Stephen Wall

  • The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
    Faber, 165 pp, £9.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 571 14819 0
  • Adult Pleasures: Essays on Writers and Readers by Dan Jacobson
    Deutsch, 144 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 233 98204 3

Novelists on the novel – or, at any rate, good novelists on the novel – often write with a vigour and a commitment to the form that shames more academic approaches. Such practitioners’ confessions, as Milan Kundera calls them, may be more partial but they’re also more impassioned. They know what it is like, and they know what they want. It is Henry James, of course, who exhibits at the highest level the combination of the practising novelist’s experience and the finest critical intelligence, but lesser if still considerable writers, such as E.M. Forster (whose Aspects of the Novel has proved so strangely durable) and Ford Maddox Ford, may have much to offer. Ford’s chatty and opinionated The English Novel from the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad (1930) contains many sweeping and unscholarly judgments, but its fundamental conviction that ‘the art of the novel is so difficult a thing that unless a man’s whole energies are given to it he had much better otherwise occupy himself’ is a bracing rebuke to the non-authorial reader for whom the proper realisation of the form is hardly a life-and-death concern. Ford’s division of English fiction into the serious work of the great masters (among whom, I’m glad to note, he includes Trollope) and the literature of mere escape – what he calls ‘nuvvles’ – allows him to make sheep-and-goat distinctions which may seem idiosyncratic but which are certainly tonic.

Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel is not a long book, but it is invigoratingly suggestive enough to remind one of such predecessors, even if his Continental provenance means that he is bound to see things from an un-Anglo-Saxon perspective. Like Ford, however, he regards the novel as essentially an international affair, as the names of the authors to whom he most often refers indicate: Cervantes, Diderot, Sterne, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and particularly, the Central European Pleiad from whom he takes his bearings – Kafka, Musil, Hasek, Broch, Gombrowicz. Kundera’s map of the development of the European novel is outlined with the reckless brevity of a man who knows exactly what and where the salient points are. Cervantes ushers in the adventure of journeying through a world where truth is ambiguous; Richardson internalises the novel’s action; Balzac grounds it in history; Flaubert researches the hitherto unknown territory of the everyday; in Kafka the open horizons of Cervantes and Diderot are replaced by a bureaucratic system as labyrinthine as it is unintelligible. In a professedly academic writer such summary treatments would seem hopelessly slapdash, but in Kundera they make sense because they relate so clearly to the position he find himself in as an artist at the present time. A reader of Kundera’s own books will not be surprised by his love of Tristram Shandy and Jacques le Fataliste. For him, Sterne and Diderot offer still unsurpassed examples of the novel as play, of ‘lightness’ (key Kunderan term) in fiction, which the 19th century’s conversion to verisimilitude has not made obsolete. It is not surprising therefore that Kundera declines to assist at the frequently-announced death of the novel, and will have nothing to do with the idea that it has been dealt a fatal blow by what he refers to as establishment Modernism.

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