Kundera’s Man of Feeling

Michael Wood

  • Immortality by Milan Kundera, translated by Peter Kussi
    Faber, 387 pp, £14.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 571 14455 1
  • Storm 2: New Writing from East and West edited by Joanna Labon
    93 pp, £5.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 00 961513 X

Milan Kundera writes novels, but are they philosophy or fiction? Kundera himself (in an interview collected in The Art of Novel) finds the comparison with philosophy ‘inappropriate’: ‘Philosophy develops its thought in an abstract realm, without characters, without situations.’ That is what a certain tradition of philosophy does. But when Richard Rorty describes philosophy as turning to narrative and the imagination, pointing us towards solidarity through ‘the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers’, we seem close to Kundera’s work, and to much traditional thinking about what fiction will do for us.

Conversely (and like many modern philosophers), Kundera examines particular words (‘tenderness’, ‘vertigo’), turns them over, defines them in relation to his characters. Tenderness is ‘the fear instilled by adulthood’, the creation of ‘a tiny artificial space in which it is mutually agreed that we would treat others as children’; vertigo is ‘the intoxication of the weak’. He calls this business of investigating words (and characters and situations) ‘meditative interrogation’ or ‘interrogative meditation’, which sounds more like Descartes than Dickens. Kundera goes on to say his narrative/verbal ‘definitions’ are ‘neither sociological nor aesthetic nor psychological’. His interviewer proposes ‘phenomenological’ as a possibility, which Kundera courteously says is not bad, but refuses.

We are left, I think, with fiction which must be philosophical in some sense, but won’t call itself that. Kundera attributes to Hermann Broch ‘a new art of the specifically novelistic essay ... hypothetical, playful or ironic’ (Kundera’s italics). Tone is very important in this context – Kundera calls his own tone playful and ironic, like Broch’s, and adds ‘provocative, experimental, or inquiring’. His essay on Kitsch in the sixth section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, he says, not only part of the novel but ‘unthinkable’ outside of a novel: ‘there is a great deal of reflection, experience, study, even passion behind it, but the tone is never serious. What is seriousness? It is, Kundera suggests in his introduction to his play Jacques and his Master, what literary critics can’t do without, the ingredient whose absence drives them to panic. ‘Serious is what someone is who believes what he makes others believe.’ A novelist who was serious in this sense would be in bad shape. The appeal and the challenge, as Kundera says, thinking of Broch and Musil, is ‘not to transform the novel into philosophy’ but to bring to the novel ‘a sovereign and radiant intelligence’.

Immortality is rather too winsome at times and dips too often into pop sociology, but it is also an extraordinarily rich and elegant and engaging work, a proof that novelists can afford (even analytic) intelligence, that they don’t need to keep secrets from themselves. Or that self-consciousness doesn’t have to be crippling, opposed to an awareness of the world.

Characters in Kundera acquire psychologies and histories, but they start out and continue to function chiefly as images, provocations: a man staring at a wall, or repeating a phrase; a woman arguing, putting on her glasses, shaking her head; a girl sitting in the middle of a major road amidst rushing traffic. These images are not illustrations of pre-formed thoughts, but they are not simply pieces of novelistic behaviour either. They are meetings between persons and notions, or more precisely, written, re-created, invented records of such meetings. ‘I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only, in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat ...’ An elderly woman leaving a swimming-pool makes a young woman’s gesture of goodbye:

  Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover ... The instant she turned, smiled and waved ... she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.

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