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.

Although he worries that Western society, coerced by the media into ever-greater uniformity and triviality, will prove increasingly unreceptive to the novel, Kundera’s faith in the form’s unique importance as a vehicle for the kind of truth that only it can tell is constantly reasserted. For him, the novel lives by uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity; the novel refuses to say which of the characters in it is in the right; indeed, a great novel is more intelligent than its author; the novel does not adopt moral positions but is an open-ended enquiry into the nature of being; its commitment to discovery without preconception is absolutely incompatible with the totalitarian system or with any dogmatic mode of thinking; it is essentially ironic, ‘its “truth” is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable.’ Such statements would be heartening in any case, but they have a peculiar authority in Kundera’s, since in order to write the kind of novel he wants to he has had to accept exile and estrangement from his natural Czech readers (the book includes some mournfully indignant passages on the diabolical liberties taken with his texts by ignorant translators and foreign publishers).

How does the necessary complexity get into Kundera’s fiction? The process is illuminated in The Art of the Novel by two dialogues which draw on detailed illustrations from his novels and which valuably help one to understand how they work. Although Kundera throws away much traditional apparatus – elaborate description of character and setting, psychological realism, interior monologue, historical background, and so on – he insists that the concentration on his characters’ existential situations that this permits does not make them less life-like. A character, after all, is not a real person but a kind of ‘experimental self’, and the novel in Kundera’s hands is a ‘meditative interrogation’ conducted in the hope of getting to the heart of that self in that situation.

Vital aids to this process are certain key terms. To understand Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being you have to grasp what is meant by vertigo; Life is elsewhere was originally titled ‘The Lyrical Age’ and enquires into the connections between youth, lyricism and revolution; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is based on the words ‘forgetting’, ‘laughter’, ‘angels’, litost, and ‘border’. The analysis and definition of such terms make up a novel’s theme, which is itself worked out by the story. Story without theme – narrative with no element of existential enquiry – makes a book go flat, in Kundera’s view. A film can hardly dwell on the fundamental words which articulate a theme in the way a novel can, and (despite the favourable reception of the movie version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being) it must remain doubtful whether a Kunderan text is in any real sense transferable to another medium. Although he formerly taught in a film school, Kundera nowhere mentions cinema in The Art of the Novel, nor does he acknowledge that it has had any influence on his narrative methods. Film would also find it difficult to accommodate the authorial intrusion that is so marked a feature of the Kunderan manner. The author himself may discuss a novel’s key word in one of those digressions which come naturally to an admirer of Sterne, but he is quick to disclaim any special authority when doing so; he admits to being provocative merely, playful, expressing one possibility among the many which it is the business of the novel to display but not to decide between.

Kundera was a musician before he was a writer, and musical considerations have profoundly affected his ideas about composition. One of the most liberating features of his style is the extreme variability of the length of his narrative units. This gives him a remarkable, and clearly consciously exercised, control over tempo. Kundera himself compares Part Five of Life is elsewhere (81 pages, 11 chapters, moderato) with Part Four (20 pages, 25 chapters, prestissimo). Tempo naturally governs mood and emotion, and Kundera’s mastery of it helps to give his novels their fascinating flexibility and ambiguity – and lightness. He also makes analogies between the effect of a sequence of musical movements and the juxtaposition of different sections of a novel. All Kundera’s works except The Farewell Party have a seven-part structure, and he is eager to appeal to the parallel case of Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet, a seven-movement work. The Art of the Novel itself is a collection of pieces written for widely varying occasions: internally consistent but not continuous, it too has seven parts.

The reason Kundera’s seven parts are no more than seven must ultimately be that they are not eight, as Lear’s fool would say. Why that number feels right to him cannot be explained. This readiness, amid so much highly self-conscious self-explication, to let the irrational have its head goes with such things as Kundera’s hostility to allegory and the hospitality he shows to ‘oneiric’ or dream-like narrative. In allegory events are there for a reason, planted by the novelist to assist his thesis. Kundera prefers the mysterious power of happenings which, like dreams, are unwilled but which carry with them their own seductive poetry. Nevertheless, some theatres of the irrational in Kundera’s work do not get much discussed in The Art of the Novel, brilliantly self-aware though it is. In a talk appended to the Penguin edition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera notes that ‘with me everything ends in great erotic scenes, and explains that such scenes generate a sharp light which reveals the essence of the characters and their situations. Sexuality is so important in Kundera’s stories – and not least because he presents it in so unpornographic a way – that it isn’t just vulgar curiosity which makes one wish he had discussed it more fully here. ‘Sixty-Three Words’, the little dictionary included in The Art of the Novel, has a laconic gloss on ‘excitement’ as ‘the basis of eroticism, its deepest enigma, its key term’ – which may be true but hardly takes us very far.

One technical reason for the success of the erotic in Kundera is his eagerness to throw out the predictable and the superfluous, the method of what he here calls ‘radical divestment’. The modern world has become so complex that one cannot treat it comprehensively without being condemned to endless length and therefore sacrificing shape. The answer is ellipsis. Janáček is admired for his courage in discarding conventional musical note-spinning – exposition, development, variation, and so on – and going for the essential. Similarly, Kundera wants to ditch those familiar parts of the novel that are just ‘technique’, automatic verbalism, filling-in. His ambition ‘to bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form’ could hardly be more sympathetic.

Kundera plausibly supplies the vocabulary in which his work seems to ask to be discussed, and there may be a danger (as in the case of Henry James) that the novelist’s unusual critical intelligence will lure us into taking him too much on his own terms. There must, for instance, be more to be said about the connections between his fiction and recent history than Kundera offers. He claims that in order to read his novels no knowledge of Czech history is necessary beyond what they themselves contain. The Prague spring in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is not presented as a specific political crisis but as a ‘fundamental existential situation’; the basic donnée of The Joke is not just a local illustration of how the Czech Communist Party behaved at a given time. But perhaps Kundera’s wish to detach his work from too particular an application and to play down its real-life sources is partly due to the understandable desire of a writer to universalise – or at least to Europeanise – his art when deprived of a continuing relationship with his community.

Kundera, however, is consistent, in that he sees Kafka’s situation in a similar light. If life in Prague at certain times has come to resemble the world of Kafka’s novels, it is not because Kafka was or aimed to be a political prophet, but because of his insight into a fundamental possibility of man’s existence which history has subsequently caught up with. Kafka is, in Kundera’s sense, a true novelist: non-allegorical, non-engaged, ideologically autonomous, committed only to the discovery of truth through the fusion of reality and dream. Kundera’s chapter on him – in itself highly perceptive as an introduction to its subject – ends with a heartfelt declaration of his desire to hold onto Kafka’s artistic legacy.

Dan Jacobson alludes adversely to Kundera in an essay (on Sinyavsky) collected in Adult Pleasures, but only in passing. His charge is one of whimsicality, and it may be true that in practice there is more difficulty in combining the novel of play with the novel of existential discovery than Kundera concedes. At first sight, Adult Pleasures looks to be a rather miscellaneous assembly of articles and reviews (some of which first appeared in LRB), and – although adapted and expanded – their original format means that while remaining admirably economical, they are also sometimes frustratingly underdeveloped and short on illustration. Dan Jacobson’s subjects range from Byron to Isaac Babel, from Theodore Herzl the Zionist to the South African Olive Schreiner, and also include some mordant reflections on a D.H. Lawrence conference at Sante Fe and a note on the biblical genesis of his own novel The Rape of Tamar. There is, nevertheless, more continuity in the volume than might be expected, and its different parts have clearly, and rightly, been seen by the author as having interconnections that carry his arguments absorbingly forward.

The first section mostly derives from papers given to an academic audience and is, as Jacobson titles it, speculative. There is nothing pedantic or pedagogic in either his procedure or his propositions, however: in fact, one of Jacobson’s most useful purposes is to question the idea that the experience of literature is inherently and beneficially didactic. ‘The real teaching which an imaginative work offers us’, he insists, ‘the very source of whatever truth it contains, is the pleasure we get out of it.’ What ‘pleasure’ might mean in this context is the subject of some of the book’s best and most human pages. Great books, even when written by Tolstoy, do not help us to live our own lives better, nor are great writers to be valued as unacknowledged legislators or ‘antennae of the race’, their insights validated by the history they foresee. To treat literary works as oracles is a form of philistinism, because it extracts only one element from the multiplicity of fluctuating, warring and interdependent events that truly make them up. For the reader, the book must be the process of going through the whole of it, thus ‘miming’ what the author went through in creating it, with all his self-contradictions and internal irresolutions, and with all the failures to realise his original conception forced on him by the recalcitrance of the material.

It will be seen from this that Jacobson, like Kundera, thinks that reports of the author’s death have been much exaggerated. At one point, he sarcastically pities Babel for not realising that his sense of selfhood was an illusion because his works were really just the product of intertextuality and linguistic convention. But it is more than a joking matter since what happens in the self in its fantasy and as it relates to other selves in the world (both the self that writes and the self that reads) is the central field of Jacobson’s enquiry and the principal interest of his book.

Forster once complained that people simply wouldn’t realise how writers floundered about, and many of Jacobson’s most searching passages involve stimulating suggestions about authorial inconsistency. (We are not so far from Kundera’s uncertainty principle after all.) As an early example of those ‘contractions and compactions of feeling’, those ‘reversals and diversions of sympathy and hostility’ out of which novels are written, Jacobson cites the case of Emma Woodhouse’s rudeness to Miss Bates. Emma feels bad about it when rebuked by Mr Knightley, but shouldn’t Jane Austen feel so too, since she has herself been mocking Miss Bates all along? The reflexive element is found, writ large and portentously, in Byron’s narrative poems, whose heroes carry such a flamboyant burden of unexplained guilt. The central hollowness of Lara and Co., Jacobson suggests, may be an index of Byron’s doubts about his sincerity, his ‘self-battlement’, his fear that he – and they – may be faking it. Don Juan succeeds because reader and narrator both know that you can’t trust a word the latter says. Other cases discussed where the biography and the oeuvre are at odds include Disraeli (whose ‘aristocratic reveries’ are so at variance with his political behaviour) and Tolstoy (where the letters and the novels seem to be written by two different, and incompatible, people).

These inconsistencies are not the ‘fissures’ pounced on by those critics who like to think of texts as sites and are naturally alert to faults in the ideological sub-strata; their interplay is interior and dynamic. As Jacobson shows with much force, this appears with particular clarity in the Brontës. The dialectic between isolation and imagination dramatised in Jane Eyre is also taking place in her creator; the novel is full of fantasy which is then condemned for being that. Out of such ‘self-confounding’ desires the novel’s nature and vitality spring. Similarly, the ‘moral’ of Wuthering Heights is not to be found in the author’s approval or disapproval of any of its principals, but in those ssionate ambivalences’ in the author herself which she compels us to live through too. There is no sense that, in exposing such deep internal divisions, Jacobson is cheaply showing up genius. His point about Lawrence’s Women in Love – that it condemns in its characters that hypertrophy of the will only too plainly apparent in the author – is made with the proper respect: proper, because the reader’s self, like the author’s, is not one but many.