transformation of rituals: for so long art had been content merely to make repetition beautiful, to reinforce the known; “music and dance then existed only in the framework of social rites, of Masses and fairs”. Then one day, in the twelfth century, everything changed. A musician added a voice in counterpoint to the familiar Gregorian chant; something new and strange was born; ritual turned into imagination, familiarity into freedom. All of the European arts followed suit and “transformed into their own history”. Out of the change, that is out of the end of mere ritual and repetition, history was born.

But where Wood considers what has been accomplished, Kundera looks forward to what is yet to come. His prediction is not an optimistic one; the history of art began at a certain point and will end at a certain point, he says, once originality and innovation become replaced by uniformity and repetition, and to Kundera that point does not seem so far away. Mediocrity, sameness, cynicism: it’s a depressing vision of the future of literature, perhaps an unreasonably pessimistic vision, perhaps one which is ultimately merely as detached and abstract as Kundera’s pronouncements on history and on value. But it doesn’t sound abstract. It sounds all too real. “The history of art is perishable,” he says. “The babble of art is eternal.”


Belinda McKeon is a journalist and reviewer. She has written on arts and books for The Irish Times since 2000 and is currently based in New York, where she is taking an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in fiction and teaching in the undergraduate writing programme at Columbia University. At present she is at work on an interview with John Banville for the Paris Review Art of Fiction series.

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